Finding the hole in the HE wall – learner engagement

Sugata Mitra’s story about how children in New Delhi flocked to a computer screen built into a wall like a bank ATM is well-known (see his TED Talks). Driven by their sheer curiorisity and niavity, he tells the tale of how children with fresh open minds  co-operated, driven by their compulsion to learn despite their adverse conditions. 

I was fortunate enough to attend the Yorkshire & Humberside WEA AGM on Saturday to which Professor Sugata Mitra had been invited to give the keynote based on his work since 1999 when he first decided to install an internet-connected PC in the street for the less privileged children in the area. He wasn’t an academic then, but he was relatively affluent and he also had an insatiable curiosity. He decided to invest the equivalent of two month’s wages to answer the question ‘what will children do if they see a computer connected to the internet?’ This question was important to him because he could see how social division excludes potentially ‘good’ students, yet he recognised that nobody wants to come to a slum to teach.

Having installed the PC, he walked off without giving way to the temptation to ‘teach’ them. Yet, one of the outcomes of the experiment is a redefinition of teaching. The drive and adeptness of the curious learner, when connected through Google to an unending supply of answers, only requires that they have well-formed questions and a determination to develop sufficient skills and confidence to ask them. This forms what he calls the Self-Organised Learning Environment (SOLE). Professor Mitra has rerun the experiment and offered the essential idea of the SOLE on innumeral occasions globally with the support of $1 million funding he received from TED.

In his presentation he described the hive-like behaviours demonstrated by the children as they grappled with their questions together. He asked us to reflect on how it is that ants co-operate as they intuitively harvest food together, all playing a role in what appears to be a co-ordinated effort, but which takes the form of ‘spontaneous order’ rather than chaos.

The SOLE of higher and adult learning

Above I have used the words curiosity and niavity as prerequesit conditions for the experiment. In a follow-on workshop, we were asked to assume the readiness and openness of the 9 year old child.

I am left reflecting on what I have learnt and how this might apply to the teaching and learning of adults and university students. First, here are some immediate thoughts:

  • Let learning happen, it has an inclination to surface;
  • Create the conditions for  problem questions to find the level appropriate to the learner;
  • Know the teacher’s role is to create and maintain the conditions for learning, not to ‘give’ the learner the knowledge, but to help them construct a knowledge that makes sense to them;
  • Create a social constructivist co-operative context in which each student is able to add to the knowledge of their peers and shape their collective understandings for mutual benefit;
  • If the problem, the opportunity or the question is well-framed, learning need not be arduous, only challenging;
  • A well-framed question or problem can provide subtle clues to solving the puzzle (the children eventually noticed a keypad, not just the screen);
  • Feedback involves satisfying the learner’s ego (he talked about the Granny Cloud experiment in which grandmothers showed how to respond to a child’s apparent arrogance – learners seek reassurance and confirmation);
  • Listen to the learner and what they need to know next, rather than challenging them to answer what you as teacher want them to know next;
  • Focus on literacies and capabilities because curious, capable learners will then find the answers (and devise their own next questions) for themselves;
  • Authentic assessment is the flip side of learning – self and peer assessment is part of an effective, interactive learning environment. If our systems demand summative assessment consider how it’s design can be made efficient, user-centred and meaningful;
  • Do not intervene in learning unless you are really clear about how your intervention will be decisive and significant.

The value of niavity

So, do we need to foster an openness and niavity as a precondition for an effective learning environment for university and adult learners?

My thoughts are, that would be dishonest and actually niaive. I feel more inclined to look to something that young children do not have: experience. How do we draw upon experience and support the experienced learner to re-evaluate their experience to find deeper and even different meanings in a socially moderated context?

The important thing is learner-centredness: considering how each student will or can connect themselves to the learning context. This is not something that the teacher needs to know specifically for each student, only that they need to create contexts that make sense to each student. This is why problem-based learning is so useful and why negotiated assessment is so important. Both allow each learner to take ownership of, or identify with, the learning situation. In a social situation you create a co-owned learning environment in which the learners (like the metaphorical ants) are driven to execute a collective task, knowing that each of their interpratiins is aligned to that of their peers. 

This explains the main difference between co-operation and collaboration (both are needed) to achieve personal and common goals: co-operation is about the effective alignment of effort. Collaboration is about taking different parts of the same problem.

There are many further angles for us to consider here: the role of technology as a learning space for example, though I don’t think this is that important in Sugatra Mitra’s experiment. Literacy, capability, self-confidence, peer co-operation, and so forth are much more important.

Our challenge, I think, is about how we adopt practice that ‘lets learning happen’.

Thanks to Yorkshire & Humberside Workers Educational Association for allowing me to attend this excellent event and for inviting Sugatra Mitra to provide the keynote.

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Being visibly present in two places – further reflections on tweetchat participation

Sue Beckingham has posted on her experience of last week’s physical-digital tweetchat: Reflecting on my experience of digital transient CPD #SEDAconf #SEDA_NETS

In these posts we are reflecting on the nature and quality of our presence, and the relationship of physical situation to virtual presence and engagement. Sue notes that people who are co-located in the physical space do not immediately notice (or therefore recognise the validity of) synchronous learning engagement with social or other online media. I know in my own open plan office I am guilty of walking up to someone’s desk to begin a conversation without noticing that they are engaged in a ‘legitimate’ online activity such as a webinar or phone call. In our minds we see the PC as a workhorse for email and word processing and forget its use as a vibrant learning space.

Real learning engagement through social media

There is something to think about here in terms of engagement, visibilities, presence and contribution. If we see educational value in the tweetchat or in other synchronous (interactive and non-pausable) media, then we might like to think critically about  spatial conditions for effective learning. Here are some ideas we might like to think about:

  • Attendance or participation – While we note that social and synchronous media and personal smart devices can increase access to learning anywhere and at any time, to what extent do we as academic tutors want to advocate ‘any how’? Is there a danger, for example, that acceptance of simple ‘attendance’ and superficial engagement will come to define the teaching-learning nexus?
  • To what extent is ‘turning up’ good enough? When is a learning space not really a place of learning? How do we signal an expectation for deeper and critical involvement in open and social media environments amongst students? Learning is not learning until it involves… learning! That is defined for me by the student’s acceptance of a personal or given challenge. Social media as a learning space is defined therefore by its relationship to foster engagement with a learning challenge. This is how we distinguish between simple opportunity and a learner’s critical engagement.
  • To what extent is our apparent presence in online events disengenuous if we are potentially open to distraction by the PC, other media or people? To what extent should we assume a responsibility to our co-learners (who are always potentially co-producers of learning in an effective learning space)?
  • Social presence as defined by Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) as, “the degree of salience of the
    other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal  relationships” or Gunawardena (1995) as “the degree to which a  person is perceived as a ‘real person’ in mediated communication.” Sung and Mayer (2012)  describe social presence as the degree to which a student feels personally connected with others.
  • Visibility in a learning network is defined, not by the learner’s avatar (the virtual bum on seat), but by the visible evidence of their engagement as co-producer within the social learning space or as an outcome of their engagement in the case of learning by lurking.

This raises questions about how important it is to define a learning space as a pre-requisit to engaging learners. I have heard people defend the right to lurk in a learning space. I couldn’t disagree with that if you were to push me, however social constructivist situations generate learning through co-production. Co-production involves learning through giving and shaping thinking. Ethically, is it enough to be a silent un-giving partner when the very learning design is establish around social contribution? Pedagogically the learner is missing out by maintaining a passive relationship, but is it fair to leave the social construction to others and, in doing so, detracting from the energy in the learning space (physical and/or virtual) and withholding the value that could be added?

Returning to the tweetchat and/or the workshop, I propose that a facilitator’s role should be coercive by admiring participation (I heard Sugatra Mitra use this idea of admiration as facilitation today – more later), but also by making participants aware of their responsibility to each other as co-producers.

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Here is the Storify from our #SEDAConf #SEDA_NETS physical-digital tweetchat. Thanks to all who took part.

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View from the other side of the physical-digital tweetchat

I asked two of the tweetchat participants about their experience of our physical-digital tweetchat, as discussed in my previous post Weaving across the digital-physical space. To recap, myself and Sue Moron-Garcia co-ran a face-to-face workshop in parallel with a synchronised online tweetchat. I have noted how my priority was to protect the integrity of the physical workshop experience. However, I was keen to hear about the experience from the other side – the online tweetchat, especially about the integrity of that method as experienced by participants. Thanks to Sue Beckingham (@suebecks) and Chris Rowell (@chri5rowell) for responding so readily on a Sunday to my questioning. Both are highly experienced users of social media and the tweetchat method.

First, this is what Sue thought of the experience:

I felt part of the session and it was great to be able to participate virtually. This was helped by the fact that you tweeted in between questions to say discussion was going on, and also some of the people physically there tweeted photos of the post it approach you were using. Interestingly this I feel encouraged them to draw/mind map/SWOT analyse. There was interaction between participants there and with myself which again helped to create a sense of belonging within the session. You shared photos of the spaces you were in which helped to visualise the physical space. Often in #LTHEchat participants do this by sharing images of their chosen beverage (rather than a photo of them in their home).

Another thing to add about my experience was that I took part in the chat sitting at my desk in my shared office. A colleague came in to the office (as the chat was starting) and asked if he could speak to me. I replied not at the moment as I was engaged in an online event. He then continued to tell me what he wanted to talk to me about. I felt rude cutting him short. Now had I been wearing headphones, would this have deterred his insistence to talk to me right there and then? If I had been on the phone he would (I hope) not have interrupted me.

In my previous post I discussed the significance of the diverse real world situations of tweetchat participants and how, considering the tweetchat as a learning space, we need to develop our understanding of dispersed learning spaces. (nb: I must look at the literature on this). Chris also picked up on this. Let me say, that in both cases, I had no sense of where either Sue or Chris were physically located during the chat.

Chris tells me,

Hi Andrew I was on the bus dashing to a hospital appointment …and the bus was stuck in traffic and I looked at my phone just to take my mind if the fact I might be late… I was getting a bit stressed and then saw your questions pop up on the Twitter stream… I saw the SEDA hashtag so just assumed it was something to with a workshop you were doing… I think I came late to the chat so just [went] through the questions and answered them all in one go… whilst looking at other’s answers as I tweeted my answers… it took about 10-15 mins and my bus finally pushed off and I dashed off to my appointment …It was all really quick – it felt like reading an article in newspaper and then someone quizzing me about it…

The quality of the contributions (which you will see in the Storify when I publish it next Wednesday) were both really good: in my opinion they added enormously to the workshop. The workshop and the artefact we co-produced (the forthcoming Storify):

  • Benefited from several external voices including Chris and Sue;
  • Were enriched with media;
  • Were enriched by accounts of experienced online networkers from the field of educational development (i.e. aligned to the focus of the workshop);
  • Were given significance by the interest of people not directly involved in the conference event.

This little experiment has proven that such a inter-spatial method is viable without undermining the integrity of either space. It has also shown how the value of the physical and the digital learning spaces can be multiplied for mutual benefit.

Thanks to Sue and Chris for still being online to reply!

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Weaving across the digital physical space


Understanding the interconnectivity between the physical digital learning space has been central to my thinking since the participatory web emerged in about 2004. This is what drove my interest back then in podcasting and the ‘digital voice’ and it continues to intrigue me about technology and learning.

On Friday I ran a workshop with Sue Moron-Garcia from UCLan on networking and collaboration and I will share more on this over the next few days via Twitter and Storify. But I thought I would spend a little time reflecting on our use of the tweetchat through the workshop – something that I think is becoming a good habit for me.

This post first describes the physical-digital tweetchat method we used, then considers the meaning of the different spaces used by the participants.

A description of the physical-digital tweetchat method

I have used this approach several times over the years starting in a multiple room activity in a MELSIG event in Sheffield in 2011. There, I used Twitter and Twitterfalls to run activities amongst multi-located participants creating room-based teams in a little competition. Admittedly I remember it involving me running up and down a lot of stairs checking that teams were on task as I posted new challenges.

But today I automated the tweetchat prompts, having planned the timings for the workshop in some detail with Sue! I realised that I wanted to give the people in the room my full attention and I didn’t really want to be typing in the tweetchat questions live. I scripted the tweets last night and entered the timings into Social Oomph which worked really well. I used this online software to post the tweets on my behalf to coincide with the structure of the workshop. I created some ‘run up’ announcement tweets to prepare the world beyond, potentially including those observing or taking part from other conference sessions, to remind them about and engage them in our activity. All this allowed me to pay attention to preparing the room and create space for my thoughts prior to the face-to-face workshop.

There were five questions and so five Question tweets using the hashtag #SEDA_NETS.

In the workshop we had the hashtag posted up on a flip chart and on every slide of the presentation. I briefly explained the protocol for responding to the questions and said, “You can either tweet your answers or write them on post-it notes using the same numbering system, or both.” As we reached the relevant points in the workshop our slides threw up the numbered questions so they coincided with the end of discussion activities allowing participants to summarise their discussion. As is usual in workshop mode, we invited a couple of verbal offerings as we progressed too.

The workshop felt like a workshop. That was important, possibly the most important thing for me. The twitter dimension did not detract from it as far as I could see, and actually I think the planning and structure helped enormously. Sue and I could see tweets coming from the room, and this provided us with feedback that the session activities were understood. An unexpected bonus.

I am checking with some of our online participants to hear about their experience and I will update this then (see my next post for their very interesting response). We did not share the presentation online, though a couple of images were tweeted by workshop participants. Again it was important to me to retain the integrity of the online experience and to avoid engaging them as surrogate second class participants. It was important to protect integrity of the tweetchat too.

Liminal connections

The method we used breaks the 4th wall and shatters the notion of the classroom as ‘enclosure’. I have written before about the value of connecting with ‘external voices’ and how audio, video and webinars in synchronous or asynchronous modes allow the university teacher to break through the bounding enclosure to safely involve their students in authentic networks and situations globally. Twitter, and the tweetchat method, do this well too. I am fascinated by the tweetchat, but slightly frustrated by the lack of ambition often exhibited in exploring its pedagogic potential. The method is seen as an online space, however I would like to challenge this perception in several ways.

First, and obviously, people tweeting are real and situated in a physical context; something Maha Bali and Suzan Koseoglu underline in their presentation The Self as an Open Education Resource. You may wonder if this is worth saying, but imagine if we were discussing a similar but novel corporeal form of interaction. Would we not be fascinated by the idea that all of the participants were situated in spaces that they had decided upon for themselves; that each person had first committed to their participation and then given some consideration to how to accommodate this activity in a way that suited their context, however they chose to define it? Now consider these multiple real world people and in particular note that the physical places they are using range from offices, to classrooms, to sofas in centrally heated homes surrounded by personal or familial artefacts that hold meaning for them; or family members or pets.

Or they might be travelling; standing up, sitting down or reclining. What does the learner’s situation mean to their state of mind? Does it make any difference that they are on their own, sitting with family, co-learners, colleagues, or strangers? Does it matter that what they have just done, or what they are about to do, or what they are doing concurrently? Does it not matter that their situation is not what we would normally expect from a formal learning context?

These are the sort of questions that drive me to challenge assumptions about learning space. Why is our conceptualisation of learning space formed as it is? How much of this conceptualisation is necessary or useful in this digital age of pervasive technology? And if the answer is ‘not much’ or ‘I don’t know’, then we have to experiment beyond the obvious to explore possibilities towards a rich learning space.

I began writing this post on the train back from Brighton to Sheffield. I am now continuing at home in the peace and quiet save for the murmur of a blazing fire. One situation full of life, noise and pressure; the otherslm and reflective. In the first I was keen to get the thoughts down in any state, and in the latter I am calmly reviewing and developing those thoughts. So if we compare the two worlds of the tweetchat and the concurrent workshop, we are not talking about two spaces, but several environments, each carrying different meaning for our participants. Monahan (2000) proposed the idea of built pedagogy, but I don’t think we have really begun to understand ‘situation’ in the built-digital context of the multi-dimensional learning environment.

My second main point contesting the idea of tweetchat as being online concerns behaviour and attitude, and ultimately the learning culture and opening up of pedagogies to enrich any kind of learning experience. The thinking behind Connectivism is exemplified by the tweetchat, yet its principles can be understood in the physical space too. Let’s take a look:

George Siemen’s Connectivist Principles say,

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Learning is more critical than knowing.
  • Maintaining and nurturing connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Perceiving connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

[Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1, Jan 2005]
There is nothing here that suggests Connectivism is about online learning, only that digital connectivity underpins connectivist behaviour. I am keen that we explore connectivist thinking and how it shifts our appreciation of behaviour in the physical space. Our successful experiment has, I think, contributed to that.

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What makes a good network? Join our Tweetchat

I am running a workshop with Sue Moron-Garcia this Friday morning (4th November from , 11:50-12:35, UK time) at the SEDA conference. It is titled From Conundrum to Collaboration, Conversation to Connection: Using Networks to Innovate. We will run a Tweetchat in parallel addressing questions about factors leading to effective and sustainable networks and collaborations.

We invite you, wherever you are, to join in. The first question will appear at 11.50 using the hashtag #SEDA_NETS.

Each question will begin #SEDA_NETS Q1… [where 1 is the number of the current question]. Reply to the tweet ensuring the hashtag is included changing the Q to A for each answer you give to respective questions e.g. #SEDA_NETS A1 the meaning of life is best understood as 42

We have 5 questions structured around the the half hour of the workshop. So get your gut answer in quick and look out for the next question which will come from my personal account @andrewmid

Workshop participants, working in small groups will summarise their discussion activities using the same tweetchat we hope. We expect the discussion responses to be useful to those people who value collaboration and networking in the higher education context.

We encourage you to share visual responses – metaphorical, diagrammatic, illustrative, abstract – to liven up the thinking. So stock up on some networky type images!

We will create an annotated Storify as a summary narrative from the online and offline discussion.

The SEDA Conference programme and abstract for our session is here on the SEDA website

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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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