by Marguerite Koole
As I write this response to the first symposium on “Prospects for Space in Higher Education”, I am aware of my asynchronicity. I listened to the recording of the session, and I am subsequently engaging in the conversation through writing. I am physically located 6,500 km away. While time and space may separate us, the technologies that we use in our daily engagements can weave us together. Interestingly, ‘Technology’, derived from the Greek technē, refers to an art or artifice; derived from Indo European *tekth- meaning to weave, build, join. Latin adopted it (textere) meaning to weave.
One of the characteristics that defines us as human is our use of technology. Technology surrounds us. As I write this, I am sitting on a chair, clicking on a keyboard, and reading on a screen with light waves projecting into my tired eyes. It’s midnight. There is an old Webster’s New World Dictionary from 1970 by my side. This old dictionary is a reminder of my past. (I have safeguarded it for many years because of the quality of the etymologies.) I am surrounded by physical and digital technologies as well as atmospheric conditions. It’s summer on the Canadian prairies. It’s hot. The air conditioner has been humming for hours.
To be sure, the spaces in which we find ourselves are replete with sounds and lights of varying quality and frequencies. There are objects in our spaces and, sometimes, other creatures such as flies, spiders, mites, pets, and people. Temperature, airflow, air quality, paint colour, physical dimensions, and many other aspects all relate to our use of these spaces. On a human level, Viola’s research into how students experience belonging in university spaces evidenced the importance of merging physical, virtual, and emotional connections. Beckingham’s discussion of bonding and bridging social capital highlighted elements of mattering: being noticed, being cared for and being needed. The characteristics of space can support and/or diminish connections and mattering. I would argue that all such factors, physical-environmental, digital, and socio-cultural co-create our personal and collective experience within spaces.
Listening to the four presenters I was fascinated with the words used to describe spaces for learning in the higher education context. I examined their slides, the whiteboard sketches, and my own notes. I circled words that conjured images in my mind. For fun, I asked ChatGPT to do a preliminary sorting of the list of words into five categories. Then, I chose titles, reviewed the lists, and conducted a final sorting (Table 1).
Table 1: Words for describing spaces
|Polycontextual space Reflective space Virtual learning spaces Multi-polycontextual Space for stillness Siloed ecologies Space production Boundary crossing Meshwork Fixed nodes Invisible boundaries Multi-dimensional Model of space Peripheral Context collapse Seclusion Fluid Topology Holes and breathing spaces Accessibility Place spectrum Merging of spaces Participatory spaces Learning spaces Spaces for learning Unfolding||Bonding social capital Bridging social capital Networks Commitments Peers Learning relationships Communication breakdowns Nurturing connection Community engagement Mattering Co-presences Disaggregation of the person Ephemerality Association Social integration Learning communities Field of relations||Scaffolded Blended learning Hybrid learning Enablement Stimulation Transversal skills Fugitive practices Disaggregation of learning Cognitive integration||Post-digital Networks Mediations Datafication Surveillance Multi-modal||Strands Non-digital strands Transhumanist Human as a document Static models Transparency Tyranny of the designer Fit Haunting Imaginaries|
Clearly, many of the words in Table 1 can fit into multiple lists, and other people might sort them differently. The spatial concepts were highly metaphorical, and I found the number of items in each list intriguing. Relationship terms appeared emphasised and digital-technology terms seemed de-emphasised while the number of ‘learning’ words/variations was moderate. To create a visual sense of the salience of the individual words in the list, I created a word cloud (Figure 1). The two words most repeated words were ‘space’ and ‘learning’ – not unexpected for a series on “landscapes of learning”.
Figure 1: Word cloud (Created via https://wordart.com/)
As scholars, we strain to locate metaphors to encapsulate and model our world. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue: “human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (p6). They write: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thin in terms of another” (p5). For me, the very word ‘space’ invokes feelings such as openness, closedness, arrangements, activities, stillness, noisiness, walls, furniture, and so on. I decided to delve more deeply into the meanings of the following space-related words:
- From Latin: spēi- to flourish, expand, succeed.
- Area or room sufficient for or allotted to something [a parking space]
- From Greek: plateia a street
- Space; room
- A particular area or locality; region
- From Latin: contextus (n.) a joining together; contextere (v.) to weave together; com (together) + textere (v.) to weave.
- The whole situation, background, or environment relevant to a particular event, personality, creation, etc.
As it turns out, the words ‘space’, ‘place’, and ‘context’ are not all that metaphorical in their common usage, but their etymological nuances are attractive and reflect, perhaps, what we wish to achieve in describing and/or envisioning learning spaces—that is, locations for flourishing, success, and weaving together of people, ideas, and experiences.
During her session, Gourlay opposed metaphors such as ‘network’ suggesting that it emphasises connections rather than one’s state of being. She argued that Ingold’s (2011) notion of meshwork was more appealing in its suggested fluidity with whole fields of relations unfolding. Similarly, she found metaphors such as ‘intertwining’ troublesome because it suggests merging of two entities into one, explaining that two pieces of twine cannot actually merge; rather, they remain two pieces of twine as they wrap around each other. Her thinking about space led her to concepts of ephemerality (that which is not recorded), seclusion (that which is not observed), and co-presence (that which is co-located at the same time and same place). She arrived at a metaphor of “fugitive spaces” for learning, which she argues are essential for human learning as opposed to information transfer.
With my own leanings towards the sociomaterial approach, I ‘get’ her argument. Within a sociomaterial sensitivity, reality can be thought of through multiple patterns of relations in which “human, digital, physical-environmental, and socio-cultural characteristics interact to produce phenomenon” (Koole et al, 2021, para 3; Sørensen, 2009). The ‘pattern of relations’ metaphor helps me to connect and order my experiences, readings, and discussions of the world. The use of metaphor appears useful and even necessary in discussions of space and how space is inhabited.
During the panel discussion, Bligh drew attention to the place-for-learning-spectrum in which there is a single continuum of structured to unstructured spaces. In addition to the need for conceptualising a multimodal spectrum, he suggested that there is a need for a common lexicon to discuss space. Such language could guide designers, builders, and users of space. As he noted, “design tends to focus on metaphor”. Yet, as Gourlay suggested, metaphor can also become an impediment in which we could become even more bogged down. It is important to interrogate and test our metaphors; we must know their limitations.
As I ponder the discussion in its entirety, however, I found the seemingly overwhelming use of metaphors productive. It is productive in terms of inspiring creative ideas about how we can understand space and our use of it. I find myself constantly exploring new metaphors and philosophical approaches in order to grasp new ways of seeing reality, ideas, and issues. Less conventional approaches such as sociomaterialism and the postdigital, for example, help me question what might otherwise remain hidden. An anecdote might help to illustrate how different approaches can help in seeing anew:
Many years ago, after I had completed my undergraduate degree, I took a wonderful class called “Drawing for the Completely Intimidated”. I had never taken a real art class outside of grade school, so this course seemed perfect for exploring my artistic side. As the course progressed, the students had opportunities to experiment with various materials, subject matter, and techniques. It was during a drawing exercise involving shading with pencil that I suddenly became attuned to lines and shades in a glass vase that I had never really noticed before. Even 30 years later, I still see everyday objects differently; my sensitivity had shifted, and now I can see a reality that was previously hidden from my gaze.
In recounting this story, I think of Bligh’s suggestion that we shift from static knowledge to possibility knowledge. Metaphors are useful tools for exploring possibility. While our metaphors might proliferate uncomfortably, they might also lead to novel ways of envisioning the co-creation of learning spaces as locations for flourishing, success, and the weaving together of people, ideas, and experiences.
Marguerite Koole is an Associate Professor in Educational Technology and design for the College of Education, University of Saskatchewan. In 2013, Dr. Koole completed her PhD in E-Research and Technology-Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University UK on digital identity in networked learning. She also holds a Master of Education in Distance Education (MEd) with a focus was on mobile learning. Dr. Koole has a BA in Modern Languages and has studied French, Spanish, German, Blackfoot, Cree, Latin, Mandarin, ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, American Sign Language (ASL), and linguistics. She has designed interactive, online learning activities for various learning purposes and platforms—including print, web, and mobile devices.
Guralnik, D (1970) Webster’s new world dictionary 2nd ed Nelson, Toronto: Foster & Scott Ltd
Ingold, T (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description London: Routledge
Lakoff, G and Johnson, M (1980) Metaphors we live by Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Sorensen, E (2009) The materiality of learning: Technology and knowledge in educational practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press