Professor Colin Beard of Sheffield Hallam University gave an interesting talk on Space, transformation and troublesome knowledge in physical and virtual learning environments at the University’s LTA conference in Buxton today.
Colin, with his background in zoology and interest in Darwinian ideas, appealed to the audience to reflect on the learning process: to recognise that our language of learning, e.g. grasping concepts, higher levels of skills etc., is full of physical metaphors that show that the cognitive elements of learning come from wider experiential/ sensory images and actions. And that if we are to make the best of physical learning spaces, learning needs to be repositioned in that feeling, seeing, touching world.
He stressed that creativity is spatially dependent. People don’t think creatively in their offices but often in places more conducive to creative thought. And the same holds for our students. The physical environment of most classrooms militates against the physical actions that are part of building their knowledge.
In many ways, Colin was asserting ideas of a physical constructivism that is often overlooked. I know in my earlier experience as a Maths teacher the physical nature of quantities was often left too soon. Symbolic arithmetic and algebraic manipulations were often made impossible because the physicality of the world out of which mathematic laws are abstracted , was insufficiently felt.
So I wouldn’t disagree with much he said. But what are the issues for those of us at the University of Derby.
The University has furnished one room at its Kedleston site with equipment and furniture conducive to innovative teaching practice. Learning technologists, Ben Sams and Charlie Davis, have supported it over the first semester of its use. I imagine they will soon be blogging here on some of the issues raised in this pilot usage.
But there were a number of questions that Prof Beard triggered in my mind, or maybe I should say my physical brain.
Firstly, for many years we, or I at least, have been stressing the educational opportunities of the Internet. In that it liberates us from the constraints of our movement and communication within physical 3D space.
We don’t, or shouldn’t, have to travel to the British Library to access documents and books we need.
Our communities, learning or social, don’t have to be restricted by local geography. Online communication is limited. Video conference-type technologies like Wimba Classroom don’t have the physical richness of immediate physical conversations with the body language gestures and possibilities for physical activities.We need to be aware that a talking head is not the equivalent of a person’s communicative physicality.
We may not yet be able to smell the giraffe and augmented reality has quite a way to go. But improvements are developing quickly in building virtual equivalent of a rich array of practical activities – we hope over the next year to more effectively share and build virtual images and objects.
Secondly, there are obvious cost issues in major projects of classroom refurbishments. But there are opportunities. University of Derby Buxton, where the conference is held is built on the site of the old Devonshire Hospital and before that was a massive stable and circus for horses. It has unbelievably awkward rooms to teach in, with rooms that are almost triangular in nature. Or should I say awkward to teach in a conventional way in rectangular rooms. Couldn’t these strangely shaped rooms be more appropriately used for the sort of teaching that has no necessary centre? What if there was not one big projection screen difficult for all to see, but multiple smaller ones; and if all the walls could be made teaching and interactive areas: what innovative teaching styles might result?
Finally, as learning technologists whose major focus has so far been on web technologies, we are always being asked to give examples or to provide part-baked templates of web materials and activities. Given that there is little time for the creativity that Prof Beard called for, can we develop templates for active, experiential, kinesthetic learning that people can take from and run with.
Digital technologies are easily shareable (or should be). Progress has been slow in the sharing of digital learning resources, the learning object economy as it used to be called, or open educational resources as they are usually referred to now. Can we find a useful way of sharing our interactive physical learning designs. Anyone out there with an answer?
My colleagues from LEI’s video team were interviewing colleagues on the day about their views about technology and learning and extracted soundbite comments for their video shown here. We thought it might be of interest. And yes, they mispelt my name and yes again, I forgive them 🙂