Connecting Distant Communities
Figs. 2, 3: Students present and discuss with remote experts in London
Project based group discussion
Project teams regularly presented their works to the entire learning community (including professors, students and invited experts), updating all the members on the state of the art of their projects and favoring exchanges and critics between the various communities.
Fig. 4: Cross presentation between MIT and IST.
Each small team used the videoconferencing techniques to cooperate with their distant team, to create, comment and discuss their on going projects in a regular basis.
Fig. 5: Team-to-team collaboration.
Fig. 6: Team-to-team collaboration, students sharing sketches.
Video Cafes and common meeting places
It’s very important to have strong ties among community members to improve learning community dynamics. In order to do so, and to develop social capital, mutual trust and to better know each-other, students used videoconferencing systems to chat about non educational issues and mostly focusing to simply getting to know each other, to converse about cultural differences, common hobbies and other topics that improved the community cohesion.
Using videoconferencing in these four different settings allowed us to create a video mediated environment and to provide an efficient technological setting for different modalities of communication. At the same time, this allowed us to foster communication and practice, transforming two separated groups of students into an efficient community of practice. With this methodology, distant communities could interact on aspects related to their design projects and remotely work together in common design projects, but they could also discuss and chat on all kind of topics.
Videoconferencing was the first modality we used and it allowed us to transmit knowledge from the top level of the learning community, from professor to students. It was the most formal modality of interaction, but it was fundamental, from a content point of view, to create a common knowledge background and, from a logistic aspect, to organize the workflow among distant communities.
The second modality was important because it forced each group to systematically produce some sort of sharable artifacts to discuss with the entire learning community.
We designed our learning environments to foster what Seymour Papert  defines as constructionism: “[Constructionism] … attaches special importance to the role of constructions in the world as a support for those in the head, thereby becoming less of a purely mentalist doctrine. It also takes the idea of constructing in the head more seriously by recognizing more than one kind of construction (some of them as fare as removed from simple building as cultivating a garden), and by asking questions about the methods and material used” (S. Papert, 1993, p. 143). S. Papert emphasizes the importance of externalised, socially sharable entities, artefacts or objects in the learning process. Learning process is based on the internalisation of the external information and by the externalisation of internal information, in a cyclic perpetual dynamic. This is the way we structured the learning process: students had weekly assignments that they had to work on, print 3D artefacts and construct models that they had to share and comment with the entire learning community. The use of audiovisual techniques is in this case fundamental because it obliges the entire learning communities to work on sharable artefacts that they can talk about during the videoconferences.
The third modality in which we used audiovisual techniques was characterized by a more informal interaction where communication was work related, improving the exchange and the implementation of ideas into design project. As J. S. Brown and P. Duguid point out, “ … the talk and the work, the communication and the practice are inseparable. The talk made the work intelligible, and the work made the talk intelligible. As part of this common work-and-talk, creating, learning, sharing, and using knowledge appear almost indivisible. Conversely, talk without the work, communication without practice is if not unintelligible, at least unusable. Become a member of a community, engage in its practices, and you can acquire and make use of its knowledge and information. Remain an outsider, and these will remain indigestible1”.
The last modality was very important in order to develop social ties among distant communities. Conversation about non-project related topics reinforced the construction of stronger social ties among distant communities. It is an efficient way for people to share experiences and we observed a direct proportional relationship between the success in designing innovative projects and the amount of non-project related conversations. Moreover, the continuous video linking was a success for the studio interaction during reviews and non-reviews times. Socialization was just as much a part of the learning and collaboration process as design exchange. Students spent many hours on personal exchange before discussing their design projects.
As in a physical design studio situation, people mix socialization times at the cafés and working times at the desk with socialization times at the desk and working times at the cafés, we fostered the same kind of dynamics using multimode kind of interaction also through video connection. The synergic combination and the parallel use of these four videoconferencing modalities provoked a very important result. We provided the students and the entire learning community a multimode communication visual channel for remote interaction: they used it in multiple ways thus creating a real space for connected communities remote collaboration. Thanks to this multimode videoconferencing they filled a place with human interaction creating a living space for learning.
Audiovisual tools, and the communication dynamics that derives from the implementation of those tools in the educational environments, allowed distant communities involved in the workshop to build social capital and increase mutual trust: this is an important as well a fundamental condition to perform collaborative distant design projects [9, 10, 11, 12, 13]. First of all, interacting through video transforms a distant individual into a real person. When people see their partners during videoconferencing they become “real” people, as one of the interviewed students pointed out: “The visual more about a social use... I mean we could see them, so they became real people… I think it was most useful if we were showing them some sketches, so they can understand what’s going on…”. Media are useful to provide different type of interaction: some are more suitable for transmitting strategic-oriented information and others are more suitable for favoring socialization processes. And both are necessary. Videoconferencing is a very important tool for socializing: “I think it was really important because I feel it made me connected with people particularly since we spend so much time on a computer for instant messages and email, I get a lot of mail from people I’ve never seen … I felt like when we started meeting with them over NetMeeting, it started to be more personal, so I felt like the visual part was really helpful”.
Secondly, a relevant remark on the social capital building dynamics, not related to video-collaboration, concerns the physical meetings. In fact, one of the most relevant aspects of the social capital community building is that communities, to develop social capital, have to meet physically and independently from their purposes. It is during the co-presence interaction that people build mutual trust and social capital. For our workshop, one of the key issues to foster the building dynamics of the community was the face-to-face interaction among participants. Workshops participants met at least one time during their design projects. This element helped in a very consistent way the construction of social ties among people, transforming a group of spread students into a connected community For example, the travel to London solidified internal relationships among MIT community but also the external relationship with the entire learning community. In this case, the visit was necessary to obtain important strategic information for the design projects but also to playfully socialize. The synergy between these two dimensions created an experiential community and created the connected learning community.
Another very important element to understand the building of social ties among the community is that what created a solid ties among community members' is not the structural elements but, on the contrary, the shared experience. For instance, some of the MIT students were Portuguese native speakers. A first hypothesis we had is that Portuguese MIT speaking students would be more reliable and they would help build community ties with IST students. This did not happen because what students were looking for, and what helped the community construction dynamics, was a mixture of conversation on everyday life and design project, socializing and working. In this sense, American students were playfully discussing with Portuguese students, trying to understand another language and another culture, and vice-versa. This was an element that helped to mix socialization and work, and that constructed an experience-based connected community.
It is because we used so extensively multiple modalities of videoconferencing, in a relatively short period, that two distant communities who didn’t know each other before starting the collaboration started to socialize and increased their social capital Social capital is important to successfully achieve distant design projects between remote communities.
Fig. 7: Students collaborating and jointly working in the same document
with on-line videoconferencing.
Fig.8: Students commonly working in their design projects and, in the same documents, making fun and adding personal communication.
A relevant issue about people involved in collaborative processes through videoconferences is the way people look at each other and how we design workspace with interactive audiovisual technologies. Bell Laboratories carried out the very first studies on the impact of visual perception during videoconferences  and since then research on the field grows. As a matter of fact, according to where the two speakers are looking at, you have a more or less important impact in the collaboration processes mediated by videoconferences . From the empirical research, it also emerges that gaze and the perception of it by the others is so important that even when we are not sure whether the other is actually looking at us, we think that our interlocutor is looking us in the eyes. During face-to-face conversation it is fundamental to cross our gazes because it favors collaboration. To this extent the Snap to contact theory suggests [15, p.54] that people cannot always judge gaze direction accurately and they will bias their perception toward contact unless they are certain that the looker is not looking at them. Latest research on this topic show that in a collaborative design process, more than focusing on the mutual feedback that the participants send each other during the video-communication interaction, it’s important that they first socialize and, second, they use the videoconferencing to focus on the “object” they are discussing more than trying to capture each other’s visual signs, gaze and posture to decrypt the meaning of the conversation. In our case, the workspace and the shared “object” that students were working on were the main focus during the video conferencing. Participants, while working on their design project, focused on their work rather than in their visual expression or gaze. As Whittaker points out , in videoconferencing the speech alone is often sufficient for effective conversation, visual information about objects is generally more valuable than visual information about work participants. These two conclusions bring him to suggest the failure of current technologies to support talk about objects, arguing that these technologies need to be better integrated with existing communication applications. Also Kraut at al., Luff et al. [17, 18] explore the “objects, not participants” hypothesis, showing how research have focused so far on the “talking heads” communication dynamics rather than exploring the talk about objects during the video conferencing interaction.
Fig.9: Students sharing and discussing printed 3D models.
In our design workshop the sharing of artifacts that happens both in synchronous mode, when students accomplish their assignments and discuss through video conferences their artifact – PowerPoint documents, 3D models, computer models – and in asynchronous mode, when they posted in the Studio MIT on-line environments their work , was crucial. This also fosters the creative design process: students used to think about a possible design solution, discuss it, build an artifact, and share it with the learning community, playing with their ideas and deconstructing the artifact. And they started again this process of creating, sharing, deconstructing, storing and starting again. This creative process continuously generates new artifacts that can be shared, discussed and stored thanks to new communication technologies and media environments. This creative model has been studied by Finke, Ward and Smith , that proposed two related but distinct phases in the process of creativity: the generative process, where people create the project’s structures, and the exploratory process, where people deconstruct these structures and play and brainstorm with ideas in order to generate the creative results. Though the videoconferences and the class dynamics we fostered these process.
The importance of the “object and not participants” paradigm in the video conferencing doesn’t have to hide the importance of the shared context during the interactions. Firstly, Kraut et al.  showed that having the shared visual space helps collaborators understand the current state of their task and enables them to communicate and ground their conversations efficiently. These processes are associated with faster and better task performance. Delaying the visual update in the space reduces benefits and degrades performance. Also Steve Wittakher  stresses the importance of a “shared context” in order to make a remote interpersonal communication effective. According to him, the shared context can be a linguistic or a physical context. The video, in order to contribute to this process, must give us information about (1) the object we are discussing and (2) the person who is communicating. He shows how technological work has focused on one specific function of visual information, to support non-verbal communication and neglected functions such as using visual information to initiate communication or depict shared work objects. According to the non-verbal communication hypothesis, visual information is also useful in order to coordinate collaborative process. Moreover, accordingly to the idea of situatedness, the interaction between the designer and the environment strongly determines the course of designing. This idea comes from Dewey’s works , and it is summarized by J. Gero as “where you are when you do what you do matters” . In new learning collaborative mediated environments, interactive video technologies create new shared environments between distant communities; this influence the design process. According to this view, technologies that do not support non verbal communication are inadequate to favor collaboration between distant communities in technologically mediate environments. On the contrary, all the technologies that give information about facial expressions, gaze and postures of the participants help interpersonal communications. Technology as iCom that are conceived expressly to improve chance encounters and to connect places through permanent visual connections help distant communities create a shared context and increase the sense of awareness. This helps the distant design process.
S.F. Russel, R. Kraut J. Siegel  speak of Grounding referring to the interactive process by which communicators exchange evidence about what they do or do not understand over the course of a conversation, as they accrue common ground. They underline three important points to successfully perform conversational subtasks, and they mention that interlocutors (a) they must identify what their partners are attending to, in order to determine whether an object is part of their joint focus of attention; (b) they must monitor their partner's level of comprehension, so that they may expand or clarify their utterances if necessary; and (c) they must strive for efficiency in message formulation by constructing their utterances in accordance with Gricean norms for informativeness, brevity, and the like. During the distant design process visual tools are very important to establish a common culture, especially in remote environments. As stated by an interviewed student, “… even if it’s not easy for me as an international student sometimes to describe like designer static or the form or shape because that kind of descriptive language is not easy for me to articulate but it’s much easier to draw it and show them and then as soon as you see the drawing you understand what this person is trying to do, so one time we had a session with those two people in Portugal who had the same program on their computer and so we sketched and then we showed them and then they just sketched back, so like that kind of communication, visual tool it was really much more helpful!” So visual tools are very important because they give clues of the other team environments as well as clues of the person they are collaborating with (the way people dress, move, talk, make gesture). On the other side, they allow people to jointly work in real time on the same documents, co-creating and exchanging information, comments and feedback on the projects. For many of the students, these visual inputs during the collaboration considerably increased the ties and the cohesion between teams giving the sense of working together.
Moreover, it is fundamental to stress the importance of working together, with “objects” that students mutually manipulate with an innovative communication system that creates a real new communication dynamics. The hypothesis of the object-not-participants underlines the importance of creating a space for communication and not a place for communication. A space where communities collaborate and communicate.
What made our design workshop successful was the combination of different videoconference modalities. One modality was more incline to make the socialization processes affective, bringing participants to better know each-other and socialize, increasing the social capital within the learning community. The other videoconferences modalities allowed the remote interaction among participants to focus on shared artifacts and objects, increasing the creative process and allowing students to achieve their design goals. Videoconference tools allow at the same time a dynamics for communication and socialization and a dynamics to discuss work-related and design related topics. First, the synthesis of these two dynamics creates the real richness of the use of multimode videoconferences in educational setting. Secondly, this synthesis creates a real space for interaction and learning, transforming a distant group of people into a connected community. The learning community that emerged from this project is an experiential community: it is not true to say that the design project is a pretext for socialization, or that the socialization is a pretext to accomplish a design work but two dimensions are one the complement of the other. Socialization communication dynamics and communication for working related aspects are strictly correlated and inextricable and create a performing connected community. Sociality and talking about work create the community even in such a short period of interaction and in a geographically distant setting. A community is not sustainable if structured on a communication merely based on work related topics. Likewise, a community is not sustainable if it is exclusively based on socialization a-finalized communication dynamics. In our workshops, videoconferencing technologies, mixing these two dimensions created a successful connected learning community.
The final review, that also happens through video-conferencing illustrates the positive results of the distant design workshops. The evaluation of the design projects was, generally speaking, very positive: the teams accomplished their design projects successfully and had positive academics notes. The final interviews with students demonstrate that 75% of them were more than satisfied about the implementation of the media environment and the use of videoconferencing for their design projects. 25% of the students who didn’t appreciate the videoconferencing tools made up for the minority of the community that used the communication tools only to discuss working and design related topics. They didn’t make any effort to discuss about non-design related topics, or they simply didn’t look for it. Failing to find other common territory for discussion affected the results of the design projects and the community building dynamics.
One of the key success elements for these workshops is that we considered that the videoconferences were situated in different places and we had to provide not a mere place for connections but a space for interaction. If in the physical place people interact in multiple ways, we also wanted to provide multiple ways of videoconferencing so people could use the same multimode way to communicate, but taking advantages from the technological tools. In this sense, we worked in order to use the communication efficiently, and not to simply sustain the communication among students. Thanks to interactive media, we fostered the creation of a real space for interaction: to obtain this, we provided a media environment where people could “bring” their own experiential world into the project, transcending the specific functional space. Because people can use videoconferencing to talk simultaneously about their own project and personal life, they became a community that managed to efficiently achieve their design projects.
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1. Brown, J.S., Duguid, P., 2000, Chapter V, community support. See also Orr Julian, Talking about machines: an ethnography of a modern job, IRL Press, Ithaca, NY
Federico Casalegno, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab
Larry Sass, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department Of Architecture