by Sam Elkington and Jill Dickinson
Wednesday September 13th was the final instalment of the three-part 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 final symposium in the series following on from the inaugural symposium event (in April 2023), which used the lens of ‘Networks’ to discuss contemporary evidence of how HE learning spaces are becoming increasingly connected, permeable, and interwoven (both physically and digitally), revealing increasingly adaptive learning environments. A second symposium event (in June) took up the lens of ‘Flexibilities’, engaging the idea of flexibility as a critical and prevalent aspect of 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 outside education.
In this final symposium, we shifted the focus by using the lens of ‘assemblages’ to examine the expanding range of contemporary HE learning spaces and the heterogenous collection of material and non-material, human and non-human elements that compose them. Through this lens we can glimpse how, as educators, we must work with a larger amalgam of discourses, bodies, ideas, objects, tools, technologies, and institutional structures and processes to negotiate and construct practice and meaning for the purposes of learning. Such a view offers leverage on contemporary learning spaces without making totalising claims about their character and form, and without demanding arbitrary distinctions in service of some simplified conceptualisation of their functionality – the ‘lecture’ space, the ‘social’ space, the ‘personal’ study space. Instead, the idea of assemblage contrasts such simplification with complexity, a distinction each of our presenters sought to interrogate and elaborate in their own way.
In her keynote address (“Posthuman pedagogic assemblages: Reconceptualising how objects, bodies, materialities, affects and spaces come to matter in higher education landscapes of learning”), Professor Carol Taylor (Bath) wove together an array of theorical perspectives to present a ‘working’ framework for better understanding emerging posthuman pedagogic assemblages, as a means of pushing back against unsettled current and ongoing conditions. Combining insights from her own investigations of posthuman materialities with critical contributions by Braidotti (2019), Barad (2007), Delanda (2006) and Bennett (2010), Carol moved to trouble normalised and common sense ideas about knowledge-making and space. She argued for the need to pay new attention in profoundly changed (and not yet post-) pandemic times to the entangled, productive, and ever-changing constellations and configurations – assemblages – of objects, bodies, spaces, materialities and affects, and how they come to matter in contemporary HE. Considered from this perspective, assemblages help us understand how things happen – as a process, rather than a stable or static enactment ‘in space’.
For Carol, this renders explicit the importance of humans as ‘beings-in-relation’ and pushes beyond a view of space as a container to one of direct material engagements in the world, of unfolding ‘material moments’ and of ‘affective flows’ where digital, physical, and biological boundaries are blurred. Carol provided compelling examples to illustrate the analytic value of transdisciplinary theoretical assemblages in the creation of new knowledge of, and for, landscapes of learning in HE. Assemblages are complex, concurrently emergent and convergent. They make us think outside hierarchical ways of working. This opens the way to a radical reconceptualisation of the learner-as-assemblage, and of pedagogy as a spatial-material praxis comprising material and expressive properties. That shapes how we tune into everyday HE spaces, as well as our own complexities in shaping and perpetuating educational practices that comprise them.
In his presentation (“Mutually navigating the messy, postdigital spaces of education: entangled design, practice, and knowledge”) Tim Fawns (Monash) drew together ideas from postdigital education, and his own work exploring entangled pedagogy, to consider some of the pressing and ‘messy’ tensions around learning and space design, practice, policy, infrastructure, and relational knowledge and expertise across different institutional levels. Tim challenged the conventional attitude that holds learning spaces as fixed ideas; instead, he suggests all spaces are postdigital, comprised of an ongoing (re)shaping of purposes, context, values, methods, and technologies. Technologies for learning are multiple and contingent, assembled by their (intra)actions and potential for meaning-making in that moment, for those individuals and/or groups involved. Amidst such complexity, Tim showed how our actions acquire more meanings and resonances, such that our movements in and through spaces are not easily summarised or simply presented. All agency in these assemblages is distributed, it is relational and contingent – it is entangled. This should move us past fixed conceptions of how things are and how things are done. This includes the dominant mindset of context last, (pedagogical) method first . It reveals the practical importance of developing and honing a relational expertise – the ability to configure and orchestrate pedagogical assemblages as a means of negotiating spaces for learning. From this entangled perspective, there are always more spaces going on. Physical spaces overlay arbitrary concepts of structure and control to reveal borders that are blurred and porous, where learning leaks out, and in, from ‘other’ connected spaces, offering different meaning(s) depending on what is happening. For Tim, the goal here is to show that the apparent immediacy of space is always mediated, more complex than it appears – linked to, and made what it is by, relations to other people, objects, and spaces. It exists within an ongoing process that sustains and recreates it.
Karen Gravett (Surrey), in her talk (“Assemblages of belonging in the digital university”) continued along a relational plane of inquiry, approaching ideas of materiality and human connection in digital educational environments through her research examining student engagement, belonging, and mattering in higher education. Karen used the lens of assemblages to animate the many (inter)connections students have with different spaces within the digital university, and how these spaces are at once shaped by and situated within a multiplicity of things, both human and non-human, material and non-material. By examining the situated character of spaces experienced by students, Karen’s research has shown the importance and value of better understanding how the (inter)relationships within those spaces work, and how students go about designing and curating different components of space to create their own spaces, that belong to them. Crucially, this is a relational and processual belonging – it is not a static quality of space – connected to a variety of different objects and materialities that move and change with the students themselves. For Karen, paying attention to how such relations work, to affective encounters and the situatedness of students’ experiences of belonging, encourages us to think about, and actively focus on, equity issues and the plausible (dis)continuities of assemblages in shaping student belonging. This raises important questions around who can and cannot curate assemblages of belonging. Karen’s research has revealed that students’ sense of belonging is experienced in many different ways (even in the same spaces), supporting and connecting to multiple communities. In response, we must develop environments and practices that attend to the inherent complexity of students’ situated experiences of belonging, built upon values of openness, flexibility, and honesty.
In the final presentation (“Picturing Places for Learning – how photographs tell stories about where learning happens”), Harriet Shortt (UWE, Bristol) shared work exploring the affordances of visual methods for providing rich new ways of seeing and understanding spaces and places for learning. Harriet drew together insights from a variety of research projects that have used participant-led photography to investigate user experiences of different buildings and the materiality of work amidst a drive towards more ‘open’ learning spaces. Greater openness might, on the one hand, permit opportunities for a shared transparency and grounds on which to hone relational expertise (as discussed by Tim Fawns and Karen Gravett). On the other hand, it can lead to feelings of exposure and lack of privacy for students and staff. Harriet’s research provides insights into how people organically manage the lack of privacy that such spaces present, by creating their own spaces that are intentionally sheltered from (over)exposure through the (re)organisation of space, objects, and things. Exposure to increasingly open spaces can invite spontaneous interactions and unscheduled conversations that might be desirable, from an organisational perspective, for encouraging connections between stakeholders. However, according to Harriet’s research, the lived experience of constant connection and always being seen can erode any sense of privacy or personal space which can, in turn, be detrimental for the quality of experience had by students and staff alike. Harriet used the analogy of ‘den building’ as a provocative means of illustrating how many people in her studies have resorted to seeking out or creating ‘just-for-me’ spaces where they can detach from others and determine routines and limits that are personal their circumstances and needs. Harriet’s work asks important questions around whether we should be redesigning learning spaces and wider campus infrastructure to allow for what she termed ‘being alone together’ spaces to emerge and exist, spaces where people (students and staff) can be alone but also maintain a sense of connection.
Following this formal part of the session, we invited the keynote speaker and the presenters to engage in a panel discussion. Chaired by Professor Sam Elkington, this provided opportunities to highlight, and focus in on, some of the cross-cutting themes that had started to emerge from the earlier discussions. It also provided space for more collaborative and reflective discussion and Q&A with the audience. Key points included:
- a need for collaborative approaches to instigating a ‘values-based institutional reinvigoration’ around learning spaces
- the disconnect between the architectural trend towards ‘homogenised’ learning spaces and the values that we, as educators, seek to instil in teaching and learning
- the increased transparency of learning spaces, and the consequent need to find, and perhaps claim, less-exposed learning spaces, and ‘alone-together spaces’, particularly given well-documented issues around mental health and wellbeing, and sense of belonging
- potential options for ‘disrupting’ pre-allocated spaces by arranging and/or using them in different ways, by bringing in different materials, or by restriking the power dynamic between tutor and students, by encouraging students to explore the spaces available for themselves
- the important role that visual methods can play in encouraging engagement with research findings around this theme and a need for meaningful, collaborative stakeholder engagement, and from start-to-finish, in the future development of learning spaces
The keynote, the presentations, and the panel discussion in this third and final symposium encouraged the speakers and the audience to engage not only with the thoughts and ideas presented in this session but also draw links with the earlier symposia around the themes of Networks and Flexibilities to develop more holistic understandings given the multiplicities and complexities that characterise learning spaces.
From the outset we envisaged this Symposia Series as an integral part of a longer-term project that continues to push to the fore conversations about the future possibilities for learning spaces within HE. We want to bring together, and engage, a range of key stakeholders in meaningful discussions and debate to help support evidence-based decision making. When we designed the series we also saw it as an opportunity to test options around multimodality for continuing conversations where everyone with an interest could engage with the range of synchronous and asynchronous elements on offer. These included traditional ‘conference-style’ formats such as key notes and presentations, sketch notes, social media discussions, and reflective blogs.
We’re looking forward to reporting on the findings from the project at this year’s Annual Society for Research into Higher Education International Conference. As part of that presentation, we will also be asking the key question ‘So what, now what?’ and outlining our plans for the next stage of the project and calls for others to get involved in the community of practice we have developed around this theme.
Barad K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Half-way. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, culture & society, 36(6), 31-61.
DeLanda, M. (2019). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. Bloomsbury Publishing.
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 a Reader of Law at Leeds Beckett University. As an 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 research focuses on 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 multidisciplinary collection entitled Professional Development for Practitioners in Academia: Pracademia and co-founded communities of practice around this theme.