Learning in the spaces in between

As a recent graduate I’ve noticed more and more higher education institutions claiming to take a critical look at the way they teach and learn. Rightly so, but what form does this usually take?

Often it is a strategic commitment to increasing the level of active learning and teaching. Occasionally this results in targeted reviews of the curricula within problem departments (with poor National Student Survey results). More rarely – as at my home institution of Imperial College London – it triggers a wholesale review of the entire curricula and a drive toward providing the resources staff need in order to be more innovative with their practice.

I’m an avid fan of active learning as it places human interaction and technology at the heart of education, moving away from the passive transmission of information that remains so widespread in the sector. However, in the midst of all this reflection, both coordinated and scattergun, is the focus too much on the formal classroom setting?

Bringing in the student perspective

The answer to that question is yes. Students no longer solely learn in the classroom, if they ever did.

Formal classroom learning is often associated with some of the more formative moments of a student’s learning experience. In the past that may have been a particularly engaging (or poor) lecture, and in the present it increasingly means experiences that are more virtual or interactive.

The development of active learning has sparked a debate about its value.It is beyond doubt that self-directed forms of learning are increasing and are an important demonstration of universities’ global reach and ubiquity. The only way we can better understand this phenomenon and design learning experiences that work is by investigating how students take agency in engaging with these less formal spaces.

My current PhD in education research is driven by my fascination with the student experience. I’ve previously held a sabbatical role at a students’ union and I’ve been a Subwarden within an undergraduate student halls of residence. All of this has taught me that some of the most formative educational moments take place outside of the classroom.

Admittedly, I don’t wish to discount how critical formal classroom learning can be. Many of the moments and interactions I describe originate in the formal setting. Rather, there’s value in acknowledging the co-dependence of both formal and informal learning space.

Challenging definitions of teaching space

This tension sparked an idea. Could I use observation and interviews to explore student-learning behaviour in an informal breakout space located next to a formal lecture theatre? The data from this research has confirmed that most students engage in self-directed active learning before and after timetabled lectures, an interesting finding given my institution’s intention to adopt active learning.

The next step of my research seeks to understand how students transition between these formal, timetabled and informal, non-timetabled physical spaces. Analysis of this data represented a turning point: a realisation that the commonly referred to “breakout space” I was observing within Imperial’s Chemical Engineering Department was no longer simply an empty corridor, but a rich physical and cognitive extension of the formal lecture space and an important site of incidental learning and interaction.

Frankly, the availability of this sort of transitional space should be prioritised. It is a relatively low-cost intervention that could be the difference between student interaction and disconnectedness. Kitted out with comfortable furniture and other amenities at the fringe of a lecture theatre, it has proven transformational. A student clarifying misunderstandings with the lecturer, or a chance encounter between two friends reflecting on an exam are examples of some of the active learning behaviours I have observed.

Designing a tech-enabled campus that accelerates the possibilities of where, when and how learning takes place is not enough. Instead the sector should design for spaces where students are already together. This may help build a more inclusive sense of community and belonging and seems timely given students’ growing workload and their concerning susceptibility to feeling isolated.

Occupancy monitoring technology

Whilst traditional observation methods are good at capturing detailed snapshots of learning behaviour and phenomena in a single space at a certain time, education researchers such as myself cannot sit and observe students for 12 hours a day in multiple spaces. Occupancy monitoring technology is helping to overcome this limitation by generating anonymised occupancy records of the number of people in formal and informal spaces 24/7.

Imperial is working with Lone Rooftop, who provide a space utilisation analytics technology platform. We are using these findings to identify bare corridors, lobbies, and ancillary spaces that have potential to become functional transitional spaces. My research methodology will allow me to evaluate how changing the physical aspects of these learning spaces positively or negatively affects educational transition, and if there is return on capital investment.

By providing a measure of actual room occupancy, this data is helping us build a clearer picture of how our estate is being used. This can inform evidence-based changes to timetabling and space management. The ultimate benefit is that lecturers gain greater access to suitable and quality learning space.

Occupancy data may not only be of direct value to staff, but also to students. For example, institutions could match the study needs of a student to an appropriate learning space. Certain institutions already disseminate this kind of data using personal apps or public occupancy screens, and if you’re a sustainability buff this technology also has exciting potential to help universities to save energy by switching off lights or heating when space occupancy is zero!

With institutions reevaluating their teaching and thinking how best to invest, it’s a great time to consider whether we really understand how students are using informal educational spaces outside of the classroom. The student perspective combined with novel use of occupancy data is bringing us closer to answering that conundrum.

Leave a Reply