Universal design and #activelearning

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@derstudi

Following on from the previous post on Decolonising the active curriculum, this post looks more closely at some of the seven principles of universal design to explore how they can inform the active learning space – its pedagogy and physical-digital context.

Background and further links to universal design can be found in this useful Wikipedia article.

Note, the principles set out here are not specific to teaching and learning, but address usable design in general. I consider them in terms of their pedagogic use however.

I present each of the seven principles and its key points followed by a brief reflective commentary on active learning design.

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

Principle 1: Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  • It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety are equally available to all users.
  • The design is appealing to all users.

Active learning commentary

Universality means we respond to either individuals or the whole group and we avoid categorising participants by any other extraneous typology. This means the academic can communicate expectations for the whole group more confidently, while recognising individuals will approach their learning according to their personal motivations, strengths and dispositions.

The learning environment should feel equitable and encourage peers to respond to each other as co-participants, not according to demographic biases. This reflects a professional ethos. This equitable basis is appealing to all users, if it can be enacted, because it preferences learning rather than irrelevant biases, assumptions and anxieties that can create barriers to learning.

Principle 2:  Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • It provides choice in methods of use.
  • It accommodates right or left handed access and use.
  • It facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision.
  • It provides adaptability to the user’s pace.

Active learning commentary

Active learning aims to promote learner self-direction, determination and autonomy. It should engage the learner through stimuli and should develop their sense of curiosity. The learner is an agent of their own learning, motivated as a navigator and negotiator to incrementally construct, reflect on, apply and make sense of their learning. This allows the learner to set and meet their own standards for excellent work, looking beyond extrinsic measures for quality.

Principle 3: Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  • It eliminates unnecessary complexity.
  • It is consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  • It accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • It arranges information consistent with its importance.
  • It provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Active learning commentary

The teacher’s role is to establish the learning context, set and clearly communicate tasks, and ensure the learning environment is rich, meaningful, challenging and full of feedback. Participants have the skills to confidently engage and access information and guidance as needed.

Principle 4: Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  • It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  • It provides adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  • It maximizes “legibility” of essential information.
  • It differentiates elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  • It provides compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Active learning commentary

While the learner assumes a navigator identity, the learner is clear about what is expected. The learner, in this respect, is scaffolded by information, signposting and other structures so that they can immerse themselves deeply in their topic and the task in hand.

Principle 5: Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  • It arranges elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
  • It provides warnings of hazards and errors.
  • It provides fail safe features.
  • It discourages unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

Active learning commentary

Active learning is challenging, and both motivates and stretches the learner. The goals the learner strives to attain are not always attainable but the act of learning involves meaningful activities or processes that deliver deep learning outcomes nevertheless. Failure in an active learning space can have great value if the learner uses unmet goals as a learning opportunity.

Activities, such as projects, require a methodological approach with frequent opportunities for reflection and feedback.

Principle 6: Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • It allows user to maintain a neutral body position
  • It uses reasonable operating forces.
  • It minimizes repetitive actions.
  • It minimizes sustained physical effort.

Active learning commentary

Active learning requires the learner to take a measured approach. While they are motivated, the learner should use and reflect on the strategies they use for undertaking activities effectively, being aware that their energy levels and the need to manage concurrent responsibilities.

Principle 7: Size and space for approach and use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

  • It provides a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  • It makes reaching to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  • It accommodates variations in hand and grip size.
  • It provides adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Active learning commentary

Active learning can be exhausting. Immersive learning environments can be mentally and physically demanding. Time and space for reflection and rest is needed to ensure learning happens and its implications for future application are considered.


The principles for universal design help the academic to design the effective active learning environment. The principles are useful for guiding any learner to engage effectively and realistically.

Posted in active learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Digital Placemaking, learner engagement, learning space, PhD, studio, studio-based learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Decolonising the active curriculum #activelearning


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This post considers the need to decolonise the active curriculum. It follows on from ideas considered in the previous post on embodiment which concluded that advocates and practitioners of active learning must look deeply at the meaning of being student-centred. We must look beyond the meaning of simply ensuring the learner is more active in the classroom, or even the idea of the student as a co-creator of knowledge, to understand ideas like personalisation, inclusivity, diversity, and decolonisation, as well as embodied experience.


Personalisation is accommodated in the active curriculum by designing for learner agency and the expectation that the student is the ultimate arbiter of their learning because only they understand where they have come from, where they are going, and how what they are doing today fits into their personal schema. I used to think designing for each individual student was logistically impossible, but then I realised that this idea of differentiated design for each student is not what personalised design is about. It can be helpful to have differentiation strategies, such as extension work or further support activities and resources for those who need them. However, I think personalisation mostly involves:

  1. Avoiding over-specifying tasks or, more positively, creating ill-defined activities in which the learner makes decisions to ‘customise’ their version of the activity. This is why projects work, even amongst groups, because the task requires a degree of creativity and design thinking.
  2. Creating space for reflecting in and on learning; in effect, using an experiential strategy. Such reflection accommodates metacognitive engagement involving the learner critically evaluating their response to stimuli.

Note, expectations for engaging in ill-defined activities must be clear to students. It is always important that students are clear about what they are expected to do. Rather, some task design parameters and what they choose to look at are left open for them to specify to make the task ‘their own’.

The implications of this are that learning designers should heed the stimuli or interventions they use. Pedagogic interventions sit on a continuum of broad (e.g. lectures, set literature) to personalised (e.g. an artefact selected, created or negotiated by the learner themselves).

In this sense, decolonisation is about allowing for self-direction by letting go of specification or control. It is about appreciating the value of using stimuli to reflect the breadth and depth of an idea by engaging the breadth and depth of the participants being engaged in the investigation.

Personalisation and decolonisation go hand-in-hand. They are positive design strategies that release the curriculum from its traditional hierarchical and colonial limitations. It also allows the colony, or learning community, to become self-governing. In a learning context, a decolonising ethos leads us to an expectation for learner autonomy, co-operation, peer learning, co-construction of knowledge through co-creation and contribution. Decolonisation is essentially a key dimension of student-centred and active learning philosophy.

Decolonisation is a term rightly associated with BAME, gender and ability, but its broader meaning leads the designer to think about universal design. The challenge for the learning designer, facilitator or orchestrator is to create stimuli that become catalysts for a vibrant and diverse colony, empowering individuals and the social networks within which they belong.

Decolonisation provides a clear rationale for active learning, whether we are using a research-informed learning strategy or more of a problem-based and experiential approach. In active learning, the learner can be understood as a contributor and co-creator and, if nothing else, the effective teacher has access to a huge intellectual resource embodied in the experiences and ways of thinking available to the classroom.


Diversity partly concerns the social potential present with any group of people: the ‘2+2=5’ and ‘all for one and one for all’ factors. However, in my experience of educational discourse, diversity tends to surface as being a problem to do with individuals – a deficit discourse. No, diversity brings social benefits in ways that empower individuals. All individuals. Again, the design of ill-formed problems allows individual students to find learning purchase (i.e. self-direction) in order that they develop diverse, complementary valid responses of benefit to all.

This is why diversity must not be read as a deficit discourse. Diversity is necessary and helpful to active learning. It usefully explains ideas such as learning ecologies and student-centredness. A student-centred learning environment is one that accommodates and values the potential of each and every student, and the value of each student to their peer learning community.


The terms inclusivity and diversity are often used together as though they mean the same thing. Inclusivity tends to emphasise providing access to learning and being able to respond to student needs. A diversity discourse, on the other hand, tends to value difference for what it offers the learning environment.

The tacit and the hidden curriculum in plain sight

If we are to consider the active curriculum as one that is rich in its diversity, we need to pay particular attention to our unconscious bias as orchestrators and contributing participants to the learning environment. We must be sensitive to the unintended messages that may inadvertently undermine our best intentions. We must do our best to make visible and examine the hidden curriculum – those lessons that are learnt by students “…which are not in themselves overtly included in organizational arrangements and the formal curriculum ‘or even in the consciousness’ of those responsible for them (Kelly 1982:8).

From a diversity perspective, this sensitivity is less to do with specific ‘types’ of students (e.g. BAME as a ‘type’ as communicated by Kingston University drama students in a recent performance at our recent Course Leaders Conference), and more to do with common decency and equity as a principle for universal design (it avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users).


An active learning space is one in which the locus of control is distributed amongst its participants. The teacher’s role is to design stimuli which enable all students to contribute to the co-creation of knowledge in a respectful, trustful and diverse learning environment.


Kelly, A. V. (1982). The curriculum: Theory and practice. London: Harper and Row.

Posted in active learning, belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, learner engagement, PhD, studio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Embodiment – physicality and presence in #activelearning


Photo by Chris Fuller on Unsplash

Imagine active learning.

What comes to mind for me is people, together, finding value and common purpose in each other. ‘People’ is a significant word in this description. It’s not an abstract notion of ‘learner’, it is a real, humanistic involvement in which each person brings their all – their multiple senses – to the situation.

An environment of self-actualisation

bell hooks (1994) refers to this as ‘engaged pedagogy’ coming from a holistic appreciation of the learning experience in which there is self-actualisation: first, the teacher’s self-actualisation, but ultimately the learner’s self-actualisation; a sense of self-recognition of one’s achievement in applying one’s full potential to a given situation. The implication of this is that, by conceiving the learning environment as a space for self-actualisation, the design of the space and the way in which the teacher engages the learner in that space is markedly different to a delivery-based teaching philosophy. The teacher’s conception of learning is not only active but student-centred: really student-centred, in a way that values individual difference. Specifically, teaching values the whole person and the learning event is essentially inclusive and highly appreciative of diversity.

Embodied learning

This brings us to the idea of embodied learning, which reflects learning as being of the moment; a lived experience. Knowledge is viewed holistically as something that is experienced continuously, affecting the whole person. It is learning as being in flux, ambiguous and subjective.

Embodiment describes knowledge as being bound to a person, their senses, their movement, and their engagement with their environment, culture and language, and its effect on self-understanding and empathy towards others (Baker & Janja, nd.).

Embodiment is often discussed quite literally as being about the body, and less about psychological engagement or presence. Literature on embodied learning theory regularly makes reference to sport, dance or other forms of bodily performance in which movement is the focus of assessment. Sharples (2019, p. 175), for example, draws attention to the physicality of learning, going on to relate embodiment theory to emerging learning technologies. “Embodied learning involves experiencing and controlling one’s body interacting with a real or simulated world. The aim is that physical feedback and bodily actions support learning.” Smart technologies and haptic technologies introduce new ways of thinking about how the body interacts with the real world and, through them, physicality can heighten a learner’s emotional and cognitive engagement. Haptic interfaces create a literal, tactile relationship between the body and cognition.

The title of my own blog, Tactile, makes some connection to this though here the connection of fingers to keyboard infers the decision-making act of thought transformed into writing in the presence of an audience.

Sharples acknowledges interaction with the material environment which “provides opportunities for action (called ‘affordances’) that our bodies detect and act upon by walking, running, hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting.” (pp. 175-76)

Reviewing my own interests, I have been consistently driven by how the learning environment engages the learner fully in a sensual and emotional way whether that involves aural or oral senses, smart devices, or the third places deemed significant by each learner according to their own needs and preferences. In this way, we can acknowledge the learner’s physicality and presence in either the material or digital space, somewhere between or where and how spaces connect. This leads us to an appreciation of the polycontextuality of place and its effect on a student’s psychology, and vice versa.

For example, in my study of audio as a learning space over the years (e.g. educational podcasting in its various forms, digital storytelling, audio feedback, etc), my primary interest has been of embodiment through psychological presence. For example, embodiment created and felt through the receipt of personalised tutor-generated audio using the conduit of the learner’s headphones. Similarly, the reports of staff engagement with audio for learning in my research has revealed their desire to speak directly to/with each one of their students so as to make a difference to their lives by showing their interest and care. Tutors care for their students and audio, they say, creates a proximal channel for intimate personal support. This, by the way, is not purely altruistic; it is a reciprocal act about giving meaning and purpose to the academic too.

Embodiment theory finds connections with ideas such as experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), reflection in learning (Schon, 1984), situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), agency (Bandura, 2006), critical pedagogy (Friere, 1973), and placemaking (O’Rourke & Baldwin, 2016).

Baker and Janja (nd.) identify several conditions from the literature that demonstrate embodiment in learning,

  • mindful awareness in the present lived experience and attuned senses and perceptions to engage with the lived experience to gain a greater awareness of qualities in experience (Eisner 2002, p. 231).
  • a strong emotional or ‘felt’ dimension in learning and meaning-making. They cite research that describes how “these physical memories and feelings, when evoked from lived experiences, have a strong influence on meaning which leads to action”;
  • sensorially enriched aesthetic experiences are linked with embodied emotion and embodied meaning – “this sensorial experience occurs when the person attunes their perceptions to the sensorial values and qualities in the world around them.” (p.7)

Embodiment, then, refers to an atmosphere or presence inherent in, or created in response to, the environment as an assemblage. Anderson (2009) posits the idea of ‘affective atmospheres’ and Sloterdijk (2009) explores ideas ‘spheres’. Sphere can be imagined as a bubble-like definition of space. Ash (2016, p. 94 ) discusses these ideas and notes that,“Developing aspects of Anderson and Sloterdijk’s account, we can define atmospheres as the effects, forces and affordances contained and brought into being by the specific objects that make up a sphere, which in turn create the appearance of objects as being discreet and spatially differentiated from one another.” So while we consider embodiment as being about the whole person, we can see the environment as being an assemblage of objects and people that together form a lively constellation with its own significance. He goes on to note that,

“Space can be understood as emergent from the relations and non-relations between objects, which in turn constitute a specific sphere. Objects, spheres and atmospheres are therefore linked to one another in processes of co-emergence.”

This notion resembles Actor-Network Theory (Latour, 1990).

Space, in relation to physicality, embodiment and spatial presence, can be considered as a playground full of latent experience and promise. It affects the subject’s presence, expectations, and imagination which is connected to a person’s emotional engagement with the world (Watkins 2000: Dirkx 2006) and thereby a factor in a person’s creative processes.


Beyond the physicality of space, bodies and objects, active learning is affected by the people who enact it, their values and sense of common purpose or alienation. As actors or objects in a constellation of objects, people exert an influence on each other and the situation as a whole. They have and are affected by social presence: the degree to which a student feels personally connected with others according to five experiential facets (Sung & Mayer, 2012):

  1. social respect (being noticed);
  2. social sharing (information and beliefs);
  3. social interaction;
  4. social identity;
  5. social intimacy.

Lowenthal (2010), in consideration of online learning, feels that definitions of social presence tend to lie on a continuum with a focus on interpersonal emotional connection between communicators being on one end and a focus on whether someone is perceived as being ‘present’, ‘there’ or ‘real’ on the other end. Perhaps, in consideration of presence in general, we may propose there is a similar continuum of affective and transactional influence.

The development of social presence in online, corporeal and blended learning spaces can counter potential feelings of anomie (Garrison & Anderson, 2003). Short et al. (1976), and Gunawardena (1995) concur, adding presence is concerned with “the degree to which a person is perceived as a ‘real person’ in mediated communication” or having a sense of heightened reality.


Active learning is as much about the psycho-social environment and its complex constellation of influences, as it about the methods and strategies we deploy as teachers and learners. Such a constellation forms a spatial body that allows us to develop an environmental framing of embodiment.

If active learning is believed to be student-centred and inclusive compared to other pedagogies, the teacher-designer must understand what bell hooks refers to as ‘engaged pedagogies’ and how they can accommodate the whole being of each person. Such design should not only be inclusive but should accentuate the value of a diverse and complex learning environment.

Indeed, this raises the challenge of subjectivity, hidden curricula, and assumed values in the design and orchestration of learning, space, and assessment, and the curriculum in general: a psycho-social view of embodiment not only identifies the value of a diverse and complex ecology, but the many value systems present that give it its vibrancy.


Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 77-81.
Ash, J. (2016). Theorising studio space: spheres and atmospheres in a video game design studio. In Farias, I. & Wilkie, A., eds, Studio studies: operations, topologies and displacements. Abingdon: Routledge.
Baker, R. J. & Jahja, R. (nd). Bridging embodied learning theory, place meaning and the process of placemaking in design studio pedagogy. Online at: https://www.academia.edu/14240393/Bridging_Embodied_Learning_Theory_Place_Meaning_and_the_Process_of_Place_Making_in_Design_Studio_Pedagogy
Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 164 –180. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00011.x
Eisner, E.W. (2002). The arts and the creation of the mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. London & New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Gunawardena, C. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(2/3), 147-166.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Latour, B. (1990). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. Online at: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge.
Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online Education and Adult Learning: New Frontiers for Teaching Practices, 124-139. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
O’Rourke, V., & Baldwin, C. (2016). Student engagement in placemaking at an Australian university campus. Australian Planner, 1-14.
Schön, D. A. (1984). The architectural studio as an exemplar of education for reflection-in-action. Journal of Architectural Education, 38(1), Autumn, 2-9.
Sharples, M. (2019). Practical pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn. Abingdon: Routledge. Chapter 30, Embodied learning – make mind and body work together to support learning. pp. 175-180.
Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Talking to myself and the poetics of space. Harvard Design Magazine, 30
Varela, F, Thompson, E and Rosch, E 1999, The Embodied Mind. Cognitive science and human experience, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Posted in active learning, belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, learner engagement, learning space, Literacies and intelligence, PhD, polycontextuality, studio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Design for Active and Blended Learning


Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

I am reposting my blog post for the #LTHEchat tweetchat I led this evening. The tweetchat community is a fantastic forum of co-creativity and I very much value the knowledge that it always generates. Thanks all. The response tonight was as incredible as always.

The following was my stimulus for the event.

The idea of active learning is hard to pin down. It embraces a number of educational theories and pedagogic strategies including problem-based learning, enquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and team-based learning. Such philosophies and approaches are often presented in binary opposition to lecturing and other teaching-led methods – approaches which are often how today’s ‘lecturers’ experienced university. In reality, active learning and blended learning are integrated amongst a range of techniques that address and involve the student in different ways. This can be different according to discipline, teacher and cohort. This melding of approaches is seen most obviously in the concept of flipped learning where essential knowledge is first provided online where it creates the basis for a deeper social exploration through vibrant class-based activities.

Active learning can be off-putting to staff because group work is usually a characteristic of active learning. For example, discussion, projects, co-creation, peer-led assessment, while apparently student-centred can treat students as an anonymous and homogenous mass. Active learning can be noisey, teetering on chaotic, making the classroom harder to manage and students can resent being put into groups with peers who they perceive to be less capable or innately passive and uncooperative, especially where assessment fails to recognise individual contributions and talents.

The teacher’s role shifts from sage on the stage, to guide by the side and meddler in the middle. It can challenge academic identity and esteem, being perceived by some as a shift from wise expert to manager of people.

Active learning and the technology-enhanced learning environment implicitly promote engagement as a pre-requisite to learning knowledge. It becomes a two-stage operation: first stimulate the learner and make them curious. Then immerse the learner in knowledge and developing skills. The active and blended learning environment is an open-ended, risky, creative, agentic space. If the academic’s role now is to manage the learner, then it seems active and blended learning strategies are designed to make that management as complex as possible! It is understandable, then, that some in the academic community can approach the active learning paradigm with reservations, if not contempt.

Given the number of students in higher education is greater than ever and our students are more diverse, we need to find alternative strategies for helping them to gain purchase, reveal their talents and capabilities, and share their diversity for the benefit of all. Active and blended learning strategies recognise student-centredness and the role that a university has in developing graduate dispositions for a connected world that rejects stability and thrives on innovation. In this context, new literacies and skills are needed so that our students can contribute and learn to take leading roles on a global stage. Many academics get this and are prepared to take pioneering roles in exploring the possibilities, especially now that technology allows any of us to connect our classroom to anyone, anything or any place in the world – instantly. Sharples (2019), for example, sets out 40 new ways to teach and learn using practical active and blended pedagogies. Ideas like ‘spaced learning’, ‘seamless learning’, learning through social media, and bricolage, hint at what academic innovators are doing. Active and blended learning, it seems, opens the door to fulfilling and creative academic practices. It reveals new ways for making learning more relevant, authentic and challenging ensuring that feedback is immediate and integral in the actions we take together. In brief, the learning paradigm creates a rich learning experience that contrasts with the teaching paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995). Ideas about active learning are not new – Piaget (1926), for example, describes learning as “a product of the learner being involved in a process of resolving practical or cognitive dissonance.” The LTHEchat provides us with an opportunity to explore the value of dissonance and challenge, and allows us to consider how we can present it in a way that persuades reticent academics and students so that the curriculum can be experienced as a coherent, rich and vibrant space for engaging students in developing learning habits so that they are ready to embrace the opportunities awaiting them.


Barr, R & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, November, 13-25.

Piaget, J. (1926). The child’s conception of the world. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sharples, M. (2019). Practical pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Posted in active learning, Co-operative pedagogy, learner engagement, learning space, polycontextuality, social media for learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Conversational Learning Spaces for #activelearning

Diagram showing the characteristics of conversational learning space

Valuable features of conversational learning encounters

In an earlier post I referred to Learning Walks as conversational learning spaces. As such, they exemplify active learning spaces. The focus on conversation as a dimension of active learning is at the heart of the rationale for advocacy for an ethos of co-operation in the active learning environment, whether that environment is more or less formal in nature. If we are talking about interaction, challenge and integrated feedback we are talking about conversation, albeit to different degrees of formality and involving participants in a range of roles.

In this post I draw upon Haigh (2005) who considered the role and characteristics of conversation in the context of professional development. Here, I take his ideas, and those of others who informed his work, and begin to explore them in the context of active learning.

Features of conversation in a co-operative learning environment


Conversation values context. Context is the unwritten, assumed, commonality shared by participants in a conversation. It does not presume likemindedness. Indeed dissonance and its moderation is, arguably, a feature of conversation too. Without a sense of share context or situation, participants have little reason to begin exploring their interests. Contextuality is a key principle in authentic learning (Reeves et al., 2002) and, simply, may be thought of as the basis for exchange. It therefore provides a starting point, but it is likely to establish the intention and goal of the exchange.


Openness reflects the need of the learner to construct or make sense of novel ideas which are likely to be complex at first and which require each participant to navigate, negotiate and find some purchase. The act of making sense may involve mapping thinking to previous experiences and models that can be made real and tested through conversation.


Trust is a necessary prerequisite for participants in active learning where new and unfamiliar knowledge, skills and attitudes can be used for the first time. Simulation, role play, analysing problems, for example, require the readiness of each learner to take personal risks. Developing trust through conversation is a life skill and one that characterises team-working and negotiation in professional contexts.


Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. Because conversation involves turn-taking amongst two or more people, a conversation is not linear. While participants may have a shared goal, the acts of questioning, explaining, exemplifying and checking ensures that deviation, rather than linearity, characterises conversational exchanges. In the process, we ‘spark off each other’. Conversation as an act of learning, therefore, is an act of inspiring each other by seeking connections for mutual benefit. This is how we make desirable personal and social discoveries. It also highlights why allowing plenty of time for conversations is important – as academics, we must value deviation as an act of learning.


Much has been written about narratives and storytelling in relation to teaching and learning. It exists on many levels of formality from research cases studies, to anecdotes to add to colour to lectures, to reflective writing, etc. As a dimension of conversational learning, storytelling features in many forms of exchange including recounting, explaining, reporting, team building, identity building and friendship forming exchanges.


Improvisation describes the act, or art, of positing, proposition-making, composing or performing: ways of extemporising knowledge with little or no previous preparation. It describes an act of creative fluency commonly referred to as the ability to think on your feet. It suggests, therefore, a rapid way to representing knowledge which, through conversation, can be moderated and validated.


Parity demonstrates how conversation can ensure inclusivity and diversity. However, it also alerts us to the need to develop conversational skills so that loud and biased voices are not allowed to undermine learning, wittingly or not.

Parity also reminds us that we come to learning familiar, to some degree, with the conventions of conversation – it is a tool we already know how to use to some extent and in most cases. This gives any of us a way in to learning ensuring that active learning environments are learner-centred.

Parity also highlights how academics using conversational strategies in active learning must pay particular attention to the readiness of all students to participate. While there is a lot to this, it is key to understand differences in physical and mental ability and cultural predispositions.


Thinking of conversation as a tool clarifies how a conversational learning environment can optimise timely engagement with learning and how non-formal exchange (that which isn’t prescribed by another person) can promote learner agency, self-regulation, and co-operation as a basis for just-in-time learning. This is a key principle in an empathetic learning space such as a studio in which peer learning is often tacit.

In conclusion

Ironically, we don’t talk much about conversation in education. If anything it is seen as an annoyance leading to unruly and unstructured classrooms in which deviants deviate. While the teacher’s role is to orchestrate conversation in the classroom so that it has purpose and time is spent on task, time spent deviating and negotiating the learning context is a highly desirable characteristic of active learning.


Haigh, N. (2005). Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development. International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 3–16. http://doi.org/10.1080/13601440500099969

Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activity as a model for web-based learning. 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, USA. Online at: http://authenticlearning.info/AuthenticLearning/Home.html

Posted in Academic innovation, active learning, Applied Learning, Assessment & Feedback, belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, creativity, Digital Placemaking, employability, learner engagement, learning space, Literacies and intelligence, PhD, Possibilities, social media for learning, studio-based learning, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wrecking it with Brexit

Iris Peeters in front of a presentation slide showing a wide range of concluding points from her research into active learning spaces

Iris Peeters sharing the outcomes of her research on active learning spaces at the International Learning Spaces Summit in Barcelona #ILS2019

I’m sitting in a café on La Rambla in Barcelona following a couple of days participating in an international learning spaces summit in Barcelona (#ILS2019). (nb. I use ‘participating’ not ‘attending’)

We are getting really close to Brexit now and I haven’t given up thinking that the whole bad idea might just fall apart. Being away from the UK in a European country and participating in scholarly work, sharing practice and thinking through how we experience learning in universities spaces, underlines with great clarity my belief we are making a huge mistake. Let’s look at a few of the conversations I have had in the last two or three days.

The conference began with a speed dating icebreaker in which I met and found connection with six other people from six different countries. The people were architects, estates managers, academic researchers and teachers, furniture suppliers, and developers.

I worked in table-based activities with other people using techniques such as Lego Serious Play to explore ideas and to discover, inevitably, that communicating complex and emerging thoughts and beliefs is easier than might have been expected. (It’s fun playing LSP with architects btw! It still works). Working with Lego continues to surprise me, taking me deeply into what I believe and what I seek to communicate and learn about in ways that elicit social exchange. Being part of a Lego conversation is incredible, especially when in the final phase of the challenge that we were given, we were asked to re-assemble and combine our models to form a collective narrative or comment on the topic we were given (the future teacher, in our case). The diverse voices encouraged by this method bring a richness that knows no boundaries, only diverse and complementary perspectives. (An example of assemblage theory in practice btw).

The scholarly community that I have been with is mostly a European community, though I met one or two people from North America and an Australian person. None of us were constrained by our national identities. None of us had secretive attitudes and ways of thinking. Our purpose was scholarly and generative – that is, we appreciated each other as co-creators of knowledge. If we were giving away our research findings, or simply our questions, it is because we know the value of the discussion that will ensue and that together we will co-construct new knowledge. Populist, inward-looking people do not seem to understand this. Perhaps they have never experienced an education in which they learn from, and have respect for, each other?

This is a failing of the UK education system, if so. Of course, similar failings are evident wherever populist politics hold sway.

Perhaps this is why I am such an advocate of active learning and co-operative learning environments.

Talking about space, for me, equates to talking about experience as a locus for learning in a social context. In the conference, I learned a great deal from presenters including those from school education, from architecture, from facilities management, and from so many different countries. This was an interdisciplinary, interprofessional, intercultural exchange, albeit for two days. A fertile ecology. Why is Britain determined to face inwards to cut off the wealth of knowledge and thinking that a pluralistic context affords?

It’s not only about Europe. The problem with Brexit is that it is indicative of an insular, anti-global attitude. Those ‘leavers’, it seems to me, want to leave everything that does not resemble a romantic ideal of times past. The only international outlook is a colonial one in which our relationships are assumed to be waiting in the wings (despite our history of bad will and patriarchy).

It is interesting being in Barcelona and enjoying the culture and architecture. But the culture that the tourists flock to see is founded upon an expression of populism in the early twentieth century – a reaction against the industrial revolution. As in British arts and crafts, there is a strong nationalist romantic undertone that harks back to the myths and legends that come from medieval folklore. Coincidently, Saint George is the patron saint of Barcelona and held in similar revere to the English. How ironic. The gothic metalwork and the turrets and towers that give structure to Gaudi’s architecture are tinged with, or tainted by, an idealisation for times past typical of Art Nouveau. Beauty is skin deep. Beneath the surface, more sinister moods and beliefs may be evident. The Spanish Civil war was not far behind this cultural outpouring of populist disquiet which then grew and vented itself in European countries through the two world wars. We came to our senses only when we formed European alliances.

In the work I lead on employability, a key message to our students is to embrace the global opportunity for developing their knowledge and their professional futures. We graduate to a global stage. It feels that this message of openness and opportunity is about to be thwarted by the brick wall that is Brexit. Am I now meant to change my message of connectivity and global possibilities and advise our students to focus on parochial possibilities that are ill-defined, lacking in evidence, and limited by politically abstract geographical borders? I have heard Vice-Chancellors talking about the implications of Brexit for research and investment, but I don’t think this message of parochialism, of cutting off our nose to spite our face, has come across. A message that affects the employment opportunities of all of our students, but more importantly, one that will adversely affect their view of the world as they go onto forge their careers.

Colleagues at this conference felt sorry for the British representatives and we are feeling sorry for ourselves. How embarrassing. How stupid we are.


Posted in Academic innovation, active learning, belonging, Co-operative pedagogy, employability, gamification, learner engagement, learning space, open learning, research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Get active- watch TV

Jason Williams mid-way through our ‘Challenge Jason’ scenarios as we explore media-enhanced teaching and learning in practice

My colleague Jason Williams at ARU’s DigiFest (#ARUDigifest) introduced our academics to Box of Broadcasts (BoB), a service provided by the British University’s Film & Video Council (BUFVC). The service provides access to 65 ‘free-to-air’ channels and their current and legacy programmes for subscribing UK universities.

While in my work on media-enhanced teaching and learning, I gravitate towards the value of user-generated content by staff and students and the benefits associated with co-creation of knowledge through authentic learning, BoB would seem a remarkably ‘passive’ and unfocused service; not at all the epitome of active learning.

I wanted to set out two or three learning design scenarios that challenge this perception.

BoB for scenario-based learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) situates the active learner amongst authentic problems that foster epistemic curiosity and which develop strategic thinking and behaviours. Coming up with good problems and articulating them convincingly is one of the keys to problem-based approaches. Creating a credible conceit is fun, but nevertheless challenging for academics. It requires imagination, some risk, and a taste for adventure! At the heart of this challenge is the question of how to present it. Two answers to this are: as a scenario and using video and audio. If that media is ready-made, so much the better – the challenge is just to find it.

Scenario-based analysis sits within the realm of PBL (though it has other uses, e.g. usability testing (Carroll, 2000; Fowler, 2004). Carroll gives us clues for designing good scenarios and I run workshops on this. But we use scenarios as part of our everyday parlance in the same way that we use metaphors and anecdotes. When we do this we are conjuring up conceits, illusions, and conundrums in a natural, conversational way.

Ready-made downloadable video provides us with a rich panoply of materials. How often does a student or an academic say, “Did anyone see [such and such] on TV the other night?”, often referring to an example or a situation and not necessarily the whole programme? Often, we are looking to develop some empathy when we do this, but usually we are trying to provide some vicarious insight; a shortcut to explain a significance idea or an alternative way of presenting and clarifying an idea or situation. But that’s fine for the 5% who may have also seen that. What about the rest?

If you see something you think you might use as a catalyst for conversation or to present a situation or metaphor, make a note to go to BoB and grab it. BoB allows you to build a personal collection of professionally made video; either whole programmes or selected clips.

BoB for co-creation and peer assessment

My second suggestion is to ask students to create exemplary scenarios. This is a fine formative activity. It epitomises co-creation. Ask students to interrogate BoB and to find videos and produce clips that will work as problems, scenarios, metaphors and illustrations to establish an authentic conundrum. They’ll develop their information skills in the process, hopefully discover many useful resources, and hopefully begin to build their own collection of clips (with ready made citations). They can construct their conundrum around the video and test it on peers in next week’s session. Peers can assess these. Warn students about ‘rabbit holes’ – getting distracted and losing time by following their curiosity and interest too far – but this is an essential information skill anyway, and it may be refreshing to see how such skills are applicable to working with a range of media – not just text.


In both of the above suggestions, what may have seemed passive has become a catalyst opportunity for deep, active learning once situated,.


Box of Broadcasts https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand

Carroll, J. M. (2000). Five reasons for scenario-based design. Interacting with Computers, 13(1), 43–60.

Fowler, C. (2004) Scenario-based design. Chimera: Institute of Social and Technical Change. Online at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/eframework/scenario_based_design_chris_fowler.pdf

Posted in active learning, BYOD, Co-operative pedagogy, creativity, learner engagement, Media-enhanced learning | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment