On the 11th the Essex Business School hosted a conference exploring the relationship between spaces (of any variety) and learning. The event really made me question the way that spaces, in all their forms, directly and indirectly influence our thinking and behaviour. At one time or another all of us have been made aware of the impact classrooms have on our ability to learn. Noise, size, temperature, windows and lighting can all help or hinder our attempts us to function at our best capacity. As the keynote speaker, Marty Jacobs, noted in his talk, we tend to notice how a space is designed once it interferes with our intentions – the lack of acoustics in a lecture theatre that muffles a speaker’s voice or the rows of desks in a classroom that forces us to swivel around to talk to the person behind us.
With the advent of the digital age more and more learning is occurring in an online context as opposed to a physical environment. Dr Lisa Smith is a founding editor of the online ‘The Recipes Project’, and she works as a lecturer here at Essex. Last year she organised a virtual conference where participants were able to contribute via social media, using videos and posts to join conversations. As Dr Smith pointed out in her talk, these spaces have a significant impact on determining whether or not people are able to attend. A lack of time, adequate travel arrangements, accommodation or childcare can all prevent interested individuals from occupying a given space together at a particular time. In this sense, creating online spaces has profound implications for broadening inclusivity and accessibility and can even produce a shift in traditional power dynamics. Students are able to lead online discussions, contributors are no longer necessarily restricted to a set amount of time and members of the public are able to communicate with academics.
Learning spaces are also influenced by trends in higher education. Dr Sam Elkington from the Higher Education Academy pointed out the shift in focus away from spaces that encourage individual styles of learning to places that encourage collaboration, from passive to more active styles and from the traditional to the interactive or technologically enriched. I can think of various examples that demonstrate the ways that learning spaces influence how a subject is taught. From the large rooms in the library at our Southend campus where students can write on the walls to the online quizzes included as part of our information literacy sessions, how and where students learn is moving towards the digital, the adaptable, the connected and the user-centric. It’s very interesting to consider how the goals, values and aspirations of educational organisations shape the environments within which students learn.