Spaces in Learning a challenge for our University (and others)

LTA conference activities
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?

Pete Radcliff

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 🙂

4 thoughts on “Spaces in Learning a challenge for our University (and others)

  1. It’s good to see this follow up from the conference.

    E-learning materials may be passive or active, and dull or exciting. All e-learning interactions that we produce could have the abilility to be both active and exciting – we have the technology and the skills.

    E-learning interactions also have the ability to present the same concept in multiple ways. Presenting a concept in more than one way means that a higher proportion of students are likely to remember it, and understand it. Of course, there is an increased development cost, but if the result is greater student satisfaction and a higher rate of achievement then maybe that is worth the cost.

    I always say that anything can be achieved with e-learning, and that’s a good attitude to have towards it.


  2. I thoought that much of what Colin said was interesting and important in terms of learning spaces in the physical sense.However I did not share his views in regard to elearning. Whilst people may expect me to say this as my main work is elearning I think there are good reasons to think more carefully about his opinion that elearning is linear and therefore “rubbish”.

    Several points need to be made here including:-

    -Colin used the work of Charles Darwin to illustrate his thinking. Clearly Darwin spent much of his time reflecting, walking, writing, talking about his theories. His theories are comprehensive extensive and world changing – if I was to stand up and say Darwin is “rubbish” I hope that as I work within an academic institution that someone would respond by saying – what arguments, expeiences, evidence are you using to support your argument that Darwin is rubbish?

    – Having worked on elearning for some 8 years or so I do not have a sense of the expereince being linear.I have found that I have developed a very important relationship and learning expereince with students and staff that I work with on online modules. For example:

    – because I am not personally skilled in rapid thinking and processing there have been times when someone has posted a question or comment on the discussion board or on an email to me or in a telephone conversation and I have reflected on it on the way home in the car or when I am doing my ironing or reading a journal article on the train. This reflection has then lead me to a new understanding, insight or connection that I have then had the opportunity to share with students via the discussion board or through developing course materials or citing an article which then extends mine and hopefully other people’s understanding.

    – Often student do contact me and share their concerns, issues hopes with me – and that also leads to them wanting to study again with UoD. They feel they have a genuine connection with me and the university not with a computer.

    In fact recently I have made a point of sending all students a 5 minute vidoe that I prodice and upload on to You tube telling them that I am a real person not a computer and I would love them to join me in discussion debate etc

    Some do respond and we therefore continue to forge and develop our relationship of sharing and developing knowledge

    Some also choose not to – but this is a choice.I myself am a graduate from the OU it was only much later when I attended a conventional university. What the OU offered was a chance for me to get on with my studies whilst working more than full time in a professional role and not having the added dimmension and pressure of having to engage within a community of learning that often. (I did enjoy summer schools) but at that time I needed the simplicity of engaging with the materials.
    I think many people I have worked with over the years also feel that is where they are – the choice of wanting and being an independent learner is just as valid as being a learner that needs a stronger physical connection with their lecturers and fellow students.

    Later when I went to a conventional university I did engage with the process of being part of a learning community in a more conventional sense – and indeed I was a programme representative – I learned a great deal from this too – but just as there were times with the OU where I felt isolated there were times at the conventioanl university when I felt the burden of the learning community and politics of the university overshadowed my ability to learn the subject material

    In terms of elearning being linear – I feel that this may have been the case in the past – but this is rapidly changing as a result of tecnological innovations I feel empowered and inspired to think and work more creatively than I have ever done. for example at the moment I am working on

    – the best ways to initiate debate with students in an asynchronous way because people engage with the modules at different times of the day/night/week/weekend. One way may be to help students to learn to create their own short videos to share with each other using You tube that they can post on the module discussion forum and that we can all join in and discuss.

    – the work they currently produce is full of ideas, theories, expereinces both personal and professional that reflect their everyday working and home life – this is far from being dry academic assignments with no depth or relevance to real life. When I mark these I really feel priviledge to have the opportunity to learn from them when they talk about how their own cutural influences affect the way they think, behave and work.

    I would like to thank Colin for inspiring me to become so passionate and animated to the point where I felt galvanised into responding when I have so much work I don’t know where to turn. For me that is what learning is about and that is what being a good lecturer teacher student is about!

    Finally it has been possible because of this technology to reflect, construct and share my views – because yesterday there was insufficient time at the event to share them with Colin or others and also because it sometimes takes my time to assimilate and accomodate my thinking -(to employ Piaget’s conceptes of the process of learning).

  3. Yes, Wendy I agree. I could agree with Colin Beard as he spoke because he, as I took it, was speaking against bad use of computers and it was the nature of computer-usage that he was talking about. I can’t remember him using the term ‘Internet’.
    But the danger is that some people can then recoil from any use of computers and particularly the Internet and most importantly as you make reference to, its communicative capabilities.
    A question – what happened to the term ICT – I remember partly as emailing technology came in, there was an attempt to rename IT – ICT. We then drifted back to IT – Why?
    It was also interesting in the final plenary session – a panel of recently graduated students from the University’s undisputably excellent History programme were asked questions about their experience.
    Of those who were asked about what they felt about TEL – all who responded were critical. “I don’t want to lose the richness of the educational relationship with my tutor” would be a fair paraphrasing.
    They all assumed eLearning necessarily meant isolation and poor communication.
    All part of the mindset we need to change.

  4. Pingback: The impact of technologies on learning, environments and us. « Learning about e-learning

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