Why we need frameworks to connect learning design and learning spaces.
Dr Nick Mount, Digital Learning Director, University of Nottingham.
Over the last three decades the UK Higher Education sector has been through a period of unprecedented growth. The demand for new learning spaces in which to teach increasing student numbers has seen significant investment in new teaching and learning buildings. These investments will influence the teaching and learning practices of academics and students for decades to come. So, it is unsurprising that universities recognise the need to deliver spaces that are designed and equipped to meet the expectations and needs of their ‘Generation Z’ learners. This learner is more diverse and open than ever before, seeks to make a difference in the world, expects to collaborate and solve problems and lives technology. They are seeking deeper and more flexible learning experiences that emphasise connectivism over individualism. As a result, new learning spaces are emphasising flexibility in the ways that the space can be used (e.g. providing seating that can be rapidly reconfigured from face-to-the-front to collaborative modes). They also have more digital tools and technologies embedded in them in order to facilitate diversification of the models and modes of teaching and learning that can be accommodated (e.g. the integration of interactive and collaborative digital technologies to facilitate more active or problem-based learning).
But there is a potential problem: the investment itself does not guarantee a return. The provision of teaching and learning spaces in which innovative teaching and learning can happen does not mean that it will. A key reason for this is the fact that a move towards more innovative and flexible learning spaces is not neutral – it precipitates strong reactions. Staff and students may lack certain digital or pedagogic literacies essential to maximising the benefits of the learning space and be anxious engaging with the space. They may be sceptical of the value of integrating ‘unproven’ digital tools and technologies into the classroom and may not agree with implicit assumptions made between collaboration and connectedness and enhanced learning outcomes. It should be no surprise then that some academics may not be willing to develop, or not know how to embrace the innovative, collaborative and digitally enabled practices that the new spaces promote. Similarly, some students may lack personal and technical competencies required to attain enhanced outcomes from a diversified and increasingly collaborative and digital teaching and learning experience.
It also does not mean that it necessarily should. There is no guarantee that innovative learning spaces will deliver enhanced learning outcomes per se. Good teaching practices emphasise the fundamental importance of learning activity design that meets the needs of learners – recognising and accommodating their different capacities and capabilities and preferences (note that the needs of learners may be different to their expectations). From this perspective, the learning space, and the technologies within it, are enablers of learning. They are subservient to, and should be able to meet and respond to, the demands of good teaching and learning design. If there is a mismatch between the design of the learning space and the design of the activities that need to happen in it, the learning space can quickly become a barrier to effective learning.
So, how might these potential issues be resolved?
It would seem self-evident that improved communication and collaboration between stakeholders (the learning space designers, estates managers, academics and students) is the key. Yet, this can be difficult to achieve. Too often, the objective of creating spaces that accommodate the demands of different learning designs can become lost in the difficulties of communicating and agreeing what this means. The differences in the knowledges, skills and experiences of the stakeholders can make it difficult for them to coalesce around a shared vocabulary and understanding of how teaching and learning design and practice can best interface with learning spaces. This can make it impossible to determine how the two might complement each other to deliver the greatest learning outcome benefits at an acceptable cost. To these ends, a pedagogic framework that can relate the design of learning spaces to the activities that will happen in them in a manner that is intuitive and easily understood by all stakeholders would be helpful.
One framework with potential is the ‘conversational framework’ developed by Diana Lauriallard. This framework is founded on evidence that there are only six fundamental types of activity through which learning happens within a higher education setting:
i. Acquisition – where the learner is passive and acquires knowledge from others;
ii. Inquiry – the learner independently searches for and answers questions posed by others;
iii. Discussion – the learner engages with others to exchange and challenge ideas and assertions;
iv. Collaboration – the learner works with others to generate shared products;
v. Practice – the learner engages in a process of action, feedback, reflection and revision to work towards a goal;
vi. Production – the learner is required to generate concrete products to meet the requirements of others.
The six activity types are simple and intuitive – and potentially useful in the context of learning space design. They provide a convenient and meaningful way of relating different learning activities to the elements of learning space design that will ensure that spaces are appropriate. For example, a lecture centres on acquisition. It requires a learning space who’s designed maximises the effectiveness by which information can be transmitted from a teacher to student. Learning space designs featuring tiered seating and ‘from-the-front’ technologies may be appropriate. By contrast, a seminar demands a space that is configured and equipped to encourage and maximise opportunities for discussions between individuals and groups. Clustered seating and technologies suited to the sharing of ideas and content are likely to be required. Of course, many university classes require spaces that can support more than one type of learning activity. An ‘active’ lecture may demand learning space designs that can be quickly reconfigured to support discussion and collaboration as well as acquisition.
Such frameworks also encourage academics and students to rethink their teaching and learning practices. For example, knowing that an institution is investing in learning spaces that are specifically designed to facilitate discussion or collaboration-based learning activities provides strong incentives for academics to access support and develop their teaching so that it can benefit from the new opportunities that the learning spaces will present.
Whilst frameworks such as the conversational framework are not holistic solutions for learning space design, they do offer a simple and useful means by which all stakeholders can communicate their needs and expectations of a learning space in a way that is pedagogically referenced. They encourage explicit connections to be made between pedagogy and the infrastructure that is meant to support it – better aligning estates with the needs of academic staff and students. They offer a means by which different classes could be associated with and timetabled into learning spaces that are most appropriate for the types of learning activities they use. They provide mechanism for auditing teaching and learning estates from a pedagogical rather than architectural perspective and encourage the identification of gaps in learning space provision. And, as the popularity of different learning activities changes, such frameworks offer a simple basis for prioritising the types of new learning spaces that should be invested in.
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