The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Prospects for Space in Higher Education Reflections on Networks Symposium, 26 April 2023

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 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.

Paul Temple

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A stress-test of the physical university

by Paul Temple

The impact of technological change on the continuation of the university as a physical entity, as it has been known in Europe for the last nine hundred or so years, has regularly come up for debate throughout much of the last century. Every development in communications technology – telephone, radio, TV, computers, email, the internet – has led to confident assertions that the days of the university as then understood were numbered. Why should students bother to turn up at a distant university when the teaching on offer there could be delivered readily and cheaply using the new technology of the day? (On the other hand, the transformative communications technologies of the nineteenth century – the railway and the steamship – were turned to advantage by the new University of London when it created its distance-learning operation in 1865.)

A favourite work of mine in this declinist genre is John Daniel’s Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (1998), where the then-VC of the UK’s Open University confidently predicts that the growth of university student numbers in countries such as China and India will mean that only “mega” virtual universities will be able to cope with national demands. Even the Chinese, Daniel then argued, would not be able to expand physical university capacity at the rate required: to which one can now respond, “Oh yes they could”.

The pandemic lockdown in the UK, which has completely closed university campuses for (at the time of writing) about six months has shown what can be done in terms of online teaching when there’s no alternative. All the university teachers I know have become overnight experts on the use of Zoom and Teams for both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, for doctoral examinations, and more: exactly the direction in which Daniel thought higher education should move. But I haven’t heard any calls for this to continue indefinitely, and for campuses to be mothballed. My friend Jane, who teaches a large, mainly Chinese, postgraduate group at UCL, tells me that her students say that they would find online learning less appealing if they did not already know their peers and teachers from previous time working on the campus. Without this prior group-building to give the basis for informal peer support, Jane thinks that her learners could easily become isolated and would struggle. Everyone, especially it seems, students, wants to get back to the physical university.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have previously (Temple, 2018) noted the complex relationships between academic work and the physical environments within which it takes place. Just as the current lockdown has led people in all kinds of jobs to re-evaluate their work environments, so the temporary campus closures should have prompted thinking about how university built environments contribute to their outputs. The relationships between people and the built environments in which they live and work is an under-remarked factor in all manner of social and economic activities: Richard Sennett, for example, has over many years investigated these relationships in different settings, most recently in his book Building and Dwelling (2018). The idea that an activity as complex and deeply personal as higher learning can be completely divorced from its physical context seems improbable: Sennett analyses this complexity by using the term cité to represent ideas of belonging and consciousness, and ville to indicate physicality, the dynamics of space, and how elements of the built environment fit together. We might think of online teaching during the lockdown as taking the cité out of the ville: it might work initially, but eventually the ville infrastructure starts to be missed. Although Jane’s students liked the increased availability of recorded material, even live online interactive sessions were not for them adequate substitutes for a seminar room discussion. Other aspects of the physical university will be missing too: studies have shown how students value a working environment shared with other students – a library or study centre – even when they are personally unknown to one another. The enormous popularity of UCL’s new 1100 seat student study centre, in use (pre-Covid) around the clock, is a good example of what Nørgård and Bengtsen have called “the placeful university” (2016) – their way of thinking about the interactions between people and places.

The Covid-19 lockdown has given us a stress-test of university teaching without the campus. Teachers and students have worked hard to make it a success, usually helped – as with Jane’s students – by being part of a learning community with a pre-lockdown history. We need in future to give the ville aspects of university life the credit they deserve.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at


Daniel, J (1998) Mega-universities and knowledge media: technology strategies for higher education London: Kogan Page

Nørgård, R and Bengtsen, S (2016) ‘Academic citizenship beyond the campus: a call for the placeful university’. Higher Education Research and Development, 35 (1): 4-16

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City London: Allen Lane

Temple, P (2018) ‘Space, place and institutional effectiveness in higher education’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2 (2): 133-150