There is an emerging belief that young people in western society now relate horizontally, or laterally, more than vertically. They relate more effectively to their friends, to the internet and to the interactive media in general than they do to ‘authority’ or to their families. (David Watson,’Whatever happened to the student experience’)
We have to stop pigeon-holing the learning experiences
Helen Gale, 2006
Good communications are at the heart of successful relationships. It is no surprise then that young people make extensive use of information and communications technology (ICT) in fostering and developing their networks of relationships. The students who attend our universities and colleges today have a view of technology that is integrated into their daily lives.
Conversation is where all learning begins
Douglas Blane, 2006
Students are drawn to spaces that are open, inviting, and stimulating spaces where they become fully engaged in the conversation and in the excitement of sharing new ideas
Wedge and Kearns, 2005
Institutions with a high proportion of non-traditional learners may rightly criticise an over-emphasis on how young people learn but there is no denying that people in all walks of life interact with information and communications technologies in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. The challenge for educators is to find ways of making the simplest and most ubiquitous tools support the learning experience.
For most educational institutions, however, whilst this integration, or embedding of technology, is what they are trying to achieve, it remains somewhat elusive. ICT is often something that is ‘over there’ in a separate computer lab, or bolted onto traditional library settings. It seems obvious that a goal of ICT integrated into curricular activity is only likely to be achieved if the technology is ubiquitous and deeply embedded in our learning spaces.
While for previous generations IT was a kind of exotic overlay or an optional tool, for the Net Generation student IT is essential. It is clear that IT and Net Gen students have had a mutually influential-almost symbiotic-relationship
The rise of social learning
Integration into everyday, mainstream activity is certainly how many of our students see ICT. The arrival of new services (sometimes referred to as Web 2.0) has helped to remove many of the barriers in traditional web authoring and seen a massive rise in the uptake of web authoring and collaboration. This new wave of social activity has been termed various things eg social software, social media and social computing. The key word is however ‘social’.
The social software used by the Google-eyed, del.icio.us technorati that we currently teach is highly successful because it meets two key requirements of the modern student psyche – it enables them to participate and values their contribution. These two ‘benefits’ are ones identified by creative class people, interviewed by Richard Florida in his research that formed the basis of his book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, as the most important things that creative people want.
It should come as no surprise that our student body values opportunities to contribute, and that such opportunities prove to be strongly motivational. The tactics that many tutors in further education (FE) and higher education (HE) have been taking to increase the extent and use of techniques such as problem-based learning, group assignments and project work makes real sense for a generation that values contribution and participation. In turn such teaching tactics have repercussions for the sort of spaces that we provide both for the student-teacher interactions that are needed and for the ‘out of class’ group work that these teaching strategies demand. Often the default location for such ‘out of class’ work has traditionally been the college or university refectory, but we can’t help feeling that new learning spaces should do better than this!
A key point here is the changing relationship between the teacher and the learner. We are all too familiar with the picture of active teachers and passive learners. The conclusion has to be that the new learning paradigm that is student-centred requires changed behaviours by both teachers and learners. A key question is how far is that changed behaviour hampered by current learning facilities and how can new facilities be configured to enable this change?
Spaces for engaged learning
As educators we recognise the wide diversity of students that we now have on our campuses and we wish to enable student choice and to empower students to make choices. An important aspect of such choice is where, when and how students study.
Providing a wide variety of study options is important and many institutions have woken up to the fact that it is better to provide such facilities and enable choice (especially for those students who may not have their own place of study) with spaces that are welcoming, inspiring, technology-rich, and that also provide the human support for learners.
However, choice is not empowering if the options provided are only specified and developed by the learning provider – learners need to be part of the design process as considered in the implmentation section - working with others.
It is increasingly important that colleges and universities engage learners in a dialogue to better understand their perspective. Institutions make massive investments… for the sake of meeting students’ wants and needs, basing these decisions on assumptions is risky.
Only by understanding the Net Generation can colleges and universities create learning environments that optimize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005
If institutions fail to provide engaging learning environments then students will vote with their feet – and at one level this may be fine for the competent experienced learner.
But HEFCE, supported by the Higher Education Academy, recently conducted research into the student experience of learning in HE which showed that a large number of students appear to take a surface approach to learning; that is that they engage in learning in ways that are opposite to those that tutors are trying to encourage.
It is often as students are leaving their classrooms that important conversations begin; conversations that have the potential for reinforcing new concepts or ideas that may have been presented in the classroom as students discuss their own understanding.
Our aim should be to design learning spaces in such a way so as to encourage learning that is:
- continuous from formal classroom-based work to informal study areas for individual or group study,
- situated close to student learning support (for example by locating tutors’ office space nearby and having learning resources staff, IT support staff available) and
- supportive of students engaging in deeper learning.
This view is supported by Jisc research that shows that students who are using a variety of technologies in flexible ways to support their learning do adopt a deep approach to learning. For example, whilst reading through their lecture notes students follow up references online. This online activity often leads to further reading and many of students verify website information against books and e-journals. Students also frequently share and test this new information with their peers using these discussions to modify their understanding, adopting a researcher/collaborator model of learning.
At the heart of this activity is a conversational, collaborative model of learning that we should strive to nurture, not just support, in our learning environment development. Diana Laurillard has done much research in this area and gives a brief overview in the Explanation of the Conversational Framework. Drawing upon a range of data sources, Conole’s review of pedagogical models and their use in e-learning gives a context for the Conversational Framework.
As well as designing spaces conducive to learning it is equally important that we are able to supply the types of support students need when they need it. There are many examples across the sector of institutions providing support in new and innovative ways:
- York St John University has grouped student support services together in a one-stop-shop close to the student social area in the Fountains Learning Centre. View case study
- Edinburgh’s Telford College has staffed help points in its Learning Streets where students can get IT support. The College has also grouped student services and careers advice around the social Hub. View case study
- Newcastle College has taken a very innovative approach to front-line IT support in its centre for HE level students. IT facilities are provided in a modern cafeteria/bar area and the bar staff provide first level IT support that can deal with many routine issues. This approach has proven popular and very cost effective.
Allow users to decide the way in which they want to use to use the technology, the spaces and the services.
Christine Willoughby, Northumbria University
Your students have an increasing variety of expectations, experiences, and learning styles and your technology-rich learning spaces can exploit this richness. There is also an increased use of social software and environments such as Second Life in learning and teaching. Your ‘digital native’ students expect this type of engagement and it is important that there is an intelligent approach adopted to their use without a blanket blocking of access to such sites.
Conversation is central to the collaborative model of learning and the redesign of your learning space is an ideal opportunity to provide resources that support and encourage active learning.
We have already mentioned the idea that building developments have to be closely aligned with technology developments and staff activities. Where this alignment occurs there will be greater synergistic benefit for the organisation. The natural extension of this synergy is to recognise that there are important strategic links between key policies and strategies of the institution.
A fantastic ‘learning’ building speaks volumes about the approach that the institution takes to learning and teaching and should support the approach that is articulated in the learning and teaching strategy, but it should also be part of the technology strategy of the institution, its recruitment and retention strategy, its marketing strategy and its strategy for engaging with the local community.
A successful technology-rich learning space is a powerful vehicle for providing a holistic view of the institution that radiates and reflects its strategic stance. When planning their Learning Gateway, The University of Cumbria (previously St Martin’s College) clearly articulated their vision and based this on their institutional strategies. Our resource collection includes a detailed case study from the University of Cumbria.
There is more on identifying trends that might affect your particular build and opportunities that may be open to you in the implementation section on developing the vision.
The vision for the Learning Gateway is based on the college’s corporate plan, its learning and teaching strategy and a set of pedagogical principles that put learners and learning first.
These recognise that learning is complex; it does not take place in a vacuum and that space combined with technology and appropriate support can provide the optimum conditions for active learning.
Margaret Weaver, University of Cumbria
When considering what is going on out there with learners, it is useful to hear (and listen) to what the students themselves say. As part of our e-learning programme, we commissioned a series of studies which give a voice to students. They demonstrate how technology has become an essential part of their learning lives and that they use different types of learning space as appropriate (not just the task in hand but how they feel). Here are some examples of video case studies from the learner experiences project.