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.

Curriculum_and_space_propositions

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.

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Academic development and technology in the next 5 years

I was recently invited by two colleagues to write a short reflection on how I thought academic development would evolve over the next five years, with respect to supporting and taking forward good practice in technology-enhanced learning. My reflection is one of a number that they are collecting for inclusion in a book chapter they are currently working on.

The request was a timely one, as it came on the same day I was dipping back into the e-textbook version of a handbook I co-authored a few years ago, the second edition of which had coincidentally been published 5 years previously. I was revisiting the handbook – a practical guide to using educational technology written partly for the Masters programme we were running at the time – in order to share a few ideas for online collaborative learning activities with a colleague who was redesigning one of their undergraduate courses.

Cover of Pedagogy and learning technoology: a practical guide In looking back over the handbook I was pleased to see that most of the guidance it offered still stood up pretty well 5 years down the line, possibly because we tried to write the handbook primarily from a learning and teaching rather than a technology perspective.

However in simultaneously looking back 5 years while thinking ahead to the next 5, I can’t help but feel that the key challenges we face in trying to encourage academics to use technology in their learning and teaching practice really haven’t changed that much. Establishing a dialogue with those who are reticent or reluctant, or who simply don’t see the need to use technology in their practice, remains a concern. So too does contextualising the use of technology in learning and teaching to the different discipline areas that the willing or curious are coming from. Time and direct support for academics go hand-in-hand as another constant challenge and barrier.

There are also new challenges to be acknowledged and addressed if our universities are to make effective use of technology in learning and teaching, a critical one being the creative ways in which young learners are being engaged with and through technology in school.

The specific challenge that my colleagues put to me, in writing my reflection for their forthcoming book chapter, was to “Describe in 300 words the role you envisage academic development will play in the next 5 years within higher education institutions, and the sector more widely, to drive pedagogical innovation supported my technology?

Quite a big ask for 300 words, and a good lesson in writing concisely. One I failed, but only by fifteen words.

This was my response:

In the next five years, academic development will continue to play an important role in how we engage academics in effective digital practice and the sharing of that practice. We will see further diversification in how academic development is ‘delivered’ and facilitated online, and we will see more creative use of institutional PG Cert programmes to engage academics in experiencing then applying digital approaches to their own teaching and student support activities.

However, the degree to which the above happens will vary considerably between institutions, depending on institutional strategy, leadership, and the extent to which a general culture of enhancement in learning and teaching is shared, embedded and celebrated.

A critical enabling factor here will be whether the enhancement of learning and teaching is appropriately resourced. Many institutions will not move beyond their current position of trying to engage a greater number of staff in making use, or slightly more effective use, of the VLE and other institutional educational technologies. This is where much of their academic development effort around technology-enhanced learning will remain focused, very possibly to the exclusion of important emerging areas.

Institutions that invest appropriately in academic development, and who are alert to the potential of using digital approaches in making learning and teaching more creative, inclusive and sustainable will move farthest in the coming five years. These institutions, and their academic developers, will also be cognisant of the benefits and opportunities of digital scholarship, and digital engagement in scholarly and professional communities, for improving the outreach of the institution and extending the learner experience beyond the physical walls of the campus and virtual silos of the VLE.

Academic development, as an area of practice and a community of practitioners, will have an important role to play in the Higher Education sector in ensuring that current discussions around the development of digital literacies for students begin to focus on discipline-specific digital literacies.

Challenging critically not perpetuating the parochial

I recently posted the following on the Global Dimensions in Higher Education project blog. Given the focus of my own blog here, I’m sure my colleagues on the GD in HE project (@GDinHE) won’t mind me reposting it.globaldimensionsinhe_screenshot

In last week’s Times Higher Education (17-23 January 2013), two articles tackle between them a number of stark realities within the dominant Western discourse around globalisation in higher education. In one, Professor Thomas Docherty presents a broad-ranging consideration that questions the relationship of the university to national culture and community, and draws a sharp distinction between ‘scholarly globalisation’ on one hand and, on the other, the contradiction that centres around the rhetoric of post-national promise versus economic competitiveness.

In the second article in question, Joanna Sugden tackles the recent changes in visa regulations within the United Kingdom and the barriers these are imposing on graduate students from out with the European Union. In short we welcome highly skilled non-EU postgraduate students to study at UK universities, and welcome the substantially higher fees they pay in comparison to their EU peers, but in return require them to find a job with a salary in excess of £20,000 (way beyond in certain circumstances) within four months of graduating to remain in the UK. However the position they secure must be with a registered employer that will support their application for the equivalent of the previous two-year work visa that was automatic on completing postgraduate study.

One message that may be taken from both of these articles is that we may be talking global, but the focus of our thinking is often squarely within the local and national context. It is on our institutions and the socio-political climate within which they exist and are sustained, and on increasing their economic viability and growth. In the case of international postgraduates studying in the UK, the message is clear – you are welcome here while paying a substantial cost to attend university, and to remain if you are fortunate to secure a position with an employer who won’t overlook you in favour of similar candidates who do not require a Tier 2 visa.

If being cynical, and realistic, we might look towards the recruitment of international students to UK and other Western universities, the establishment of campuses overseas, and some forms of the now omnipresent MOOC as being primarily or even purely about institutional competitiveness and survival within an increasingly stretched and crowded global HE sector.

However whilst on one level we must address and critique the globalisation of higher education as a capitalistic pursuit concerned with the movement of educational services across national boundaries for purposes of market gain and competitive edge, we can also look towards what a globalised approach within higher education can offer in pedagogical and experiential terms.

Here we can be more concerned with recognising, exploring and harnessing global and cultural diversity within our curricula and educational practices, so as to provide a richer, more democratic educational experience either on campus or online. In asking why we should internationalise and diversify higher education curricula and pedagogy, Welikala (2011) warns against the over use of the term globalisation “which is increasingly used to mean everything and nothing”, and against neo-liberal ideologies that position higher education as being responsible for “the construction of knowledge economies that will save the world from all its burning problems” (p.24). However in providing a more detailed argument than can be usefully summarised here, Welikala does make many convincing points around what a globally and culturally sensitive ‘multi-perspective curriculum’ can offer in addressing global issues collaboratively, developing rich knowledge and values of respect, and in developing the broader skills needed in a world where cultural identities, the nature of work, and our information technologies are continually evolving.

If we see promise and potential in this kind of education, we also need to be aware of the divisive practices in the globalisation and internationalisation of education that must be challenged. McBurnie and Ziguras (2009) warn against the dangers of ‘cultural imperialism’ in which the establishment of overseas campuses, and the offering of programmes informed by other cultural norms and perspectives, may challenge and undermine the nation building purpose of education. We might be particularly mindful here of ‘deficit model’ practices that are all too common to observe, including the wholesale replication of curricula for delivery overseas, and the ‘flying faculty’ phenomena where by institutions send academics to support (often very experienced) overseas educators in learning how to teach their programmes just as they do. This is often without any consideration given to the weaknesses of their own academic practices, or the strengths and appropriateness of their overseas colleagues’ academic practices within their own cultural and pedagogical contexts. Similarly, in distance learning contexts, we might be mindful of online programmes that are offered internationally but are grounded in assumptions about the field or profession that are culturally exclusive and bounded within culturally narrow fields of view.

Dewey (1916) discussed at length the unavoidable tensions within educational systems between the development of the individual, and sustaining the dominant practices, beliefs, industries, and expectations of the nation state. The tensions are heightened when we consider educational systems that extend across nations and cultures, and perhaps the largest threat to meaningfully addressing global and cultural diversity in higher education is that we uncritically seek to perpetuate our own localised pedagogical assumptions, practices and understandings.

As we move into the next stage of developing and piloting the Global Dimensions in Higher Education module, our challenge will be to ensure we create a space for critical deliberation and reflection on our collective and individual practices and assumptions, for exploring global issues in higher education, and ultimately for asking under what conditions does globalisation in higher education serve a greater good for learners and educators than institutions and states?

Dewey, J. (1916, republished 1966) Democracy and education: An introduction to the democracy of education. New York: Free Press/Macmillan.

Docherty, T. (2013) Globalisation and its discontents. Times Higher Education, No. 2084, 17th-23rd January, pp. 40-43. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=422371

McBurnie, G. and Ziguras, C. (2009) Trends and future scenarios in programme and institution mobility across borders. Higher Education to 2030 Volume 2: Globalisation, pp. 89-108. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Sugden, J. (2013) Home to roost: UK loses its allure as visa rules deter Indian graduates. Times Higher Education, No. 2084, 17th-23rd January, pp. 20-21. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=422371

Welikala, T. (2011) Rethinking international higher education curriculum: mapping the research landscape. Teaching and Learning Position Paper, August 2011. Universitas 21. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13] http://www.universitas21.com/news/details/32/rethinking-international-higher-education-curriculum-mapping-the-research-landscape