Near Future Teaching Video Post #3: Community and Distance

Distance scaledThe Near Future Teaching project aims to co-design the future of digital education at Edinburgh, based on the values of the staff and students who constitute the university. In the last few weeks, we have explored a range of themes emerging from the project via the voices of the community, collected in our thematic videos. This week we will explore two seemingly divergent themes that we believe are strongly linked: Distance and Community.


A recurring theme throughout the data was the continued importance of human interaction in our teaching and learning and how, through dialogue and discussion in a context of diversity, communities are assembled. In general, students and staff did not see community and distance or online education as being at odds with each other, but rather saw the building of communities of scholarship across digital and co-present modes as a challenge we need to better address over the coming years:

When I think about technology of the future, it’s a lot about, in my mind, how you interact with others because that’s what’s so important when you’re at the university anyway. But I would hope that in the future they would be used to better facilitate those interactions – Evie Chamberlain

In the end, as Dimple Gulrajani expresses it, “the thing that you get from university is the community…the university itself will be for a community of people who are learning together”.

The link to the values expressed in the Humans video is clear here: the community is, to a large extent, the whole point of the university: “go to the university, feel the environment” as Madhu Sivaraman expresses it.

Perhaps the main challenge which emerges from this this video is how we build an understanding of community which can account for widely distributed, highly mobile and diverse groups of students, and how we design community into and around our teaching over the coming years. Building the experience of community is essential, and in doing so we cannot afford to separate on-campus community from the online. Instead, we need to think across and between them, designing for a hybrid community which feels real in both physical and virtual space.

This issue of space leads directly to the next video discussed here.


Community can exist across geographical distance. In this video, students and staff provide a range of definitions of ‘distance’ and how this is experienced, not just by our distance learners, but also by those on-campus.

One issue clearly flagged is the value of distance for widening participation, with Jill Mackay (Vet School) describing this as one of the things she is “most excited about in the future”. Widening access to the university applies both to international, global cohorts of students and to local, community engagement. Luke Campbell, currently studying in Education, highlights the importance of this:

We’re pitching webinars offered, and maybe four times slots across the week. Early Saturday morning before people go to football or in the late evening when you’re done with the work. And so there’s a chance to find something that suits your time slot rather than Wednesday morning, you have to be here…

The undergraduate students speaking in this video emphasise the advantages of a looser requirement to be on-campus, but there are also reservations from some. For example, Dharani Dhavamani speak of the ways in which being mobile, and able to travel to study, opens up an understanding of the difference of place and the richness of experience gained by being ‘in’ a new location. And Marion Smallbones – an entirely distance student – warns against over-promising on borderless community, emphasising that “national boundaries still exist”, and that these necessarily define much of the experience of being an international, online student.

So we are left with articulations of community and distance that require nuance in the way we work with them. Engagement, dialogue, shared purpose, flexibility, widening participation and fragmented experience all have serious impact on how we design the future of our teaching.

All the videos from the project can be found here, and are being used directly in the design workshops informing the development of the future vision for digital education: for more about these see our blog posts here and here.

Michael Gallagher

Dr Michael Gallagher is a member of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Moray House and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to mobile for development (M4D). His research focus is on mobility, mobile learning, and digital education to support teaching and learning in the humanities in higher education, particularly in the Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan African regions.

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