by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson
Wednesday April 26 saw the launch of the SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposium series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson. This blog was compiled and edited by Sinead Murphy.
The intention of this Symposium Series is to bring together leading voices and space-based research from across the field to encourage critical discussion and debate with a view to generating and encapsulating key insights around contemporary landscapes of learning in HE. Traditionally, the needs of learning spaces have been often pushed into the background of institutional planning, decision-making, and curriculum design in favour of other, more visible performance measures of the student experience. Now the changing requirements of learning spaces are top of the agenda for university leaders, estates teams, and practitioners who must recognise and understand how learning can take place anytime and anywhere and, therefore, imagine new and radical strategies for student-centred, sustainable campus design.
We offer the concept of ‘learning landscape’ as a basis on which to explore how universities can use different ideas about learning spaces to reflect changing preferences, incorporate digital technologies, and critically consider future possibilities. This Symposium Series presents opportunities for key stakeholders to discuss and debate new possibilities for pedagogy, technology, and learning spaces. Enacted through separate, hybrid symposium events, and structured through the prism of one of three thematic lenses – networks, flexibilities, and assemblages – the Series has been informed by a ‘Kaleidoscope of Notions’ (Wang et al, 2011) for interrogating theoretical and applied perspectives and priorities for future learning spaces. We aim to encourage an overarching reflexive conversation with, and for, the sector.
The initial Networks themed symposium charted a focus shift in HE. It recognised that the contemporary learning landscape needs to be considered less in terms of singular learning spaces and more in terms of how spaces are becoming increasingly connective, permeable, networked, and interwoven (both physically and digitally) to provide inclusive and adaptive learning environments.
In her keynote address, Professor Lesley Gourlay offered a critical take on the concept of networks in HE learning and teaching. She highlighted an overemphasis on connection (defined in terms of interlinkages between discrete nodes) and the mediating role of technology in associated learning processes. Noting the inseparability of physical and digital space in and for learning, Lesley argued for the need to push beyond now established post-digital configurations of space and knowledge generation, towards a conceptualisation of ‘lived’ learning encounters as being more-than-digital, situated within an unfolding meshwork of formal and informal spaces. Lesley drew upon the work of Tim Ingold to animate her view of the meshwork of intertwined learning spaces in HE, pointing to the need to retain three critical components of the learning landscape: ephemerality, co-presence with others, and the significance of finding seclusion and stillness. From this perspective, the spaces ‘between-the-lines’ possess value for students in their coming-to-know about their subjects, as well as themselves, offering what Lesley described as ‘fugitive spaces’; fleeting yet meaningful assemblages of space and practice that help students to navigate the increasing sprawl of HE campuses and their digital appendages.
In her talk, ‘Mattering, meaning making and motivation: building trust and respect through multimodal social learning communities’, Sue Beckingham shared insights from work exploring how social media can be used to support student mattering, helping to mediate intentional communicative action and trust across formal and informal spaces for learning. Drawing on the ideas of ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ social capital, Sue challenged us to question assumptions we can sometimes make about the concept of mattering, it being more than an exercise in fostering social connections between individual learners. Sue’s work provided a compelling empirical basis for utilising multimodal strategies to help students understand what is expected of them in spaces both on and off campus. For Sue, such strategies function as ‘gestures’ that encourage, and model for, relational practices through shared experiences where students have learned to work cooperatively across contexts and boundaries.
Dr Julianne K Viola’s talk, ‘Nurturing meaningful connection in a new era of learning’, introduced longitudinal research that began before the pandemic and continued through periods of online and hybrid delivery, as well as taking in the more recent return to campus. Julianne’s research sought better understanding of the factors that influence students’ ability to navigate their university settings and build meaningful connections with campus space(s) and student communities. By encompassing student experiences prior to, during, and post-pandemic, Julianne provided unique insight into what matters most for students in building and maintaining a sense of belonging and community across different modes of delivery and experience. Key findings highlighted the significant impact that the lack, or absence, of physical contact with space, and the limited ability to connect and socialise with others, had on student engagement and motivation in, and for, their learning. Further insights pointed to the prevalence and persistence of certain structural barriers – viewed in terms of how certain physical (campus) and virtual spaces are set up and utilised – that can undermine or weaken meaningful connections for students. Supporting similar insights shared in Sue Beckingham’s earlier talk, students reported a positive or enhanced sense of belonging and community with their university settings when a mix of formal and informal spaces were available to them as ‘touch points’ in their wider experiences. Crucially, this merging of spaces points to the affective dimension of networked space as a means of nurturing meaningful connections for students on both an individual and collective level.
In his talk ‘Physical learning spaces and networked landscapes of learning: Prismatic mediations’, Dr Brett Bligh problematised how physical learning spaces mediate networked landscapes of learning, arguing that physical spaces exhibit multiple mediation on what is expected and made possible for students and educators therein. Brett challenged the established logic of ‘built pedagogy’, and associated proliferation of solutions in modern campus development, on the grounds that such solutions are typically based on a model of deploying different types of learning spaces to mediate certain forms of educational practice.
Brett was quick to highlight the limiting nature of such an attitude towards learning space and how it encouraged certain ways of interacting and speaking about space production. Brett’s view is that, in the practice realities of learners and educators, such activities constitute a wider learning landscape comprised of a range of environments, people, social structures, and resources. It is within these ‘mediations’ that physical learning spaces are appropriated, and their agentic qualities and rhythms revealed. Building on established research, Brett made the case for an alternative language for conceptualising how space is a “mediating factor” within the actual practices of HE that is based around six core concepts, wherein space is understood to be transparent, enabling, stimulating, associative, cognitively integrated, and socially integrated. Whereas earlier research conveys distinctly normative views on space, focused largely on stability, this alternative framework is oriented towards encouraging stakeholders to reflect on their experiences and explore future possibilities within their institutions. Brett wants the associated vocabulary to support reflection, re-thinking, and re-conceptualisation – as stakeholders use it to explore their experiences and aspirations together.
In the afternoon panel discussion contributors were given licence to expand, elaborate, and cross-examine the work presented with the aim of considering more deeply the ‘prospects for space’. Discussion identified the importance of connection, mattering, belonging, and a clear need to move away from performative paradigms in learning space and campus design towards a more participative paradigm of practice. Such a paradigm shift would acknowledge the rhythms of connections, of continuities and discontinuities in space, of working socially and solitarily, identifying, and intentionally inviting touchpoints that converge at the boundaries of experience (physical, virtual, and emotional). New strategies for enabling learning and accommodating the multiple demands on today’s students necessitate a rethinking of the uses and locations of learning space. Increasingly, this will require universities, educators, and students to be flexible and network-minded in how they seek out, and bring together, formal and informal activities in an environment that recognises that learning can take place any time, in either physical and/or virtual spaces.
The powerful insights emerging from this first symposium have encouraged us to think about how we can help scaffold the spaces that students are already using for learning. We can draw on their experiences of using these locations and technologies to adopt student-centred approaches to designing landscapes of learning that extend across and beyond the campus. Our next symposium considers these, and related, ideas through the lens of Flexibility: we will explore how learning is situated relative to the demands of students for greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives. Such a view implies a necessity for widening and loosening of the boundaries of conventional learning spaces to provide greater potential flexibility in how, where, and when learning happens. We hope that you will join us on 14th June, online or in person at SRHE’s offices, to continue this conversation.
Sam Elkington is Professor of Learning and Teaching at Teesside University where he leads on the University’s learning and teaching enhancement portfolio. Sam is a PFHEA and National Teaching Fellow (NTF, 2021). He has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and has extensive experience working across teaching, research and academic leadership and policy domains. Most recently Sam worked for Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) where he was national lead for Assessment and Feedback and Flexible Learning in Higher Education. Sam’s most recent book (with Professor Alastair Irons) explores contemporary themes in formative assessment and feedback in higher education: Irons and Elkington (2021) Enhancing learning through formative assessment and feedback London: Routledge.
Dr Jill Dickinson is an Associate Professor in Law at the University of Leeds. As SFHEA, Jill has also acted as a reviewer for the Advance HE Global Teaching Excellence Awards. A former Solicitor, specialising in property portfolio management, Jill’s research explores place-making and professional development and her work has been recognised in the Emerald Literati Awards.