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Posted by on May 18, 2011

Redesigning and reclaiming physical space for learning: Higher Education

Granted, I should be thinking about the upcoming trip tomorrow to Tanzania for eLearning Africa and some workshops in the area (no, I haven’t packed), but a running conversation with a good friend has my head spinning a bit on the role of physical space in higher education. As a proud online learner and someone who hasn’t set foot in a classroom as a student since the mid-1990s (as a teacher, very familiar with classrooms), I tend to neglect physical space as an enabling/restrictive agent in cognition. How structure dictates thinking (in much the same way that the assessment mechanism dictates learning). Function follows form. That sort of thing. 

So, if now we find that components of higher education need to be redesigned (I do not fall in the camp that the whole systme is bankrupt) to fit the changing needs of learners (and economics), then we should consider the role of physical space in determining learning, exploration, and subsequent research outputs. Nothing original here. Universities have tended towards good architecture. Good in that it is imposing, authoritative, occasionally tranquil and sublime. And if you attend a public university, highly utilitarian and altogether uninspiring. 

Some of my favorite places in those photos above (Princeton University, Trinity College and National Library of Ireland). 

So, place has always been emphasized to some degree in higher education for both utilitarian (space for everyone to meet) and philosophical ends (agent of authority, link to our intellectual past, tradition). As much of what we do intellectually continues to shift online (for some of us, online encapsulates the vast majority of intellectual activity), the university as physical space occasionally will come off as anachronstic, antiquated. For some universities, mind you; I don’t want to make too many blanket assumptions here. However, space as an agent of learning is still significant. Shifting activity online does not negate situatedness, the sense of activity taking place in space and time. So, pragmatically, we are left with large physical institutions with disaggregated intellectual activity (online and in the physical space). A perfect opportunity for universities to experiment with physical space as an active learning agent. I actually turn to public libraries as an example of how this might be done. As public libraries shifted from warehouses of information to centers of social and communal activity (the good ones have made this transition), they reinvigorated their purpose. They serve and stimulate and accelerate the impact of social activity. Why can’t universities experiment with this type of transition. Pedagogically, it is certainly possible and here is how I see the shift occuring. 

  • Shift a significant portion of courses/classes offered as part of a major into a blended space. Increase contact time with the subject matter (online). Reserve physical space for applied problems (homework), collaborative activities, networking. I think a good ratio here would be 8/2 ratio (8 online or independent, 2 in the classroom). Establish a social component to the coursework as early as possible. Reinvigorate collaboration through collective activity. Greater social cohesion generally points to greater retention. Establish the partner system with much the same criteria as you might for assigning roommates (well, perhaps better than that as mine always seemed random). With this much contact time both online and in person, call the course what it is. Essentially, it is a double course. So give double credit. 
  • Bunch individual courses into larger blocks. Experiment with pathways towards individual need (Choose Your Own Adeventure in Higher Education) and goals. Strive towards one endless learning experience at the university, a cohesive, continuous course. Install checkpoints and reflection whenever possible (ie, all the time via any means available). 
  • Create a badge (obviously I am nutty about badges/visible indicators of learning progress) or some visual marker that emphasizes progress and activity (not just endurance of lasting years but also intensity of effort-frequency). Allow for outside short courses to contribute to the badge; create mechanisms for acknowledging lifelong learning in conjunction with outside institutions (non-higher education). 
  • Reconfigure the physical space. This could be a participatory design process informed by each and every student that passes through the university. Contribute via any media their image of a learning space. Of a collaborative space. Of sanctuary. Of solace. Of socialization. All of these contributions add to the badge as they recognize investment in the structure of the learning institution (an investment in learning itself). Crowdsource the heck out of the design and do it on small scale. Start with one building. Build it collaboratively from the ground up. Use pattern language whenever possible. Create a toolkit for the rest of the university. Iterate early and often. Reinvigorate the physical not as symbol of authority and tradition, but as agent of collaboration and cohesion. 
  • Reclaim the residence halls. As the majority of learning time takes place online or away from the institution, use the residence halls for one week residency periods. Periods of collaborative activity. Group projects. Brainstorms, Decision points. Project management. The priority (for intense one week periods) of physical space. Flipping the pedagogical dynamic for one week at a time. Inviting secondary school students for week long retreats, establishing mentors, bridging the gap between student ambition and retention. 

So a lot of this is big scale and a significant investment of time and resources. The trick is to make sure this is all linked to existing learning theory (which I think it is-design is learning) and can be scaled out without adversely effecting research outputs. Ultimately, these changes will enhance research outputs (or make them more accurate reflections of pervading institutional activity), but care must be taken so that they are not crippled in the wake of institutional change. 

And create all of this space in a way that allows for learning itself to be visualized. If we can chart memes, ideas, individuals in disaggregated spaces, then we can certainly track learning. A constantly overlapping, entirely fluid interaction of ideas, individuals, and other agents across both physical and learning space. Pragmatically, it establishes activity and impact. Pedagogically, it offers input for future design (knowing full well that design influences activity). 

 

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