Supporting learning in unexpected spaces.


I’m in the business of assisting academics and teachers to electronically develop their courses. I work alongside them and systematically we design learning experiences. The ideas that I tout are often responsible for reshaping or traversing classroom walls. By installing new technologies into existing classrooms or introducing new virtual environments, I may be transforming traditional teaching practices. While it’s unlikely that any of my technological interventions will cause the university to dispense with the traditional classroom, it is likely that my work will allow academics and students to better engage with each other in the educational process.

Recently we’ve been asked to give some thought to the development of a new learning space (see the photo). While researching the possibilities I’ve wondered whether we are missing a large learning opportunity. All of our attention is focused on real and virtual classrooms and we often neglect the space between the lecture theater and the LMS. Attention, I think, needs to be given to unacknowledged learning and teaching places. Around the water cooler, between computer terminals, seated in the cafetaria, texting on mobile phones, waiting on strategically placed benches, posted on signboards, relaxing in a residence hall etc. If we claim to know how people learn and have ideas on how to help them learn better, then we should also be investigating the interesting and unexpected situations that students and faculty lurk around in. Learning designers need to think between the corridors and computers, and ask how can these spaces be used to support learning.

When data projectors were installed in classrooms, these new fangled slide projector re-framed the way that visual information (a graph, chart, diagram, poster etc) was accessed and distributed. A teacher with a data projector did not need to find in a book, photocopy the diagram and distribute it to the class. At a mouse click, the educator could open a series of images that illustrated the concept and immediately project those image for students. Students were then at liberty to retrieve the illustration, electronically.
Or when journals stopped being printed and distributed digitally, librarians found (for the first time) that they didn’t need to find more shelf space. Their users were now needing space and place to discover information resources, engage in peer to peer learning and explore new ideas within networked group. Libraries responded by creating Information Commons, where students and faculty can make sense of what they were reading.
Before learning went virtual, a teacher’s had to hand around a class register and match submitted assignments to student numbers to ensure lecture attendance and assignment submission. Now the grade book within the LMS automatically performs this function.

When technologies were introduced in a classroom or library or the virtual classroom, new functionalities were acquired and traditional practices were reshaped. Now, as it becomes the norm for students to own their mobile, wireless, connected computing devices and for the university to offer wireless access, we must ask, what new functionalities will be a result of this these technological innovations

The first implication is that real time communication between students and faculty will be possible. Where discussions and clarification took place either in the lecture / tutorial / virtual room, teachers and students that use networked digital devices can conduct their teaching and learning seamlessly across both physical and virtual spaces, synchronously and asynchronously.

A second implication is that we may come to re-appreciate the importance of ‘physical situatedness’ for community and collaboration. Although the concept of an alternate constantly connected virtual learning space has gained some traction, the novelty value of being online is wearing thin. Students will always want to explore new learning opportunities that lie beyond the confines of the physical classroom. But the don’t necessarily want to do it behind a computer.

The third implication is that learning designers also need to find a way to support the creation of informal learning space between the virtual world and the classroom place.

Computer networks may have opened the world’s knowledge bases, enhanced our storage capacity and granted unexpected access to scholars and their work. The scope of data, information and expertise available will however not by itself enrich our learning landscapes. Neither will new real time functionalities within available technologies necessarily make a big difference to practice. Although it may be possible for questions about content to be posed within the lecture theatre, within the virtual learning environment or between these spaces, the instructional designer needs to insert themselves into the places where these clarifications questions are being made. Once we understand what’s happening there, then we may discover interesting ways to support students learning in these inbetween spaces. This information can help focus our planning discussions as we decide how to go about designing new spaces that can support the curriculum.

If universities are only seeing the installations of wireless access and static free carpets as another round of technological interventions, we won’t be able to assist teachers teach and students learn best in the inbetween places. If our attention is focused only between the real and virtual classrooms then it’s likely that we’ll fail in our attempt to use these new spaces constructively. Learning designers have used the functionalities of emerging technology to create new practices in the classroom, in libraries and the virtual world. We also need to articulate a vision for real time networked technologies that works in tandem to support our institutions overall teaching and learning objectives. Yes, focus on the virtual and face to face classrooms but don’t forget about the inbetween spaces and ask how you can support students freedom to engage in self-directed and independent learning outside the formally planned and tutor-directed activities.

Different thinking

Kevin Durheim, Professor at the School of Psychology, and his student conference team have put the 2008 student conference online, and  it has a few differences.

The Team

From left: Jared Forbes, Thembelihle Zuma, Janine Upton & Farina Karim.

As we planned this web site, the team and I decided (as one of the conference goals), to try and get 15 conversations started. With Kevin’s support, we set up two data projectors in each room (one for the speaker, and one for the “conversations”) and asked conference delegates to “comment”. By the end of the conference, we had 151 comments for the 31 conference papers that were presented. Highest number of posts – 20 for a presentation. Almost 5 comments per paper. I think that we achieved our aim. Hopefully the thoughts that were stimulated at the conference might continue – independently on the blogs.