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.

The University as a third space?

Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) influential work on third places (or third spaces) within communities has been pivotal in encouraging sociologists, civic leaders and activists to look critically at how our public spaces for congregating (e.g. museums, cafes, pubs, parks, even barber shops) can provide a locus for democratic discussion and debate, community action, creative thought and expression, and importantly also for frivolity, friendship, and harmonious interaction.

The concept of the ‘third space’ has also become central to current thinking and a burgeoning movement of direct action in providing more inclusive alternatives to tertiary and adult education out with the confines of the systems, structures, policies and expectations of the higher education institution, and the systems, structures and policies under which higher education institutions are themselves governed.  The groups and collectives leading the way in providing alternative higher education in the UK include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln who provide free, co-operative access to higher education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and more recently the Free University Brighton who are currently exploring how to offer a free degree.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve been privileged to come to know and experience the work of the Ragged University. Working at the nexus between formal and informal education, the Ragged University is active across the UK (particularly in Edinburgh and Manchester) in utilising ‘third spaces’ in the community to create opportunities for the sharing of knowledge and facilitation of learning.

Based upon the philanthropic tradition of the Ragged Schools of the 1900’s, and the Madras ‘peer teaching’ or ‘mutual instruction’ method pioneered by Andrew Bell, the Ragged University provides opportunities (in libraries, pubs, and other public venues) for scholars, academics, artists and artisans to share their knowledge and experience with peers who have similar interests, a simple curiosity, or a hunger and thirst to learn. Encapsulating Oldenburg’s vision of the third space, you find free food, drink and music are an important feature of Ragged University’s events, ensuring that hunger and thirsts of other kinds are also provided for. The Ragged University are also active online, and finding increasingly creative ways to reach out digitally in realising their motto that “knowledge is power, but only when it is shared”.  I’ve been fortunate to share many discussions with Alex Dunedin, the ‘Principal Janitor’ of Ragged, and my own outlook on education is all the richer for that.

Alex often describes the Ragged University as providing ‘an annex’ to formal education, rather than an alternative. As someone working in formal higher education who has also been involved in community education initiatives – some but not all of which would have been supported in my formal role – I could readily identify with this. An ‘annex’ can be seen to provide a neutral space for academics to do something that relates to their discipline expertise, and which may or may not be directly related to the work they do within their formal role in their institution. It takes away arguments around ‘either or’ and creates an ‘as well as’.  In my own experience, and in speaking with colleagues who are seeking to engage through the opportunities that initiatives like the Ragged University provide, that’s important for many community-minded academics who may want to do something away from the constraints, expectations or even scrutiny of their institutions.

Screen shot from Ragged University website

The Ragged University’s website http://www.ragged-online.com

Regardless of whether we talk about third spaces for learning and teaching as ‘annexes’ or ‘alternatives’, their inclusivity is arguably as empowering and enriching for those academics who come into the space to share their experience as it is for those who come into the space to learn.  In this respect the engagement of academics in third spaces may also, in some way, lessen the frustration or constraint that they may be feeling over the lack of opportunity their own institution provides in allowing them to be educators in a broader sense of the word. This is critically important, as the willingness and freedom of academics to engage in third spaces for learning and teaching provides the opportunity to offer more inclusive and participatory forms of education (formal and informal) than many higher education institutions often allow for.

However it also raises another important, perhaps controversial, question.

Does the engagement of academics in third spaces for learning and teaching redirect our energies, at least in part, from a critical challenge we should be tackling – which is to confront the internal barriers and externally imposed confines that stand in the way of universities becoming places for adult learning that are non-discriminatory with respect to qualifications, aspirations or personal means? This is not to suggest that universities should become all things to all learners, but to underline the fact that many of our universities could do so much more to allow access to their campuses, courses and resources for those learners that aspire to be there, and for academics (and scholars from the wider community) who are seeking a space to share their knowledge and experience with whomever may be interested. In short, could the university become a ‘third space’ for alternative forms of learning in the communities where they are based? Could we look towards what our educators are doing in the ‘third spaces’ for learning that they are creating and engaging in, and re-purpose the university as a space for alternative educational practices?

During her time as Chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor (2010) directly addressed this very issue in arguing for a reconceptualization of universities as third spaces in the community and as “anchors in our communities…that can not only model from afar the inclusive practices of our diverse democracy but those that engage as agents of transformation” (p. 2).

Leaving aside the rhetoric that inevitably characterises institutional strategy within any university, there is common ground here with the ethos and outlook of organisations like the Ragged University, and the point Alex Dunedin and Susan Brown (2012) make in asserting that “The promise of inclusivity is something which we think needs to be substituted by action – everyone is a stakeholder in knowledge capable of participating in the intellectual activity of civic society.”

Unfortunately the strategic rhetoric of inclusion, community engagement and outreach is rarely fully realised in the educational practices of many universities – certainly not to the extent being exemplified by alternatives and annexes such as the Ragged University. Universities are also resource-rich but risk averse. These two factors are not unrelated, and so for example the reluctance to move beyond the delivery of largely nine-to-five courses to predominantly full-time registered and fee-paying students goes some way to explaining the corridors and rooms of dead space that characterise many university campuses come the evening, weekend and between semesters.

I recall a personal experience from some time ago, when a colleague and myself were attempting to organise a free programme of educational events aimed at disadvantaged young adults in the local community where the campus was based. Rooms and dates were identified across a number of summer evenings, and colleagues from different subject disciplines were ready to dedicate their time, only for our efforts to falter at the insistence of the estates department that someone had to pay for the hire of the rooms. These were classrooms and labs that were not otherwise being used, and they remained silent and unused that summer.

When I look at the pivotal work of the Ragged University, and comparable initiatives, I feel at once both inspired and frustrated as an academic that is seeking to make a broader educational contribution, but who like others has largely had to go out with the formal institution to do this.

Universities need to challenge themselves to properly define their relationship to the communities within which they sit. In doing this, they need to move beyond broadly-worded aspirations and strategies relating to public engagement and civic responsibility, and instead commit to and help drive a culture of action and active partnership between their institution and their wider community.

Individuals and communities will continue to persevere regardless (and perhaps in spite of) the stance our universities take. However, depending on the position that they take many universities may find themselves left behind in the wider social mission (rather than business) of education.

For many of the educators who work within their walls, and who deal on a daily basis with the policies, procedures and bureaucracies of higher education, the reality is that many universities are extremely effective at keeping academics busy without letting them do enough.

Or enough that matters.

Cantor, N. (2010) Academic excellence and civic engagement: constructing a third space for higher education. Office of the Chancellor. Paper 1. Syracuse University. Online via http://surface.syr.edu/chancellor/1

Dunedin, A. and Brown, S. (2012) Developing social capital: from promises to knowledge exchange. Paper presented at Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) 8th Annual Conference 2012. Online http://www.ragged-online.com/2012/10/developing-social-capital-promises-knowledge-exchange/

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.