Writing in the Washington Post, social scientist Danielle Allen argues that colleges should take steps to ensure geographic diversity among its student body. She notes the distinction between "bonding ties" that connect people of similar backgrounds and "bridging ties" that link people from different "social spaces" and goes on to explain:
Since the 1970s, scholars have been aware that bridging ties are especially powerful for generating knowledge transmission; more recently, scholars have argued that teams and communities that emphasize bridging ties and learn how to communicate across their differences outperform more homogenous teams and communities in the development and deployment of useful knowledge.Clearly, colleges have an opportunity to create bridging ties by purposefully mixing students both at the campus level and at the course level.
For those of us involved in online learning, the opportunities to integrate bridging ties into instructional design are even greater. We can easily build geographic diversity into team assignments, for instance. Even in cases where we ask students to develop projects within the context of their local job or community, geographically bridged communities can help bring new ideas into the student's local context.
Within our traditional campus curricula, we can use online technologies to bring into our classrooms students from other institutions--whether they be from different parts of our country or from different continents--to ensure a more diverse discussion, creating mutual benefits for the students at both institutions.
Dr. Allen's article is a reminder that, in today's world, the "distances" involved in in distance education are not something just to be overcome, but to be used to create a more powerful learning environment.