Spaces for engagement

Diagram showing the different aspects of our work through the use of an iceberg metaphor. The ontological development is hidden and presents the greatest challenge.This post continues our review of Spaces for Learning development.

While much of our work on spaces for learning involves operational matters through collaboration with colleagues in directorates, our rationale for developing the University’s learning spaces is both pedagogical and ontological. This means that often, what is overt (e.g. a room, a system etc) is only the tip of the iceberg. The Spaces for Learning Special Interest Group understands that there is a three-way relationship involving learning space as it is conceived and operated, learning space as it is used formally and informally for teaching and learning, and learning space as it is experienced. This is represented in the metaphor of the Learning Spaces Iceberg which shows how the critical experience of being at university is often hidden in the icy depths.

From a development perspective, we have to learn about this three-way relationship and bring that knowledge to the enhancement of the physical and digital infrastructure and its operation.

This year our pedagogical focus has been to take ideas associated with student-centred active learning, in particular the investments we have made to develop SCALE UP facilities, to see how good space can support academic practice in stimulating and supporting student engagement and learning. What has been most interesting has been the relationship of technology to the active learning classroom. While the incorporation of digital LED repeater screens around active learning classrooms may catch the eye, much of our attention this year has been on the incorporation of whiteboards. ‘Whiteboarding‘ involves student groups think-writing and think-drawing. Whiteboards are a versatile technology with many pedagogic applications. This year we have gone as far as to strip one classroom of all of its furniture to create a whiteboarding space. We are looking for people this year to continue to experiment with us on ‘stand up pedagogy’ in which students work in small groups to problem find and problem solve together or work visually in innumerable ways.

It is the ontological focus that is, arguably, the most important aspect of our work. It concerns the role of physical-digital space in fostering a sense of student belonging and becoming. The relationship of this work to the strategic priorities of retention and employability is obvious. By considering the students’ lived experience of space it becomes clear that many of our students have nowhere they think of as home when they are on campus. While the built quality of our spaces is high, like other universities, we have much to learn about accommodating our students when they are out of class. This is less about the material space and more about how spaces are experienced. A range of work connects to this interest including continued learning from Maths where Jeff Waldock and the Maths group conceived a thoroughly integrated approach to accommodating the academic team in proximity to non-formal and formal learning spaces. A small piece of work is being conceived in this area now to explore the ‘equivalence of place’, looking at physically and digitally situated learners.

The Beacon Project run by Kieran McDonald and Ian Glover in the IoA’s refurbished post office continues to open the eyes of visitors who see how the taught experience, the self-directed social experience, and the digitally connected experience can be brought together through simple blutooth beacon technology located in the physical space. The installation, as with other learning space developments, makes a strong statement to the users of the space about the holistic nature of learning and space.

We have seen the learning space walk method develop into the #Twalk method in recent months. Walking and learning activities are happening around the university (and the toolkit will report on this shortly – please share your own experiences), however, several experiments have now been successfully conducted to connect walking groups (locally and globally) using the structure of social media tweetchats. Tweetchats work by using a common hashtag to support a conversation lasting an hour organised around five themed questions. By merging the structured walk with the structured tweetchat, invigorating conversations can take place inspired by the sharing of ideas and photographs or videos made while walking. This is ideal for academic CPD activities but it is also an obvious contender for supporting student inductions and field work.

We have begun to conduct research this year into developing the concept of ‘studio for all’ in which the principles of studio-based learning are considered in the contexts of non-studio disciplines as a way to review settings for formal engagement that foster student belonging and agency. Student agency is a key dimension of ongoing work on belonging and becoming being evident in cross-sector work around placemaking.

Finally, we continue to work with other universities in the region through the Yorkshire Universities Student Engagement Network to explore how students can become more influential in the design and delivery of learning spaces. The group is producing an online booklet drawing upon case studies. Again, we invite you to add to the contributions we have received from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam.

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