Still lecturing at the lectern?

October 3, 1997

Teaching space is still dedicated to the medieval idea of students sitting at your feet, says Roger Lewis

A student from a mid-19th century university would feel wholly at home on the late 20th-century campus. Indeed the traditional university environment, where space is organised around the concept of the student coming to sit at the feet of the teacher, has simply been adapted to accommodate larger numbers, while the way we use space has not significantly altered.

Now higher education faces a number of challenges that together require rethinking of the physical environment within which students learn.

It is when we look at uses of space that we begin to see how remote the ideal remains, and how remote it is from encouraging independent learning.

As student numbers have grown over the years, we have merely expanded the space instead of reorganising it: more of the same.

Instead of the individual tutorial we have grouptutorials, and lectures continue in ever larger theatres. Our physical environment also reinforces a curriculum ill-suited to themodern age.

Space is organised to enable content to be transmitted by the teacher to the student. It is no wonder that many students find it hard to come to terms with active, independent learning within this physical context.

Room design - podium, lectern etc - emphasises the dominant role of the lecturer as disseminator of authoritative knowledge, with the student as passive recipient rather than shaper and part-producer of knowledge.

The tutor (as lecturer) operates physically apart from the student group. The use of space thusbuttresses traditional modes of learning whose inadequacy to the present age has been frequently emphasised, not least byDearing.

At the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, as part of a strategy to design a new learning environment, students and staff took part in a "scenarios" exercise, looking ahead to student learning in 2000.

We wished to create detailed pictures of the desired future, towards which we could work with commitment. The staff were practising teachers from academic departments andlearning centres, not selected because they would be innovative or radical.

The question we asked was, simply, who are the students of the future and where would they learn? Charlotte (media) studied largely on campus but rubbing shoulders with professional producers and directors, in the community. Tom (food science) was based partly at home and partly at a rural resource centre electronically linked to the parent university. Angus (history) worked from a ship at sea, with occasional tutorials at Hull and the use of a library in Rotterdam. Li (administrative management),PA to a managing director in Singapore, learned on the train, in her office, in her company's teleconferencing centre and in her tiny room at home.

Our use of space also poses students problems of convenience. Instead of creating learning spaces in and around the living and working environment (as for Charlotte, Tom, Angus and Li), students must come to the institution's own space. The campus clogged with cars, circulating to find a place to park, is a powerful daily symbol of the inadequacies of our thinking.

Lectures in theatres, seminars in classrooms, practical work in laboratories, tutorials in lecturers' offices: we still group students inflexibly in these set ways, even in new buildings, though there are exceptions where space can easily be reconfigured, such as new buildings at Thames Valley University and Sunderland.

Interestingly, most changes in the physical environment are occurring in resource centres outside the dominion of academic departments. Space that would once have been allocated to books is now used for a wide variety of student activity as information is provided increasingly by electronic means.

This gives rise to some interesting questions. Is innovation being led by a new group of learning professionals? Should academics play a more proactive part in determining uses of space, whether of existing or in new buildings?

We should take a fresh approach, firstly identifying the support students need to learn, and secondly creating congenial workplaces accordingly - acknowledging that increasingly a university's responsibility will extend to learning taking place off-campus.

The recent Society for Research into Higher Education publication, Managing change in higher education, identifies the concept of the "learnplace" - a place at which learning occurs and which a university services.

This may be capital intensive, such as hardware and access to a computer network, or simple, such as notes to help students learn with peers. The institution needs to decide which learnplaces it will service, depending on its market, mission, and resources.

What about the student?Students are an important constituent voice in decisions about the learning environment, though theirs is not the only voice. The individual student is only fleetingly involved in higher education and probably has little interest in long-term decisions.

As with other aspects of the learning environment, we ask students to respond to current provision but we need to find ways to involve them proactively, as partners and participants rather than customers orconsumers.

In terms of space this could mean allocating areas that students themselves manage for their learning, with the institution monitoring the results. Such experiments could be set up easily and quickly.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students (and their parents) are conservative. They expect lectures in lecture theatres, traditional libraries and the rest.

We also know that in practice they like to break down the boundaries between "social" and "learning" space by discussing their work over tables in the refectory or wanting to eat and drink and talk in the library.

But whatever their perceptions, students will demand greater flexibility. They will want tocarry their learning environment with them. Their physicallocation will increasingly be home, work or travelling. Given ever more intense financialconstraints, the environment will also need to be economically viable.

Converging pressures willdrive universities to take their responsibilities for off-campus learning much more seriously, including the provision of technology and learning materials to support more independent study. They will have to do this without increased resource, requiring, as the MacFarlane report put it, "a major redistribution of resources between face-to-face teaching and learning resources".

What of the campus itself? The traditional campus provides an environment marked off from the rest of life, dedicated to learning: protected space, rather like a church or cathedral. Secluded and cloistered, young peoplesupposedly dedicate their lives to study. We are now seeing the end of this, as the lines between learning and life are redrawn.

The future scenarios showstudents simultaneously working and learning, for example through placements and work-based projects, collaboratively with a variety of people, in many environments and in groups of differing sizes.

Learning space is fragmented, aided by telematics, whichsupport learning in many different spaces, replacing the roads and pathways of the campus with electronic links. Examples from De Montfort, Lincolnshire and Humberside and Sheffield Hallam were described at the recent SRHE conference on managing learning innovation.

In future, students' "spaces for learning" will depend not on the physical size of a university's campus but on the electronic capabilities of its network.

* Extracts from the scenarios can be found in Technology for Learning, produced jointly with BP (sponsor of new learning developments at the University ofLincolnshire and Humberside.).

Roger Lewis is BP Professor of Learning Development at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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