by Brett Bligh, Sue Beckingham, Lesley Gourlay, and Julianne K Viola
SRHE’s ‘Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: prospects for space in higher education’ symposium series, delivered with Professor Sam Elkington and Dr Jill Dickinson, aims to foster continuous dialogue around learning spaces. Here the three presenters reflect on some of the ideas and issues raised during the first symposium on ‘Networks’. This blog has been compiled by Sam Elkington, Jill Dickinson, and Sinéad Murphy (SRHE Conferences and Events Manager.)
- How do we encourage academic staff to think more intentionally about how they use different spaces in and through their practice? How do we effectively build in ideas of working with spatiality into our learning and teaching strategies?
Julianne: Academic staff should consider how students are connecting with each other and with educators in formal learning spaces. Spaces aren’t (in most cases) designed by the educators teaching in them, but looking at the formal learning setting (lab, lecture theatre, seminar room, etc) through a critical lens can help educators begin to think about what they might want to achieve in that space. For example, if you want to know whether a new way of teaching a challenging concept is landing with the students, also consider: can students see each other in the layout of this room? Can they look around the room to see whether anyone else has a quizzical expression on their face, so they know they aren’t alone in not understanding a concept?
Sue: Staff need the luxury of thinking time and discussion to spark new ideas and share current practice. Encourage or lead a course/subject group activity where colleagues start by looking at how they use their own spaces, then visit other parts of their university. How are others using those spaces? Vignettes, videos and the like could be shared in newsletters which could then be used to prompt discussion and inspire alternative ways.
Brett: If staff are to think more intentionally then they need to get used to talking about space in relation to their practice. One problem is that neither the pedagogical theories that people use, nor the institutional guidelines used in practice discussions, tend to be very helpful in talking about how space is used. We need to build a vocabulary that helps people to discuss the roles of space in practice. That vocabulary must be challenging, so that it provokes new thinking, but it must not be overly technical or oriented towards engineering or architectural concerns. In my own work I have put forward a tentative vocabulary that I think could be used, in both ‘everyday’ thinking and conversations and in institutional projects where space needs to be discussed more productively.
- How do we work productively through the inherent contradictions of learning space design? For example, universities create specific spaces with the aim of helping to build a sense of community but then impose rules on how those spaces can be used.
Julianne: Students tend to use spaces to socialise that aren’t entirely intended for that purpose. From example, my school friends and I used to gather in a hallway that adjoined the gym to the art wing at our high school, for no other reason than it was the perfect size for our group to hang out before school every morning! I’d be interested to see what the role of space utilisation monitors/ technology will be in the future of spaces like this. If my high school had these monitors available, I wonder whether they would consider expanding the space and adding some benches for students to sit on. There have been some great StudentShapers projects at Imperial in this area – and the spaces that have been transformed to create more informal social space have garnered lots of positive feedback.
Sue: When planning new buildings or updating current, it is essential that educators and students that will use those spaces are included in the conversations. The users of those spaces will be able to highlight what is missing and provide suggestions.
We need to start with reimagining what it is like to start a new course at university. I remember taking my daughters around multiple institutions for open days. Where they chose to go to was not just the course or the reputation of the university; it was where they felt comfortable and could imagine being there. Space begins with walking through the main doors, the café, the social spaces, the library and of course the formal learning spaces. Being able to visualise mentally what their future experience might look like, creating an affinity to and a sense of place they could relate to, and connect with is so important. Making the space feel welcoming and somewhere they would want to be. Connecting language to physical objects could include motivational quotes or saying welcome in multiple languages, graphics/images that depict diverse role models, big screens showcasing video clips with captions of what students are doing and creating, how and where they are collaborating and communicating. How can students be involved in created art/artefacts that can be showcased for others to see that depict the student experience?
Visiting an open day at the weekend may be busy but it doesn’t always capture the true feel of what’s to be expected in a session in full flow. How can this be created with video, AR or VR? The very spaces students will learn in are wide and varied, and may not have been experienced before.
Brett: We must view space design as an ongoing process in which refinement and new ideas are viewed as inevitably and welcome. Initial designs will hardly ever work in quite the ways intended, and so we must be prepared to refine the spaces and also recognise what has actually been achieved. To do so we need to provide ongoing forums for interprofessional and staff-student discussion. At present, these are often created for specific projects (for example, where a new building is being designed) and then wound up afterwards. Inevitably, these bounded discussions follow narrow agendas and seem formulaic. We need something more ongoing and permanent.
- What do you think are the most immediate considerations pedagogically when thinking about how to make the best use of learning spaces? What can we practically be doing now to move staff towards being more open, flexible, and creative in and with space?
Julianne: There is a walking interview method I’ve used in my research at Imperial: walking can generate thought. I’d be interested to see how educators can implement walking into their pedagogy, perhaps starting out with ‘office hours’ meetings happening over a walk, and maybe moving onto engaging students in formal coursework outside. Colleagues of mine like Dr Luke McCrone, who completed his undergraduate degree in Earth Science and Engineering, recognise the different way of thinking that one experiences when outside the classroom. There was a great 2014 piece on this in The New Yorker – “Why Walking Helps Us Think” by Ferris Jabr.
Sue: We can do more to create comfortable spaces to meet, collaborate and learn together outside of timetabled classes. Furniture is important; learning booths are popular in corridors as informal meeting places. Libraries, once hushed and quiet, now offer learning spaces students can use independently or with peers. Access to charging points for portable devices, as well as access to loanable devices. If we provide spaces for students to interact informally before class, it could make them feel more at ease when coming into a formal class. After the class has finished where can students go to debrief, plan for future groupwork, engage in social conversations? Landmarks they can communicate by text or group chat apps along with screenshots to arrange meetups. Such places will become favoured, and their use creates a sense of community and emotional connection. This links in to mattering as messages easily sent by mobile can cascaded to cohorts as well small groups.
Brett: Counterintuitively, the most constraining issue when discussing space usage tends to be timetabling rather than problems with particular spaces. We need to be clear that open, flexible and creative uses of space are not the same as efficient space occupancy; if a university is to be more innovative with space then occupancy metric will be challenged. I see no way other than to confront this contradiction directly.
- Is it that spaces need to be seen as a way of ‘simulating’ certain modes of being and not just from a perspective of enacting certain forms of pedagogic content knowledge? What might this look like?
Julianne: Great question, and my research on identity development ties in with this. Interacting with other people and presenting different parts of ourselves to others depends on who we are with, and what the setting is. The idea of boundaries comes in again with this question. For example, the self that I present when I enter the Junior Common Room at Imperial (where the best katsu curry is!) is a bit inhibited – I feel I am encroaching on undergraduate territory, whereas I feel very relaxed having lunch or coffee outside with colleagues on the Queen’s Lawn, where the space feels more public. There are power dynamics in certain spaces!
Sue: For current students, informal learning and self-directed learning starts before any scheduled class and often continues afterwards. Students line up ready to enter large lecture halls or sit cross legged in corridors waiting to enter a classroom for a seminar, lab, workshop or other discipline related space. Sometimes in deep conversation and some shy and yet eager to belong. If a picture is worth a thousand words what pictures would make a difference to the learning spaces to stimulate conversation? Perhaps some constant and providing familiarity, others changeable to create interest and intrigue? How can walls be used to share stories about the educators they will meet within the classroom? What stories can be told of prior students?
Brett: Many spaces do already stimulate certain modes of being. In my view these are often either ‘disciplinary’ spaces – including design studios, engineering labs, and finance trading rooms – or outdoor spaces, including green spaces but also pods and classrooms in wooded areas. If campuses are to continue to be viewed as valuable, then they need to be clearly differentiated from other forms of spaces. Too many campuses in recent times seem to look more and more like generic business parks as time goes on. This will inevitably erode how students perceive universities as places, and over time how valuable campuses are perceived to be—which could pose existential issues for some universities as institutions.
- How can individual staff build creativity and criticality into their pedagogical approaches while working in learning spaces designed without their input? Is a collective voice among staff needed to influence how learning spaces are established; if so, how can this be facilitated, and how can an intersectional perspective on access needs and dynamics of power be assured?
Julianne: Bringing in different stakeholders when designing new spaces is key (see a list of prior StudentShapers projects at Imperial to see how students and staff became partners in designing new spaces at Imperial), and gives a sense of agency to staff and students alike. Building agency in the community would be a great outcome in and of itself.
Sue: We need to push back against conventions. Why is furniture in a classroom in rows when we want students to interact and work in groups? Why do we plan for a lecture and separate seminar when we want students to engage in active/project/problem-based learning? It is important to evaluate innovative use of learning spaces from the students’ perspective. What works for them? How inclusive does it feel? What would they change?
Brett: Individual staff have increasingly limited power. Teaching is increasingly the domain of interprofessional collaboration and teamworking. I do think that collective voices are needed; including the forums for discussion I mentioned earlier. We also need to think more at the level of spaces across (a) whole programmes of study and (b) students’ entire experience of being at university, than at the level of the specific pedagogical interaction.
- Hasn’t this whole conversation exploded, or at the very least fundamentally challenged, the conventional idea of a university campus?
Julianne: It has! The idea of a ‘university campus’ may also be different, depending on what your own university context is. Coming from a US liberal arts background, my initial mental image of a ‘campus’ is very different from the revised version that is in my mind’s eye after studying and working at universities in the UK. As technology has become a large part of the university experience, the conventional idea of a university campus should now include digital/online spaces, too.
Sue: Successful examples of hybrid modes of learning are set to continue, so yes. But this also means we need to continue to review learning spaces that are not timetabled. We need to provide learning space for students to engage online; not all will have a space at home or reliable digital access, or it is too far to go home and then take an in-person class the same afternoon. Where lectures are scheduled online, students may value learning together using one screen or personal screens and headsets. In the classroom, planning a flexible space is important, being able to reconfigure seating plans to suit the needs of the class and activities. Long rows of heavy tables and chairs are not conducive to interactivity and spontaneous communication.
Brett: Yes, I think that the idea of the university campus is being challenged profoundly, resulting in rearguard actions by some stakeholders as a form of defence. The attempts to make campuses ‘sticky’ are but one example of this.
Lesley: I would agree that it has – in some quarters – reinforced an already prevalent idea that the physical campus is obsolete or in need of ‘reinvention’. However, I would caution against an assumption that because universities managed to stay operational while fully remote, it is something to pursue post-pandemic. This was an emergency response, not an active choice, and it brought with it a large number of disadvantages to students and academic staff. Our own study at UCL into the impacts on academic and professional services staff revealed many tensions, stresses and difficulties encountered by staff remote working, with evidence of differential impacts on women and those with less workspace (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/centres/ucl-knowledge-lab/current-research/ucl-moving-online-teaching-and-homeworking-moth). Research has also shown that the pivot to online had negative effects on students in terms of alienation, lack of engagement and social support.
I would be highly critical of ‘discourses of inevitability’ which state that as a result of the pandemic, the role of the material campus and face-to-face engagement should be challenged. While remote engagement may have a limited place, I would argue that the pandemic has in fact underscored the vital importance of being physically together on campus, in terms of engagement in study, and also in terms of social contact, identity and depth and richness of experience.
Dr Brett Bligh is a Lecturer in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, and Director of the Centre for Technology Enhanced Learning. He is co-Editor of Studies in Technology Enhanced Learning and co-ordinator of the CL-SIG group dedicated to discussing uses of the Change Laboratory approach in higher education settings. His research interrogates the nexus of technology mediation, physical environment, and institutional change in higher education. Brett’s work prioritises Activity Theory conceptions of human practice, and interventionist methodologies. For further details about Brett’s work see his staff profile here.
Sue Beckingham is a Principal Lecturer and LTA Lead in Computing. In addition to teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level, Sue has an academic development leadership role where she provide support and guidance relating to learning, teaching and assessment. In 2017 she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship. She is also a Fellow and Executive Committee Member of the Staff and Educational Development Association. For details of Sue’s publications and other activities, see her staff profile here.
Professor Lesley Gourlay is a professor at the UCL Knowledge Lab, currently working in the intersection of Science and Technology Studies and Education, drawing on phenomenological perspectives and approaches. Her current project, funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship Grant MRF-2020-35 (Sept 2021 – 2024), focusses on ‘The Datafied University: Documentation and Performativity in Digitised Education’. She is currently working on a new monograph for Bloomsbury Academic, with a working title of ‘The University and the Algorithmic Gaze: A Postphenomenological Perspective’. For more, see Lesley’s staff profile here.
Julianne K Viola is a postdoctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship (CHERS). Julianne leads the Belonging, Engagement, and Community (BEC) and contributes to educational research and evaluation efforts across College, and is a developer of the Education Evaluation Toolkit. Previously, Julianne completed her doctoral research at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, on how adolescents develop their civic identities in the digital age, conceptualisations of citizenship, and the interplay of social media and technology on youth civic identity. For details of Julianne’s publications and other activities, see her staff profile here.