Learning environments revisited?

Yesterday I attended a lecture in the University of Loughborough’s Centenary series. It was given by Prof Peter Jamieson from University of Melbourne.

His basic thesis was that he could design or repurpose lecture theatres and hence impact on formal and informal learning within the university environment. He said that flexibility results in mediocrity, and it’s important to identify 2 main purposes and only design for them (probably good advice for all designs?). He reminded us there are 3 main interactions: learner to content; learner to tutor; learner to learner. This is the same as online!

The illustrations Professor Jamieson showed were of his designs that he said ‘worked’ – mainly circular desks with personal but wireless networked computers. He said it’s best not to have dangling wires actually on the tables, so presumably the laptop were charged elsewhere. He showed the use of glass over windows as screens for writing on and emphasized the importance of plenty of surface space. I thought those were good ideas. He appeared to use several different flooring layers in the room and I wondered about students with limited mobility and Elf and Safety issues but didn’t have the chance to ask. He also showed the uses of space that he said were less impactful on learning- particularly where students were sitting close to a presentational screen. The main problem he admitted to was where the chairs were too comfortable and the students used them as sleeping places.

It was interesting, and I’m sure all of us would welcome better spaces to work in. It was notable that in response to a question, Prof Jamieson responded that academics saw the value once they had been immersed in the changed rooms – just what we say about Second Life! OK: what exactly changes when you redesign a physical room? Do we need to change our pedagogy before or after?

I also visited the Active Learning Centre at the University of Liverpool and saw great big flexible spaces for engineering students – a concept of marrying 21st Century technology in an old style university building, open spaces, wide and tall, and surfaces for creative group work with smaller personal ‘lockers’ doubling as seats. Nice. And obviously productive for all.

But I was left thinking- is that it? Does this really change anything fundamentally. Should it?

If we want to be transformational, what about the convergence of online and physical spaces; what about the use of outside spaces, of learning everywhere and anytime, of inspiring all the senses, of flattening structures (physical and organisational), of moving whilst learning, of accessing and building on resources collectively?

Gilly Salmon

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