Learning Spaces in Tertiary Education

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Tertiary institutions across Australia are constantly looking at ways to innovate learning and teaching. Curriculum, assessment and learning activities design is continuously evolving. This need to disrupt and innovate is the answer to a workforce landscape that is always changing, but more importantly, it is also about responding to the needs of a new generation of learners.  Making every graduate ready for employment cannot be realised if we only focus on the “how” of mapping curriculum. It is no longer sufficient to concentrate on “what” students will be guided to do in order to achieve their learning outcomes and “when” this learning is supposed to happen. More than ever, the “where” has become as significant in the learning journey as the how, what and when.

Throughout history, students have always been required to come into university grounds for their learning to occur. Nevertheless, the exponential development and use of technology in tertiary education in the last 15 years has impacted on how often, and sometimes even how necessary it is for students to step into a university building. But, has this really been something that Universities have intended to achieve? I guess the answer is along the lines of “no, not really”. Tertiary institutions want students on campus, they want students to utilise the spaces not only for formal learning, but for informal learning as well as for socialising and networking.  Students on campus means connection, collaboration, belonging and some will even argue retention. Universities such as RMIT are investing enormous amounts of money in building new learning spaces, as well as in re-designing and redeveloping existing ones. These spaces are being designed with the intent not only to be conducive to learning and teaching, but more fundamentally to recreate authentic learning areas that resemble industry.

In August 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the Developing 21st Century Learning Spaces in Tertiary Education conference organised by Criterion Conferences. With a wide range of presenters from different universities across Australia and New Zealand, the conference was designed to showcase how these universities through consultation with teachers and students are developing integrated, flexible and dynamic learning environments that allow for the quick implementation of emerging learning technologies as well as interdisciplinary collaboration. The universities who presented at the conference have campuses sprawled across a particular state as well as Australia wide, some are dual sector while others are not, and some are known for specialising on specific disciplines. Nonetheless, when facing the enormous task of having to rethink, design and build new learning spaces, their experiences were not that different from each other. They encountered the same challenges, followed very similar approaches, identified the same issues once the spaces were built and even now, they continue to explore the best ways to utilise these spaces by integrating technology that allows for curriculum delivery and support pedagogical principles. They all agreed that it is impossible to design the perfect learning space, however, it was made clear that there are some very fundamental elements that if given important consideration have the potential of minimising major risks.

While listening to all speakers, I compiled a list of points (see below) – by no means exhaustive – that can be read as lessons learned, and which can serve as underpinning principles when thinking about the 21st-century learning space. I have also provided links to case studies.

Learning Spaces must be:

But, what about pedagogy?

As previously mentioned, the main focus of the conference was on how to design technology adaptable physical learning spaces that are dynamic enough to attract and retain students. Although there was limited discussion about pedagogy, it was nonetheless acknowledged that pedagogy is a fundamental building block when thinking about the design of learning spaces.

…they need to rethink how these spaces are designed and operated as well as how to get their pedagogy in line with these physical changes to remain institutions of choice and to improve student outcomes (Criterion Conferences, 2018)

Pedagogy, alongside technology and spatial design principles (from an architectural point of view), must drive the design of these spaces. Physical learning spaces must be adaptable to pedagogical changes and as a result, architects and university planners must consult students and teachers alike when embarking in such expensive and time-consuming projects. It is the interconnectivity (Venn diagram below) between spatial design principles, pedagogy and technology that will allow for learning to take place and ensure compatibility with emerging curriculum design. Each of the areas in the diagram must be given equal importance and consideration. Failing to consider pedagogy when designing physical learning environments might result in amazing looking building, but with little occupancy and use; and most would agree this is not something we would like to see.

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