Within, across, and beyond: ‘third spaces’ in tertiary education

This post is presented in two related parts. Part two relates to the title.

Part 1. Overview of a recent learning spaces design event

The context for this post is the Space to Succeed event held by Architecture and Design Scotland back in the autumn. Organised as part of a wider programme exploring developments in architecture and design over the last decade, the Space to Succeed event brought together a wide range of delegates to explore challenges and developments in the design of learning spaces.

The focus of Space to Succeed was mainly on the design and configuration of physical learning spaces (e.g. schools and campuses, and the spaces for learning within them), although with a strong emphasis on where digital learning tools and spaces are located within and between the physical.

I was one of five invited speakers that included colleagues from the schools sector, public bodies and industry, and between us we covered a fairly broad range of themes and issues.

Maggie Barlow, from Space Strategies, presented on the topic of ‘Creating quality spaces to nurture learning’ and discussed her work with education authorities to help them reconceptualise the design of schools to ‘catalyse new ways of learning’. Rethinking learning space design was also central to the talk by Ciarian Bauer. Ciarian discussed the Bridge 21 programme at Trinity College Dublin, and their work to date in designing reconfigurable classroom and collaborative learning spaces.


The presentations that chimed most closely with my own were those by Ian Stuart, discussing his work leading the development of the national school’s intranet GLOW on behalf of the Scottish Government, and by Angela Edwards of Inverclyde Council. Ian discussed the potential for enhancing the learning experience of school pupils by making more effective use of their mobile phones as “personal supercomputers”, and he strongly challenged ‘turn it off’ policies and the tendency within schools “to create special rooms for technology to happen within”. Ian also discussed the relationship between more creative use of digital tools and spaces within education, and the development of learning within and for wider community contexts. Angela Edwards addressed a very specific community, that of Inverclyde, in a rich talk that covered learner needs, de-population, and the challenge of ensuring that new and existing spaces within communities are used in ways that directly connect and impact on culture, curriculum, wellbeing and employment.

I touched upon similar themes to Ian and Angela in my own talk for the event, which addressed the concept of ‘third space’ in relation to further and higher education, digital and community engagement, and where the curriculum is located and co-located.

The outcomes of the Space to Succeed event – including recordings of the talks outlined above – were recently made available at http://www.ads.org.uk/decade-space-to-succeed-outcomes/.

In addition Architecture and Design Scotland has produced a collection of reflections from their wider programme of events, and this includes short articles to accompany the Space to Succeed presentations http://www.ads.org.uk/decade-a-collection-of-reflections-to-mark-10-years-of-ads/.

With the permission of Architecture and Design Scotland, the reflective piece relating to my own talk is shared below. This is the unedited and slightly longer version of the piece submitted for the publication, and it expands upon a number of issues that I’ve written about in previous blog posts.

Part 2. Within, across, and beyond: ‘third spaces’ in tertiary education

How might we conceptualise the nature of our educational spaces – both physical, digital, and intangible – within the context of further and higher education? Furthermore, how might we think about learner engagement within and across our educational spaces, and the relationship between our formal educational spaces and the communities within which our educational institutions sit?

From a personal perspective, there are two important propositions that frame my own thinking here. The first concerns the somewhat intangible space that is the curriculum. We know and experience the curriculum through the artefacts, activities, resources and people that the curriculum is instantiated within and communicated through. However, here I suggest that our notions of ‘curriculum’ are often bounded by assumptions of space and place in programmes of study, and of space and place within the ‘hard’ and virtual walls of the institution.

My second proposition concerns the burgeoning open education movement within particularly the higher education sector, and the promise that this originally offered to harness open online approaches to widen access to higher education on a previously unprecedented scale. This early promise has failed to transpire, and instead open online education initiatives have served mainly to amplify access to higher education for those who already have a higher education, rather than to offer opportunities to engage in further and higher education for those who are aspiring to engage. Here I suggest a need to refocus the open education debate so that it is not framed so strongly in the context of open online education, and instead provides a focus on our physical spaces and locations.


The concept of ‘third place’ or ‘third space’ is an important one in thinking about the above. Drawing upon the seminal work of Ray Oldenburg (1989), some of the key characteristics that define third space include: their location as spaces within our community that are ‘not home’ and ‘not work’; as spaces where social difference and diversity is embraced; as spaces where those who may not otherwise meet may come together; and where there is a sharing of knowledge and experience for a collective good. When we think about the concept in relation to formal tertiary education, we may extend the idea of ‘third space’ as spaces for learning and collaboration that exist between and across particular courses and course cohorts, between and across formal and informal learning communities, and between and across the university, local communities, and wider society.

The idea of ‘third space’ is central to the rapidly developing alternative higher education movement in the UK, and is both explicit and implicit in the work and ethos of initiatives and collectives including the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, the Free University Brighton, and the Ragged University. Common to each is the creation and facilitation of free higher education and adult learning opportunities within the community, situated in collaborative and collegiate spaces – or annexes – that sit out with formal higher educational institutions.

We can also look towards similar initiatives within the digital domain. This includes the work of the charity Lead (Linking Education and Disability) Scotland, and their Thinking Digitally course which offers a negotiated, peer-supported, online opportunity for learners to research and then produce a digital artefact relating to a topic of their choosing (for example a subject they would like to study or an area they would like to work in). The learners then have the option of being formally assessed at college level for the digital and information literacies they have developed in the process. A similar widening access ethos is embedded in the development of Community Open Online Courses (COOCs) (http://coocs.co.uk/), with the COOCs platform providing “a place where anyone can teach and learn anything for free”.

What we see in the examples above, manifested in various ways, is an ‘unbounding’ of both the curriculum and tertiary learning opportunities from the physical and virtual walls of the formal educational institution, and a ‘co-location’ of the curriculum within our wider communities.

While further education colleges have been more pro-active in extending the college and the curriculum to the wider community, there has been much less of a tradition of this within higher education. This does not sit well against the idea of higher education as a public good, and one that can benefit not just our learners, professions and industries, but also wider society itself.

There are, however, examples that illuminate what is possible when we reconceptualise our formal higher education spaces and what we expect to happen within and beyond them. The Student as Producer initiative at the University of Lincoln, and Student as Change Agents at University of Exeter, have both reconceptualised the curriculum and teaching and assessment practice to position students as active researchers and influencers of change, and producers or co-producers of ideas, resources and interventions that often have a broader social purpose and resonance.

The institution-wide curriculum reform undertaken at the University of Hong Kong in recent years has also shown what is possible when a university radically reconceptualises the relationship between the university, their curriculum, and the wider communities within which both exist. Major projects undertaken through the curriculum that attest to this include architecture and engineering students building a school in a deprived local area, with the back of the building being constructed as a public amphitheatre (or ‘third space’) for community events and activities.

‘Third spaces’ in tertiary education are spaces – or annexes – that extend our opportunities for engaging with learners within and beyond the college or university. Some of these third spaces are physical, some digital. We can also create ‘third space’ within our curricula, if we view the curriculum itself as a space and then ask ourselves where it should be located and co-located. Harnessing the concept of ‘third space’ in tertiary education can allow us to make connections between different groups of learners, allow our students to connect with the wider communities they belong to, and allow our colleges and universities to better connect with the communities to whom they belong.

Oldenburg, R. (1989) The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe and Company.