Space is a strange, quixotic thing. It is a construct of things both solid and ephemeral. Take today, I am in the beer garden of my local pub, mainly because it is a glorious spring afternoon and after months of winter the outside and sunshine represent such a welcome change. The physical space is made up of tables, benches, plants and the still slightly wet moss-covered cement tiles. I am listening to music (The new Arcade Fire album ‘Reflektor’ for those keeping tabs, and yes, it is awesome) and enjoying a beer. The ambient noise of the 30 or so people out here occasionally clatters above Win Butler’s voice. This is the physicality of the space. But it not what the space means or represents.
When we talk about learning spaces we concern ourselves with what is contained within the four walls of a physical room. We can argue, by virtue of experience or the shrill ring of a sales pitch, that furniture can encourage collaboration. The technology in the form of screens, projectors, hubs and plugs will encourage people to use technology in new ways to enhance learning. Wi-Fi networks, flexible and high capacity will be the new wired network, bringing the outside in and what happens inside out. These are expensive decisions, costing institutions hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pounds and not insignificant staff time. However, there is nothing to say that these rooms will change the way people teach. The learning space does not of its own accord change pedagogy. The most innovative use of furniture and technology will still result in a teacher moving it all to rows if that is the way they want to teach.
Coming back to the beer garden, all these things that I described earlier don’t determine the intrinsic impact of the space, or how the space is used. Yes, they influence it, they sometimes shape it and can create and support the ways it is used (would anyone be out here in 2 degrees in January…). But in the end, it is what it is, a physical space. The President Emeritus of Harvard, Derek Bok, noted in 2013 that in the context of defending the ongoing viability of a residential university (which the eminent management scholar Peter Drucker had argued strongly against)…
‘We are a long way from being able to train graduate students to be scientists and scholars by online instruction. The same is true of teaching in fields of knowledge where there are no definite answers but rather a need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts. It is also unlikely that online instruction will be able to offer role models to inspire emulation and encourage moral development and far from clear that technology will be able to match living in a residence hall for giving students an appreciation of people from other cultures and religions or an ability to work effectively with persons very different from themselves. Much else that is memorable and important in a college education is not readily reproducible by machine. Rather, it occurs through impromptu conversations with students and instructors, or emerges in seminar discussions from unexpected turns and twists in the conversations that are hard to program in advance.’ Source: http://bit.ly/NOnbLV
He argues that the only way to reproduce the discontinuous, chaotic and spontaneous learning that underpins higher education is through a face-to-face engagement, in a traditional class and residential environment. Interestingly, he doesn’t suggest the need for funky chairs and rolling iPad connection panels. He does argues that virtual spaces and technology enhanced learning is limited for the teaching of scholars, scientists or graduates. To be fair to him, his whole speech is an important statement of advocacy for technology, especially the benefit of information consumption through lecture capture and on-line platforms. But this debate around the (in)ability of technology to capture the unique ‘magic’ of learning is quite pervasive. There are a number of studies that argue that students themselves want a more traditional education, where notes are handed out and lecturers engage in monologues followed by seminar type dialogues conducted in large lecture halls and rowed classrooms. Whether it is parsed as resistance to change, a sense of retro values personified by the hipster youth or that it is a behaviour that the learner thinks once replicated will provide the teacher with what they want, it seems contradictory to the way people conduct significant aspects of their daily life.
The argument made by Professor Bok that learning is enhanced by the ‘…need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts’ resonates strongly with me. As I have discussed in earlier blogs, I strongly believe there is an urgent need to engage a wide ranging and probably quite painful and divisive debate about the efficacy and relevance of our pedagogical approaches in the digital world. The epoch-inching micro-impacts of MOOCs were not about doing something new, just something a little less shit for a bigger, less engaged audience. However, I don’t believe that these chaotic and discontinuous learning moments cannot occur in an online learning space. The physicality makes marginal difference, because the learning is occurring in spaces in and between interactions with other people and knowledge. This means that institutions need to think about new definitions and understandings for learning spaces. As much as universities like doing this, I am not arguing for sending a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball through the average classroom. In fact, these are still vitals parts of the university experience for some learners. But the new spaces work and act in different ways. They are owned by the learners, who control the access (or choose not to) and control the content (or at least aggregate it, remix it and share it). The new learning spaces are platforms, devices, the cloud and other virtual places where people congregate and share.
What is needed in the modern university is a redefinition of what constitutes a learning space. A learning space is more than a function and construction of its physicality. And I am not talking necessarily about a VLE here either, they are just as much bound by their construction as a classroom or lecture theatre. Online learning offers the definition of learning spaces a number of new dimensions. However it takes a recognition that learning and learners have changed, and that perhaps the way we were taught may have changed over time. The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity. For me, it is a simply an extension of the way I felt about my primary school classrooms.
I was in year 2 at St Mary’s Primary School in Rydalmere, Australia. I was seven years old. Our teacher, Mrs Charker, built our room up with our art, our learning and our stuff. Each table was a network of our space. Sure, Mrs Charker taught, but it was in our space. I remember feeling comfortable there. Two years later, my year 4 teacher put us all in rows, denied us any space, moved us around into good and bad people rows (cockatoos, rosellas, parrots and VULTURES – guess which row I ended up in more often). The result was a disaffected class, who took their learning out of the room and in this case, to my desk at home.
The result in higher education is not much different. Learners form their own networks. And the discontinuous and spontaneous learning that Derek Bok advocates happens there, interacting with colleagues, professionals and the wider internet community. And in some ways, these new learning spaces create a much greater opportunity for chance meetings, discursive dialogues, interrogating and testing of ideas and thoughts, questions being answered and new questions being formed. I don’t see this as an abstract concept, the rantings of an e-learning zealot wanting to bring down the walls of the academy. This is the way learning spaces have changed. Ways of learning and knowledge acquisition have changed. Learning spaces are an evolving and fluid concept, not well represented by the fixed capital investment made by institutions.
The technologies our potential learners are using today are often in advance of those being ‘trialed’ at institutions. Facebook usage has been in decline for the last 18 months or so as young people move to more private and controllable networks like Snapchat and Whatsapp. There is no chance of their parents finding out stuff, or it getting into the ether for all to see, especially with something like Snapchat that self-destructs content in seconds. Yet many institutions are talking about Facebook as an innovative potential place for learning (or at least knowledge transfer) to occur. Learning spaces have to be more agile than institutions currently have the infrastructure or capacity to be. Successful entrepreneurs innovate through understanding what is happening, what might happen, engage with it and then respond. The way we conceptualise learning spaces need to occur in a similar pattern. It is already inherent in most of our learning designs that students are expected to undertake independent study, which represents nearly 90% of the hours they spend on courses. What do we think they do? Be like us in our learning heyday? Head buried in books, at a desk in the library or in our residence? Hard work, cold sweat and graft makes Peter learn. Guess what? They are studying together in groups, they are talking to each other, they are asking other people what they think, they are complaining and griping about how hard this and how much reading they have to do and then they are swapping pictures of their desk, their opinion on the latest Arcade Fire record or sending sad faces on Whatsapp because they are exhausted. And its what we all did. It just happens online as well as face-to-face now and learning is happening in those spaces.
So, what does all of this debate and froth mean to higher education, both institutions and teachers alike? Well, I wish there was a magic theory that I could invent here, represent with some moving bubbles and quick, catchy titles. There isn’t. However, there are four things we as educators need to consider…
1. In what ways do we understand the changes in learners and learning in the digital age?
2. How do we understand, engage and support the spaces in which new learners learn, physical or virtual?
3. How does our learning, teaching and assessment practice need to change to get the best out of these new spaces?
4. What is making us frightened, resistant and ‘control freaky’ about this change? Technology in higher education is still generally occurring at the fringes of experimentation, rarely crossing into the mainstream unless its flashy (MOOCs) or keeping with the Jonses’ (VLEs, Lecture Capture). Why has it not had the same transformative (disruptive, destructive or constructive) effect in our activity as it has arguably had on society as a whole?