Making space for connected learning: an ecosystem approach to designing teaching spaces in higher education part 2

The first part of this blog post interrogated the structural rigidity that emerges from physical classroom design and made the case that connected learning requires a different design and emotional response from teaching spaces to be successful. This final part looks at how teaching space needs to shift the dynamics, functions, and relationships within the room to support connected learning in a modern, post-pandemic world.

Moving learning from linear to connected through space

The acts of knowledge acquisition and creation are more than linear journeys through scaffolded teaching, learning and assessment activities existing only to gain the next step on the credentialling ladder. Even before the pandemic, learning had broken out from the four walls of the academy and into the spaces, technologies and sociality of the students and their wider networks. The experiences and networks of students in their life, play and work create opportunities for authentic learning and connection making that both support their objectives within their degree but create resonant forms of learning that extend past it.

It is in these intersecting epistemological Venn spaces that different understandings of authority, expertise and authenticity emerge, challenging the orthodoxies of the academy. The opportunities for learning are not bound by the seats and lecterns of the lecture theatre or the user experience of the Learning Management System. Learning intersects personal, professional, and educational lived experiences in complex, messy, inter-connected and personally defined and managed ways (Osborne et al., 2021; Bryant, 2019). Learning inhabits conversations, reflections, casual and fleeting connections, ambitions, and expectations that are not always located in the classroom or even on campus (Cox & Orehovec, 2007; Nye, 2015).

The affordances, designs and locations of teaching and learning spaces are equally challenged by the liminality within the Venn spaces of work, life, play and learning. Henri Lefebvre in his 1991 book The Production of Space notes that users of space often experience that space passively, with its affordances imposed on them, as opposed to a designer of space who exerts agency of how a space should be used and represented. Teaching spaces are settled, where the behaviours and social structures created by the room are expected. The efficacy of connection and the embodied experiences are defined by the spatiality of the room, the situated context, and the ways the individual and groups are expected to behave by the designer (Boddington & Boys, 2019).

It is comforting to find your place in the room and act according to the rules of engagement that the spaces broadcasts through how seats and tables are organised or where the lines of site and authority emanate from. What is also true in these settled spaces is that unsettlement is also present in now technology allows for in-betweeness to seep in through social media networks and the intersections of networks outside the classroom. The bounded physicality of campus has given away to virtual spaces, digital platforms and devices and personal and professional spaces that serve multiple connective purposes for the learner (such as cafes and libraries) (Bower et al., 2017).

The pandemic has fractured these spaces even further away from the gravitational pull of the campus, with Zoom and MS Teams acting as the connective tissue to spaces and places spread around the world and not generally designed for learning (like bedrooms, dining tables and dorm rooms) (Wardak, Vallis & Bryant, 2021). Even in these disrupted experiences of space, the notion of passivity remains central to how space is owned and utilised. Zoom privileges the ‘host’ and allows both sound and vision to be turned off from both sender and receiver.

Physical teaching spaces are designed to be generic with repeatable designs and set-ups to ensure consistency and ease of use (Finkelstein et al., 2016 and Keppell & Riddle, 2013). A student’s presence in that space resets when they leave, leaving little of no trace of their influence on it. The capacity for the space to engender an emotional or physical response in the student or academic is compromised by the overarching sheen of professionalism, shining modernity or architectural practicality of modern academic buildings.

The passive nature of university space does not preclude connected learning, but it places the burden of success on the curriculum design, skills of the teacher and student and the methodologies of teaching and learning. It can also fracture the relationship space has with connection, moving the intentions and actions of connection making to other parts of the campus, to social media and into the bars, cafes, benches, and interstitial spaces of the surrounding outside space (see Wilson, Roger & Ney, 2018).

Figure 1: Modalities of designing a connected learning teaching space

Transforming the ecosystem into physical spaces

The biggest challenge for the designer of teaching spaces is turning the idea of connected learning spaces into a practical, implementable, affordable but effective room. There are three modalities that designers of teaching spaces should interrogate in the process of design (dynamics, functions, and relationships). These modalities consider how the space creates embodied experiences of settlement, belonging and sociality and what need to be adapted and redesigned to support connectivity, creativity, and more effective learning.

1. Change the dynamics

The dynamics of a connected learning space are critical to supporting engagement, collaboration, and ideation. The dynamics of a room (which I have labelled as movement, motion and connection in the model discussed in part 1 of this blog post) are the directions of interactivity and engagement that occur within the space.

Traditional teaching spaces are mono-directional. Teachers are expected to interact with students and students interact with those closest to them. The space does not enable connection outside of the walls, forcing to students to use their own technology to make those through social media. The dynamics of most teaching spaces are effectively front to back, making connections from the students to the teacher difficult to create and sustain. If students are asked to feedback from the back to the front, they must assume the role of the teacher at the front of the room, with all the requisite sound and visual reinforcement and the status that it imbues.

Connected learning spaces are multi-directional. An effective connected learning space support movement and navigation within and outside the room. This movement is not exclusively physical, it can be based on attention, on activity, on communication or associative, enabling a feeling of comfort in the space, even if the behaviours are disconcerting and unfamiliar. This enables connections to be made within the space, without privileging status. From a design perspective, it considers how people in the room can see and hear each other (or interact in fully accessible ways), how they can shift their own perspective from looking in one direction, to engaging 360 degrees.

Dynamics are also a function of scale. A connected learning space supports how scale can be leveraged for crowd knowledge and collective problem-solving activities. It enables a flexibility to move from large scale to smaller groups without changing rooms or creating artificial delays in timetabling to allow for transition. Transitions happen the space, in real time. Finally, a connected learning space delivers on the ambitions and possibilities of space agnostic learning to design for an experience that benefits from students being online and, in the room, together learning from each other. A connected learning space can deliver the potential of a truly hybridised experience through spatial design, integrated technology, and a pedagogical focus on dynamics.

2. Change the functions

Modern teaching spaces are effectively empty boxes. In the many design meetings I have been a part of over the years, the demands of a teaching space to have more than a single function (lecture, tutorial, event, function, award, meeting) have trumped design decisions and has meant that the specificities of function are dulled to create ‘flexibility’. We create spaces that, in order to please multiple functional purposes, end up serving none of them well. We lose the capability to build spaces that serve specific functions. The functions they do support are often blurred by the lowest common denominator of general-purpose teaching spaces, designed to be discipline agnostic to enable maximum utilisation.

I will be controversial here and argue that we design spaces with the teaching we experienced as students, either front-of-mind or sub-consciously, reinforcing the front to back dynamic and broadcast functionality. We also design spaces with (quite legitimate) considerations other than pedagogical function including cleaning, commercial use, timetabling, longevity, affordability, staff space requirements (often locating them on lower floors or in windowless basements) and institutional reputation.

Changing the function in connected learning spaces means rethinking what can happen in a space. It takes different perspectives into the design that reimagine how activity leads to learning. In spaces I have been involved we have considered input from performance or creative arts design, from urban planning, from co-working spaces and from homes and offices, rethinking how study, group work, information engagement and connection making can happen in a teaching space. A room with rows of tables and chairs facing a giant teaching podium locks in function. The deployment of technology and furniture, spatial design (such as rethinking where the centre of the room should be), what does it mean to sit or stand in the space and where does the sound, light, smell, and vision come from and go to (environment) are critical to shaping how the dynamics will be created.

3. Change the relationships

University teaching and learning spaces are functionally determined by the designer. Students are not encouraged to leave their mark on the space, resetting it for the next group as if they had never been there. Connected spaces change the relationship students have their rooms. One of the outcomes of the existential shifts caused by the pandemic is that platforms like Zoom afford students so much more agency of how they customise and seek comfort and safety in their spaces. They can control how they seen, how they are heard, how they arrange the room, how they are identified and addressed (to varying degrees clearly).

People using connected spaces need to be develop and foster heterogeneous relationships with the space, where they can feel comfortable to act, behave and learn in ways and states they feel safe and that are different to the ways other build those relationships. Traditional teaching puts the teacher behind the fourth wall and ask the ‘audience’ to act in the ways an audience should react; reception, contemplation, appreciation. To act in other ways in those structures might be seen as disruptive. A connected space embraces disruption as a positive and shifts the student from audience to being multi-behavioural participants, changing the expectations of behaviour to engagement, learning, mutual benefit.

A case in practice

The London School of Economics and Political Science have a campus in the centre of London between the Strand and the Thames, surrounded by the legal community, the financial heart of the City of London and the former home of the UK press (Fleet Street). In 2015, they started on a project to redesign the centre of the campus with a signature building that created a focal point for students and changed the dynamics, functions, and relationships through space. The Centre Buildings project designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners was completed in 2019 and won a National and London Royal Institute of British Architects Award. I was part of the team that designed the teaching spaces amongst many other fine colleagues (many of whom you can see in this video about the building).

Learning spaces

The ground floor of the building is a large, open learning space, filled with light and colour. It is the space in the building where students can congregate. In the design meetings we talked a lot about how students needed to own the space, feel comfortable and want to be there in whatever capacity or activity they needed to engage in. These were spaces provided for students, they were spaces owned by students. One of the key design principles we came up with was the idea that this long space shouldn’t be flat, nor should it try and be everything to everyone singularly. We took the idea from thinking about how a village square might work, with low and quiet places, snaking off from the busy, vibrant centre. Through the use of furniture, the space goes from the loud, collaborative, vibrant spaces as students enter and then, the further they move away from the door, furniture heights increase, and the type of activity moves to more contemplative, analytical and concentrated.

The Guardian in reviewing the building describes this space and its connection to the rest of the centre buildings as ‘‘…a sort of studious and cleaned-up Naples, a unique multi-storey fusion of civic and academic space. It’s a hive, an anthill, a rookery… insert your zoological metaphor here’.

Figure 2: Teaching space at the Centre Buildings, London School of Economics (UK)

The LSE Lecture Theatre

This lecture theatre (which holds around 100 people was designed to transform the dynamics, functions, and relationships in a teaching space. Collectively informed by an amazing collaboration process between academic, architectural and student voices, the LSE Lecture Theatre moves the student from audience to participant, proactively engaging them in debate or discursive activities like they would do in a parliament, allowing for conversation across and through the room. For me, the biggest dynamic change is the fact that, instead of the traditional eyes forward of most lecture theatres, the low tier and banked seating on each side mean that students can look at each other, as well as being able to see the teacher in the middle runway.

This was a small change to a lecture theatre that has shifted the dynamics and the relationships in the space. Every wall is coated in writable surfaces which ferment collaboration and technology ensures where focus and interactivity are required, everyone can be seen and heard.

Figure 3: Teaching space at the LSE Lecture Theatre, Centre Buildings, London School of Economics (UK)

Conclusion

There is no ‘one way’ to design connected learning spaces. Here at the University of Sydney Business School we are designing spaces that can be delivered at scale and leverage the dynamics, functions, and relationships from the intimacy of small groups and the inspiration of the crowd at scale, in a single session. We are designing teaching spaces that enable new and exciting pedagogical functions over and above the deliver content/groupwork/report functions that are the bedrock of the lecture/tutorial model. This is not an easy challenge; spaces are expensive and the considerations that limit this kind of innovation significant and sometimes quite intractable. At the Business School we are confident that with the right spaces, aligned with a purposeful design of teaching and learning we can deliver on our ambitions to transform the experiences and connected lives of our students – and we will share our work here first! Stay tuned.

Image: Li Zhang on Unsplash

Published by Peter Bryant

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

One thought on “Making space for connected learning: an ecosystem approach to designing teaching spaces in higher education part 2

  1. Tom Worthington – Canberra – An educational technology consultant, Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, and part time university lecturer.
    Tom Worthington says:

    I spent several years investigating weird and wonderful teaching spaces around the world. These had rooms, and desks in strange shapes, with all sorts of technology built in. In the end I decided that simple rectangular rooms, with rectangular desks on wheels were best, with the tech built into the walls. I asked ANU for that, and they built the Marie Reay Teaching Centre, with rooms having flat floors, tables on wheels, and tech built into the walls. It works well.

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