Learning Spaces

In my last blog, I talked about the lecture theatre. It is a poor learning space – but a brilliant lecture space. It isn’t that you can’t learn in a lecture, it is just that better learning happens in other places.

Recent research points to social learning as being the primary driving force behind most of our learning. Communities of practice are pervasive in our lives, and are primarily responsible for the vast majority of the learning that we do. My interest in music is a massive motivator for learning – far greater than a grade. Outside of the area of primary research, almost all learning is reliant on the communication of ideas, knowledge, information, understanding or whatever you want to call it. This puts learning clearly in a social context. In the past, the social interaction was focused on the lecturer presenting and the student listening. Current pedagogic approaches centre on active and collaborative learning. Learning with others through discussion and reasoned argument. An approach marginalised in lecture-centric traditions.

In my last blog, I said that I thought that 2/3 or more of the lecturers would opt for a lecture-centric approach. However, that leaves maybe a third of HE teachers wanting something different. Wanting to explore how to foster active and collaborative learning in their teaching. That may not seem like a lot, but I have seen this in our own department (The School of Psychology at Bangor University).

Our teaching is about 70% lecture centric. That means, in a department our size (40+ core academic members of staff) that there are 12 – 14 members of staff who would like to explore other options. These other options rely heavily on flexible teaching spaces, and we simply do not have enough. I am not teaching any tutorial classes this year, but both last year and the year before, I was scheduled to teach a small tutorial group (20 students) in lecture theatres – because there was no other space available.

Have you ever tried to teach a tutorial in a lecture theatre? The space screams out to the students to sit quietly and listen. I would say that not ideal is being generous – it was not even adequate.

In our building, we have a space devoted to student group work. We call it our cluster space. It looks like this:

It is based on the computer group work spaces at the USITE/Crerar Computing Cluster and Cybercafé in the University of Chicago. Only ours were the budget model. We got large tables (up to 10 seated comfortably) and put a computer on the end with a big screen. We then used room dividers to delineate the spaces. There is a fair amount of open space in the room, and scheduled tutorial teaching has been encroaching on the resource. Other teaching that requires the tables and computers to be moved out has also been increasing. Last month, to the dismay of a half a dozen staff members, we made the decision that the space was to be prioritised for students and student group work (the heavily used original purpose of the space). The disappointed lecturers will have to look elsewhere for flexible learning spaces to use with their students.

Clearly, there is a demand for this kind of space. Space that is flexibly equipped with wireless access, tables, chairs, dividers, and presentation equipment. Rooms of a variety of sizes that will accommodate 15, 30, 50 or 100 students. This is the kind of learning space that good teachers want, and this is the kind of learning space that appears to be in short supply. This is the kind of space that we not only need, but that I would hope will be increasingly demanded in the future.

We have a new building project going on at the University, and I hope that we end up with 10 or 15 rooms made for learning. What I am afraid we will be getting is a few more rooms made for teaching.


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