Making space for connected learning: an ecosystem approach to designing teaching spaces in higher education part 1

This two-part blog post explores the complexities and affordances of using space to make connections. The first part interrogates the structural rigidity that emerges from physical classroom design and argues that connected learning requires a different design and emotional response from teaching spaces to be successful.

Studies of teaching and learning spaces and their relationship to pedagogy often take an architectural design focus, looking at building and interior design interventions as the starting point for analysis (McNeil & Berg, 2017). This focus informs the interrogation of the role those interventions play in defining and demonstrating the value proposition for future students, like modernity, technological or prestige, promulgated by teaching spaces (Qazi et al., 2021). There are complex interplays between the pedagogical intentions of the specific teaching space designs and the educational and student experience ambitions of the institution that shape the look, feel and function of those spaces (Finkelstein et al., 2016). The size, shapes and technologies within teaching spaces are ‘…capable of making the learning  session an empowering, inspirational, collaborative event or, on the contrary, a stagnant, tedious endurance’ (Power & Supple, 2021, p.91). In the literature this is referred to as the affordance concept, where space dictates usage rather than suggests it or encourage experimentation, innovation or recontextualisation (Thoring, 2018). The ways in which the furniture is placed in the room, the capacities and directionality of the technological infrastructure and the modalities enacted by building and construction interventions privilege pedagogical practices that simply feel ‘right’ in the space. To do something different can feel counter-intuitive to the purposes and attitudes of the room, like driving on the wrong side of the road. 

The dominant paradigm of teaching space design remains the spatial privileging of didacticism, placing the teacher on, as Nielsen & Stovang (2015) describe it, the ‘altar’ of a church-like structure with rows of seats facing forward passively waiting for the ‘sermon’. The audio-visual equipment is set up to magnify the voice and image of the teacher to a receiving audience many times their size and set facing the stage and screens at the front like a theatre audience. Institutional teaching space specifications are based on the prioritisation of the action that is happening at the front of the room (for example, the location of projection screens, sight lines, seating pitch and speaker and microphone placements). They define the need for dominant barrier-like presence of the ever-expanding teaching podium, placing all the technology for control of the environment in the space ‘owned’ by the teacher. The user experience (UX) of the teaching space places ownership in the hands of the primary user, moving the masses to the role of the passive audience and constraining interaction in mono or bi-directional ways.

At a visual level, a teacher walks into a room with rows and rows of heavy tables, with fixed chairs behind them. There is a giant teaching podium with all the controls for the audio-visual embedded into it. The only corridor through the desks is the one used by students to enter and exit the room. The screen and whiteboards are at the front of the room. The desks closest to the end of the rows are the first to be filled, with latecomers having to squeeze past colleagues into the inner spaces. This is the way the teacher finds the room when they walk in and it is the way they leave the room when they hand over. The room is rebuilt according to a map or guide every morning by the university into its ‘optimum’ configuration.

A connected future for teaching space design

The implementation of the Business School model of curriculum transformation called Connected Learning at Scale (CLaS) triggered several critical debates amongst space designers, educational developers, and the academy about the challenges of designing teaching space for connected learning. These were in part centred on the capabilities of space to enable pedagogical flexibility at scale, affording the teacher the ability to change modes, size, and actions of engagement within a single programmed timeslot and in the same room (see part 2 of this blog for more on this challenge). However, the more existential challenge was to break down the structural limitations of the campus and the teaching and learning behaviours they rust on and to understand how to effectively design (break) spaces that sparked the affordances of the space to enable and leverage connection and the signposted signifiers necessary to create an environment that fostered and valued connection to catalyse learning.

The implied passivity and mono-directional communications of mainstream higher education spaces run counter to the agency principles built into our approach. Connections are not made for students by the teacher or by the needs of the curriculum framework or assessment instruments. Connections are at their best when the environment and the people allow for connections to evolve, to find their own value, equilibrium, and purpose. Connections are learning experiences, acting as the connective tissue and sinew of adult education, weaving in-between gaps in knowledge and skills, integrating the problems, scenarios, applications, and schemas in the learner’s brain through the thematic links within and between disciplines (Knowles, 1970).

The strength of the CLaS model lies in the multiple modalities in which connections can be made, between students, staff, disciplines, and the wider community. The model also informed by the critical importance of the relationships and actions between the members of the connected and yet-to-be connected community. In the framework of multiplication and magnification used for the delivery of education at scale these relationships become fractured, diluted and problematic to exploit for learning. Technology is often deployed as the panacea for the limitations that traditional spaces place on connected learning, even though the tropes of teaching spaces run large through how the UX and learning experience (LX) of the platforms and tools dictate a pedagogy (as opposed to the other way around) (Bryant, 2021). In a connected learning pedagogy, connections are made in the context of how the curriculum and the spaces frame the opportunities and benefits of connecting in multiple ways and across and through the learning experience. No two connections are equal, with the tensions that both strengthen and tear apart a higher education experience making each connection unique to the people involved.

What is the relationship between connected learning and teaching space?

This question is easy to answer within the complex relationships and connective hierarchies and societies created by social media, which facilitate and support the formation of DIY communities, blurring the lines between DIY making and social media practices such as the sharing and making of user-generated content. It is harder to answer the question in the context of physical spaces, where the transience of use and the lack of a sense of ownership and agency over its use makes them seem less like a community and more like a way station. The effective design of teaching spaces that engender this sense of belonging and being and can facilitate the actions and affordances arising from being connected is significantly enhanced when connected learning is seen as process of human-centred making, not as an outcome of teaching and curriculum design.

Making is a relatively generic term that has multiple meanings across several disciplines and fields of study (including arts and media, science, education, and sociology). Orton-Johnson (2014) makes the case that making is essentially a socially networked and connected practice informing the wider engagement of the community through active participation. Henry Jenkins in his extensive writing on modern making culture argues that made culture is not a singular act, ending with the production of an artefact or shareable product. Across a number of studies on participatory culture (Jenkins & Ito, 2016, for example) he argues that DIY making is an inherently social process that includes practices such as the sharing of culture, lived experiences, play and bricolage. Even in the context of the physical acts of making, he argues that sociality in the form of networked and connected engagement defines making in the digital age.

Figure 1: The ecosystem of a connected learning teaching space.

Designing physical spaces for connected learning is a complex challenge. The spaces must avoid the pedagogical directiveness of traditional teaching rooms. The momentum and motion within the space must be reimagined as an ecosystem, with ebbs and flows of communication, activity and individuality of varying intensities, patterns and behaviours flowing in from outside, through the curricular and educational frameworks enabled by the space and back out into the wider campus and the interstitial spaces between the students work, life, play and learning. The ecosystem of a connected teaching space brings together the disparate natures of the community of learning to act as a crowd, finding something fleeting (or lasting), communion (or oneness), learning (or unlearning), certainty (or uncertainty). The design of these spaces must use the controllable aspects of the architectural design (from colour to light, from furnishing to infrastructure, from sound to texture and from space to atmosphere) to allow for connections to be made and leveraged for making pedagogies. This kind of design aesthetic runs counter to the structural limitations in institutional systems that bake-in types of teaching activity (timetabling, for example). It also challenges the inculcation of teaching forms and pedagogies that are defined and formalised through the creation of institutional teaching space design standards. They require new ways of thinking about teaching spaces, drawing on the behavioural and associative interactivity more commonly seen in social media spaces than a university classroom.

In part 2 of this blog, I will look at how the connected ecosystem of space can manifest in the design of physical teaching spaces of varying sizes and for the teaching of programs across the discipline fields but especially in the context of business education.

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

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