The Society for Research into Higher Education

Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Prospects for Space in Higher Education – Reflections on Flexibilities Symposium, June 14th, 2023

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by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson

Wednesday June 14 saw the second instalment of the SRHE ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposia series, delivered in partnership with series co-convenors Professor Sam Elkington and Dr. Jill Dickinson.

This was the second symposium in the series following on from the April launch, where the inaugural symposium event utilised the lens of ‘Networks’ to elucidate a view of higher education (HE) learning spaces in terms of how such spaces are becoming increasingly connected, permeable, and interwoven (both physically and digitally), revealing increasingly adaptive learning environments.


The second symposium looked to shift focus, this time utilising a lens of ‘Flexibilities’ as a means of grasping the increasing complexity of learning spaces emerging amidst the flux and flows of contemporary digital educational environments. From this perspective, the framing idea of flexibility was positioned as a critical aspect of how learning is situated relative to the demands of students seeking greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives. The presentations and work shared offered a range of theoretical and applied interpretations and perspectives as a basis for generating collaborative, reflexive discussions, and debate.

In his keynote address, Dr Jeremy Knox looked to push beyond the more conventional interpretations of the idea of flexibility in HE settings, with a focus on efficient performance and accessible models of delivery, to a way of thinking about space in terms of its interrelationship with digital technologies that are interwoven into the fabric of the university learning environment, and that constantly shape educational practices. When viewed from this perspective, and drawing on Biesta’s (2013) tenets for democratic education in a globally networked society, Jeremy argued that space is, in practice, ‘enacted, turbulent, entangled and hybrid’ (Edwards et al., 2011) and cannot be productively viewed only in terms of settings for ‘qualification’ (knowledge and skill acquisition). In addition, contemporary spaces for learning are also important vehicles for ‘socialisation’ and the ways in which individuals become part of society through networks for learning and becoming, or ‘subjectification’. In HE, we tend towards the purpose of qualification and how we can design spaces for better learning outcomes at the expense of thinking deeply about how different configurations of spaces can support the more peripheral, but no less important, purposes of socialisation and subjectification. Jeremy drew on his extensive experience of facilitating online courses at scale, particularly MOOCs, to think critically about spatial configurations across different modalities and to point to the underestimation of the complexities of inequalities and structural issues of online learning. We cannot assume that we can deploy digital education and technologies without risk or concern. Indeed, there are certain spatial flexibilities that emerge when institutions are required to be supple in how they respond to an increasingly uncertain and changing HE landscape; modifying what is done to suit the multiple purposes of effective provision through greater student involvement and how teachers negotiate and manage change, amidst shifting ideas of a boundaried university experience.  

In his talk, ‘Spatial fluencies – more than spaces, more than literacies’, Dr. Andrew Middleton made calls for ‘place’ to be moved up the HE agenda through marrying values and philosophies with practical innovation. Andrew defined the underpinning concept of spatial fluencies as ‘an individual’s ability to confidently and critically navigate and negotiate spaces for learning, for professional life, and for lifewide experiences’. He suggested how we can survive and thrive within HE through self-determination, self-responsibilisation, and learned processes around agency, affinity, autonomy, association, agility, and adaptability. Andrew also advocated for multimodal thinking in terms of how we can use, experience, and develop learning environments, recognising how we might occupy liminal spaces and/or cross boundaries as we navigate the transitions within, and between, different spatial ecosystems within HE, and their particular formalities, informalities, non-formalities, and incidentals.

Dr Kevin Merry then gave a talk on ‘Universal Design for Learning Spaces’, suggesting how notions of learner variability, and the removal of environmental barriers, need to be cornerstones in developing future narratives around multimodal learning landscapes. He noted how goals of accessibility, inclusivity, and equitability can only be achieved through the adoption of hyflex approaches. Drawing some alignment with Andrew’s previous talk, Kevin called for students to be provided with meaningful options around UDL principles of engagement, representation, action, and expression. He also noted the impact that particular spatial configurations can have on pedagogical approaches, how some spaces are inherently limited in terms of their adaptability and flexibility to achieve multiple ends, and the need to make the most of multimodal opportunities offered by different spatial configurations to emphasise key messages.

Finally, Dr. Namrata Rao  and Dr. Patrick Baughan  gave their talk on ‘Blurring the Pedagogical Boundaries in the Postdigital University’. They presented findings from a research project that drew on digital-visual methodology and sociomateriality to explore staff experiences of navigating the complexities and uncertainties presented by emerging HE landscapes. In their talk, Namrata and Patrick highlighted the key role that space and place can play in developing trust, enabling myriad affective connections, fostering wellbeing, encouraging personal development, and creating hope, and illuminated the power and value that such interactions can hold. They also explored some of the differences between pre- and post-pandemic spaces, blurred and muddled private/public spatial boundaries, the significant role that materiality plays, and the value of informal interactions.

Following networking opportunities over the lunch break, both the keynote speaker and the presenters were invited to engage in a panel discussion to continue the conversation through identifying and exploring key themes that had emerged from the morning’s presentations. Chaired by Professor Sam Elkington and framed by a broader concern for the prospects of space in higher education, the discussion was structured around reflections and questions from the audience. Key points arising included:

  • adopting a students-as-partners approach to co-create and co-produce learning spaces.
  • recognising the holistic nature of the student experience that is broader than studying for particular qualifications, and can include a range of formal and informal, physical and digital spaces, and both on- and off-campus.  
  • the potential for reimagining presentee-ism through monitoring different forms of engagement in different ways, through a range of spatial contexts, and using a wide variety of tools, technologies, and platforms.

The keynote, talks, and panel discussions from this second symposium helped to further drive discussions forward around the need for, and the complexities around, working collaboratively to design and use future learning landscapes in ways that best meet individual needs and preferences and at particular points of time.

Within the third, and final, symposium of this series, we will be continuing these conversations through focusing on the theme of ‘Assemblages’. In this event, we will be exploring the expanding spectra of learning spaces (including their architecture and materiality) and the pedagogical approaches that are being adopted within them, against the backdrop of challenges that are presented by traditional decision-making in terms of strategic, long-term, estate planning, resources, and the need for agility in responding to a dynamic HE environment.

Register to attend Symposium 3 (selecting either in-person or remote participation) online: please click here for the booking page.

Alongside driving forward conversations around the future of learning landscapes, the other key purpose of the Symposia Series is to explore the potential for embedding multimodality to foster accessibility and inclusivity and encourage meaningful engagement. Alongside the live streamed keynote, presentations, and panel session, the event was also recorded, and captured through live sketchnoting and social media posts. All of the outputs produced from the Symposia Series so far are available here.

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 a SFHEA, Jill was also selected as a Reviewer for the Advance HE Global Teaching Excellence Awards, and she has been shortlisted for National Teaching Fellowship. A former Solicitor, specialising in property portfolio management, Jill’s dual research interests are around place-making and professional development, and her work has been recognised in the Emerald Literati Awards for Excellence. Jill holds a number of editorial roles, including board memberships for Teaching in Higher Education and the Journal of Place Management and Development. She has recently co-edited a collection entitled Professional Development for Practitioners in Academia: Pracademia which involves contributions from the UK and internationally, and is being published by Springer. Jill has also co-founded communities of practice, including Pracademia in collaboration with Advance HE Connect.

Further resources from this event including sketch illustrations and a summary of discussions are also available from

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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