What Makes a Campus?
Part Two: Deepening
Last updated 1 year ago
This is a followup to my post titled “What makes a campus?” as part of the prompt, “What might a Digital Campus look like?“
In the first part I explored different qualities and experiences that make up a physical university campus. In this next section I will be exploring digital equivalents for each aspect, figuring out exactly how a digital space can exhibit similar feeling or characteristics to a physical campus but in a uniquely digital way.
How can a digital campus create a sense of presence?
- I was thinking recently about the game presence indicators in Steam (e.g. “Azlen is playing Stardew Valley”), what if they were applied to other things like projects, or more thinking/learning oriented tasks (“Azlen is writing design-fictions”)
- There’s a website that popped up on hacker news a while back where you can chat with people who are on the same website in realtime. Type something in and it appears somewhere on the screen, completely anonymously, and fades out after a few seconds. It was fascinating the kind of experience this created, with little spontaneous challenges popping up from time to time. You don’t even know how many people are there, it could be two, or ten, or a hundred. I think it could be interesting to explore different kinds of presence like this.
- I’d like to have a sense of immediate presence (who is in the same space at the same time) but also a sense more generally of activity so that the digital campus can feel bustling and vibrant. On a campus you see posters on the wall for all kinds of different events, you can walk by classrooms and workshops of people actively doing, learning, and making things. Even just a counter of “how many people are currently in Zoom class” could be a useful first step towards giving people a sense of activity on a digital campus.
I think these three examples start to demonstrate both the difficulty and opportunity when it comes to digital presence. This is one aspect of the digital university that I have no idea what it will end up looking like because there are so many different possibilities and directions to explore. Some threads to pull further:
- Presence and place-ness are tightly linked. What makes something feel like a “place” on a digital campus? perhaps that might lead to answer the question of presence
- What are different ways to sense the activity within a digital community?
- What does it mean to be present in a digital space? So often we might be on a webpage yet paying attention to a completely different tab or window— do we have to be interacting with that webpage to be present in the space?
I think the idea of “opportunity” is incredibly important when it comes to creating a digital campus, or even a digital community. Largely, the lack of workshops and physical spaces can be replaced by good opportunities and places to participate:
- Magazine / blog / calls for submission — opportunity to be published
- Mini-conferences / unconferences — opportunity to take part
- Podcasts / videos / social media — opportunity to share / promote
- Sponsored challenges — opportunity to landing a job
- Writing circles / workshops — opportunity to get feedback
- People and researcher directory — opportunity to network / reach out
- Access to experts — opportunity of mentorship
The key to a digital campus will be providing good opportunities to the community. By simply being part of the community, anyone will have access to the various opportunities provided.
One important component here is public image, a university magazine or podcast often scrapes by without really having much of an audience outside the university. I think a digital campus needs to be able to capture the attention of (and be respected by) a wider audience far outside the bounds of the community— not only to make these opportunities valuable but also to draw people and gather interest around the digital campus itself.
In a sense, I imagine behind-the-scenes of a digital campus to be much like a publishing house or press— though not constrained solely to publishing books / magazines. Any emergent artifacts of learning can potentially be turned into more polished, tangible form.
The opportunity of mentorship has two levels: peers and experts
There is not always a clear line between the two, some peers might be experts in different topics, other experts might be learning something new as your peer! However the essence of the opportunity of mentorship is to have a network of teachers, resources, experts, people well-versed in their topics of study who you may reach out to, consult, or to ask questions.
My own intuition says that mentorship feels more meaningful if (or put another way, someone appears more knowledgeable in their field of study if) they are actively working on projects or research in your area of interest. Therefore, it may be valuable for a digital campus to maintain a directory of people, researchers, and areas of interest.
Instead of bringing in five teachers fulltime to help people or answer questions, imagine if you bring in five-hundred researchers around the world to be part of this digital campus. There wouldn’t be any strong immediate commitment by any of them other than resonating with the mission of the digital campus, they would simply be opening themselves up to be contacted, asked questions, or being available to talk to groups of students exploring a similar topic.
What makes a community?
This question alone could encompass many articles
First of all to make a distinction between a “group” and a “community”: a group tends to have a hard boundary, you can identify who is and is not part of a group; however a “community” has soft edges, people can be active in the centre of a community, or they can be on the fringes less engaged but still identifying with the goal, mission, or community as a whole.
And then a club is a group with a process of becoming a member, whether by monetary contribution or simply through application. Normally membership in a group is more arbitrary, simply a collection of friends or people you’ve invited to take part.
Because community tends to be a larger and blurrier concept, a community tends to contain within it many different groups or clubs. And perhaps to a small (or large?) extent, the multitude of groups within a community strengthen the overall feeling of community, just as the roots of a plant keep it steady and upright.
Essentially the more internal friendships and groups a community facilitates, the more resilient that community will become.
Since people can be closer or further away to the center of a community, you may also think of community through the lens of magnetism. What is at the center of a community to pull people in towards it?
Could it be the opportunities? the mission? the shared beliefs? the friendships? In fact, every aspect of the “campus” I explore on this page are each individual pieces of that imaginary magnet at the center of each community.
A physical campus helps facilitate both friendships as well as deeper connections and relationships. This is greatly enhanced by the physical nature of a campus, you can sit next to people you are drawn to, leave together with a group of friends, bump into each other on campus.
You can’t walk out of a Zoom meeting along with your friends, everything simply poofs and disappears and then we’re all alone!
- Opportunities to interact 1:1 or in small groups
- Create new dynamics / rituals around digital social connection
- Exploring a location directory (like Visakan’s twitterfriends) to find people in the community that live near you, or to visit when travelling to a new place
- Intimacy gradient — opportunities to break off of the metaphorical “main street” and explore the side-streets and alleys for more intimate spaces
- Methods of stumbling upon or meeting new people — communal games? spaces with presence? clubs?
What makes a friendship?
The most important factor is being in the same place at the same time; second most important factor is to return to that place regularly and bump into similar people.
But more people ≠ more friendships. Imagine being in a giant crowd of people, or walking down a main street in a city — settings with lots of people (and strangers you’ll likely never see again) are not condusive to making friends.
Thirdly, for deeper friendships or longer-lasting relationships you want to resonate with someone well; maybe you have shared interests, or some kind of immediate chemistry.
In the real world we often make judgements of character after only a tenth of a second of seeing someone’s face. If I walk into a classroom of strangers I tend to be able to quickly identify who I will resonate well with and who I will not. However in the digital realm we have almost none of the same cues: you can’t see how someone walks, how they dress, you can’t gain insight into their personality from subtle quirks or actions, oftentimes you can’t even see their face!
And therein lies one of the biggest differences between how physical and digital friendships form: physically, we judge someone’s personality from their face, body, posture, and clothes; but digitally we have a different set of cues entirely, often we are presented with a short bio or by the ideas that they share or resonate with — this lets us judge their personality not on their looks but by their interests, thoughts and wittiness. In general this seems like a boon for the digital campus, just as it’s a boon for platforms like Twitter where people are drawn together and form friendships more on the level of ideas than by physical appearance.
This is also, I believe, why dating platforms like Tinder are so successful becuase they let you judge potential (m/d)ates based on both their interests and their physical appearance. As much as I dislike dating apps, I have to say, they are pretty optimal when it comes to making quick judgements about people. Possibly also a factor in the lower divorce rate of marriages arising out of dating apps.
Freedom / dabbling
I’ve been thinking about something which I call, a “challenge platform”— a place where people can take part in and send each other little prompts, questions, challenges of all sorts. Inspired by game jams, hackathons, and writing prompts, I found that I learn a lot through participating in challenges no matter how large or small.
If you think about it, an “assignment” or “project” in a class is really just a kind of challenge. Students are given a prompt and a time constraint and must complete the assignment in that period of time.
So, the traditional model of education starts by forming a group (a class) and then posing challenges to the students (assignments)
The new model that I want to experiment with flips this around by first posing challenges, and then forming a group!
By flipping it around, instead of being stuck and forced to complete an assignment they don’t like, students can explore and dabble in different challenges to find what interests them; and by participating in different challenges they’ll meet other learners who also were interested enough to participate; this can lead to making friends, starting a peer learning group, or even creating a larger artifact together!
One way to frame this is a “kickstarter for ideas,” where people share questions and challenges but instead of contributing money, others can contribute time and effort to submit their own answer(s) to the prompt. If enough people contribute to the challenge then they might either spawn spinoff challenges or have the opportunity to publish and turn their collection of work into a more tangible artifact (this is where the digital campus having its own mini publishing-house behind-the-scenes would come in handy to aide the process)
The opportunity of knowledge is tied both to mentorship and libraries, the physical spaces of knowledge. I’ve already started exploring what the opportunity of mentorship might look like on the digital campus above, so…
What does the library look like on the digital campus?
Libraries are so much more than just repositories of books, they are also places to sit, read, study, or get together with your friends. Libraries often have tools, computers, they host events, and often offer more than just books to be checked out: magazines, movies, games, e-books, musical instruments, tools, etc.
In essence, libraries are:
- places of borrowing
- informal community hubs
- incubators of ideas
I can imagine the library in digital space being more participatory, perhaps allowing people to pool and collect together interesting resources (these could be challenges in line with the challenge platform described above) or focusing just as much on internal resources as external ones, collecting and curating the artifacts that emerge from the many challenges and peer-learning groups that are part of the community.
This too would give a sense of activity, and over a longer time-scale. By being exposed often to the output and artifacts of your peers, you’d get a sense not only of what has been made in the past but that new things are constantly being made around you.
Subcultures / niches
In a campus you can join clubs and find your own social niche / subculture. I wrote above about communities having soft edges and containing within them many groups, clubs, and well—to sum it up—a complex social web. These subgroups both strengthen the community as a whole and give people the opportunity to find others with more specific or niche interests.
In the digital realm it should theoretically be easier to find people in similar niches and interests because of the aforementioned broadcasting of ideas rather than appearances.
- How might a club function differently in digital space?
- How can someone get a sense of not just presence but activity of all the different things happening on and around the digital campus?
- People tend to be lazier with optional events in digital space, there’s a large dropoff in the number of people who show interest and those who actually show up weekly—should this simply be expected, or perhaps we need better digital spaces or higher accountability among participants?
- How are digital communities and groups different than physical ones?
Workshops / resources
I’ve written that the idea of workshops on a physical campus can largely be replaced by a wealth of opportunities in a digital one— but how can we go further?
First of all, it can be valuable to have access to resources whether those are spaces, tools, information, books (a library!), archives, etc. The collection and curation of resources might be key to the digital university.
- Tools / interfaces to help explore research and internet resources more effectively
- Writing centre to workshop and get feedback from professional writer as well as your fellow peers
- Access to “digital venues” where you can host events
- Research / resource pools where you can collect and share resources with a group
- Curate map or network of hackspaces, makerspaces, tool libraries, and other resources in major cities around the world to get access to various tools
- Remote access to tools, imagining something like a remote loom or 3d printer where you can send in files and then receive the object in the mail— this might be quite an expensive service to run though
- Imagine if people could host community feedback sessions, basically set a date and time and say “I want feedback on X” and people could come chat with you in realtime about it (or leave comments asyncronously)
The puzzle pieces are starting to come together, as I wrote this I felt closer to being able to imagine what a digital campus might look like; but really, this is just scratching the surface! There’s so many different directions to explore, and some of the questions I’ve put forth in this article could easily be expanded into an article of their own. Until then, I feel this has been a broad and useful exploration of the many aspects that could make a digital campus feel like, well… a campus!