Space – not provided but constructed, pervasive and augmented


I threw out some words on Twitter last night in response to Lawrie Phipps at Jisc who says it’s time to think about Next Generation Digital Learning Environmentst (#Codesign16 #ngdle). In his accompanying Storify introduction embedded on the blog post he says, “we have seen behavioural changes across society, and in education we have a student and staff body that is, potentially, more digitally connected than ever before; unconstrained by space and time and able to access information and engage with others as they need.” This may be obvious, but the point needs to be restated until we get it.

The words that sprung to mind for me immediately, and which I tweeted as a placeholder for this post, come from case study research I have been conducting for the last two years on future learning spaces. Note, I try not to distinguish between the physical and digital space until it is pertinent to do so. Certainly, as we look ahead, we should approach them as dimensions of a lived space and, as such, conversations such as this need to be understood primarily from the user’s experience, in particular the student’s experience of learning in this case. Ultimately other matters are subservient to this.

Provided space

I talk and write a lot about a dichotomy (to be contentitious of course) of provided or constructed space. This does not only pertain to the digital, but let’s try to focus on the digital here (another contentious proposition that we can separate the digital from the physical – but we have to play!).

The idea of learning environments that are provided by an entity such as a university serves the interest of that entity to manage the provision. We must not fall into the trap of assuming this has very much to do with learning (as in the ways a student is motivated and chooses or prefers to learn) other than the way a provided construction will inevitably affect or interfere with an experience. When we talk about VLEs or LMSs we are dealing with the idea of superimposing a systematic structure on what, until that point, is an ideal – the individual’s desire and experience of learning. This imposition is not evil (i.e I am not making a political point)! It is how we have always, in higher education, taken our responsibility to organise and scaffold the teaching-learning nexus. Designing a learning environment is about how we decide to affect the ideal experience of learning therefore; necessary as an educational establishment because we know all of those students are individual, dynamic,  unpredictable, and so, otherwise unmanageable. There is something about harnessing the social construction of learning too that we should not overlook! We most provide a solution to organise the learning community, but now we need to design a space that is centred on the needs and potential of a dynamic social generative community.

The arrival of social media has shown us that connectivity, in both the interpersonal and technical senses, can usefully disrupt the learning space. Connectivism leads us to imagine concepts such as the Personal Learning Environment and the Personal Learning Network. The key point and assumption behind these ideas, howeve, is that the self-determined learner can self-manage their personal learning space, thereby adhering to the principle of ideal learner autonomy as noted above.  One of the most important jobs of a higher education in this da and age I argue is to develop agility – the capabilities of a person to be effective and autonomous. The ideal is of the robust dynamic network full of strong and weak ties that ensures the motivated, capable learner will succeed according to self-determined (and dynamic) objectives. This ideal, if developed, compensates for the lack of provided hierarchical structure and benefits the graduate by developing their resilience.

Re-imagining the digital learning environment by acknowledging the ideal of the self-determined learner requires us to position our thinking between the ‘provided’ managed conception and the self-constructed heutagocal ideal of learning space. This amounts to understanding the best interests of our learner’s (not their expectations note – after all we are educators with a responsibility to apply what we know as experts rather than serve the assumptions of non-experts).

The only other thing I will add to this part of the post on provided space is that social media learning spaces teach us that conceptions of formality and informality (also dichotomous terms describing management rather than leaning) are also increasingly unhelpful. Instead, we need to understand the non-formal space and the augmented space (see below for augmentation).

Augmentation, pervasive space and what we learn from social media

Augmentated learning space describes a constantly present meta-layer as embodied through the experience of using social media. It is likely to trigger all sorts of interesting images for you – possibly images of people wearing heads up displays. Leave that picture to one side.

When we use social media we know that it is always present and this idea of social media presence (and therefore social presence) affects our behaviour. It causes us to twitch! I don’t need to say too much more because we are all aware, whatever part of the world we inhabit, that the ubiquity of social media and BYOD affects not only our habits but our experience of any situation. It is almost perverse therefore, that we would not consider the pervasiveness of the social media experience as a key dimension of a redesigned learning environment. But then we don’t pay too much attention to the significance of the electric light or the carpet in the classroom; both technologies, that in their own ways, carry immense meaning to the experience of learning. At the very least the meaning in that case is about respect for each other and the act of learning together for example (and many other things!).

So, social media is pervasive and it’s potential for learning is to be a valuable space for connecting, creating and curating socially. This signals how conceptions of the Industrial Age learning space in which the teacher’s role was to provide and deliver really is outmoded. OUTMODED!!! Sorry, it is time to accept finally that knowledge today is largely co-produced and those who insist it isn’t are fixating on the idea of knowledge as only being factual. Today’s learning environment needs to get over facts and focus on metacognitive knowledge, conceptual knowledge and, to some extent, the exploration of authentic procedural knowledge.

Self-determined Third Space and boundary crossing

I also threw out the ideas of self-determined Third Space in my tweet last night. I have touched on both of these already. For completeness let’s explain this a little more by focusing on Third Space and heutagogy.

How much of a student’s time is allocated to formal contact? Let’s say 20% is allocated to timetabled scheduled teaching, leaving 80% for… something else. We could call that ‘independent learning’ – the expectation that the student will dedicate time on their own or with others to study for their course. That makes 100%. Tidy.

Triple it. The pervasive device, the pervasive lifewide situation, the pervasive brain, create an experiential learning context. We could dismiss this as educators – we don’t own that, the student has a life, etc. But a student’s time at University is a formative life space and an opportunity full of rich, challenging and highly authentic learning experiences that contribute to the development of their lifelong capabilities. It does not make sense, from an experiential point of view, to dismiss it. It’s not realistic to dismiss it. Unlike teaching, learning is a constant state. The autonomous learner, consciously or not, will not dismiss it. They will be soaking up their experience, as we all do through life – and they will be doing this using social media. Becoming the lifelong long reflective learner is part of becoming a graduate. It is what distinguishes university students from others. This was the essential rationale for the Connected U project I ran on employability for the Higher Education Academy last year. University is a time for developing the reflective capable learner and it is not only about the substantive experience of learning the subject content. Another way of putting this is, students are habitually  engaged in crossing boundaries. Any learning environment today needs to accommodate experiential learning and the richness of becoming an experienced and agile person.

The Third Space, in this context, acknoedges the value of in-betweenness and liminality: that is, the psycho-social transition, as well as the spatial and temporal borders that we continually cross and which continually challenge our thinking.

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About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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