Scholars welcome proposals for 'serendipitous' spaces

In the midst of the digital revolution, academy still needs the human touch. Melanie Newman writes

February 18, 2010

The future of learning may be digital, but right now academics need more time and space to meet in person.

Delegates at the Leadership Foundation's higher education leadership summit in London last week applauded The Open University's plans for "blending digital lifestyles and digital work styles", but cheered proposals for souped-up meeting rooms louder still.

Martin Bean, the OU's vice-chancellor and a former Microsoft executive, kicked off the conference on 11 February by calling on universities to use technology to tap into a growing appetite for informal learning.

"Today, higher education is built around institutional accreditation with predefined steps and paths - you come in and you do it our way," he said. But this is a barrier to expansion, he suggested.

"Imagine what will happen when ... informal learners - who are already highly motivated - start getting access to snippets rather than full courses from any institution in the world direct to their mobile devices," he said.

Sir Tim O'Shea, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, questioned whether this model would enable an informal learner with an interest in solid-state physics to manage the "disciplined hill path" from algebra to functions to calculus to Fourier analysis.

But Mr Bean said: "We are coming at it through mentors, guidance, prescriptive pathways and platforms that point people to where they would logically go next.

"It's almost as if the systems now need to do the same as we currently do face to face and on the phone with new students."

Despite this technical wizardry, it seems that online spaces are not what academics want in 2010: instead, many want real spaces to talk.

In a Dragons' Den-style session, Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Jose Chambers, assistant vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, pitched ideas for "collaborative spaces".

Professor Crossick advocated a "Heidegger Centre": an off-campus "space for interaction" where academics, postgraduates and "external players" could have "serendipitous encounters" across disciplines.

Academics would bid for time in the centre, work on five or six projects and leave as soon as they obtained a grant.

Asked whether the centre should be online, Professor Crossick said: "It's people in a room together that produce the best outcomes."

Professor Chambers also called for "serendipitous encounters", but did not want academics to have to plan them in advance.

She said the "well university" was not merely one where the physical wellbeing of staff was looked after: "It's one where there is space for meeting and living the life of the mind."

In another session, Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford, said that children who spend a large proportion of their time in front of computer screens may not gain the variety of experience necessary for creativity.

Cyberspace is no substitute for real-life complexity, she said: "People with autism are more comfortable with avatars ... You can't have good eye contact in Second Life."

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