Space as a change agent

I have always been interested in the way that built spaces force particular kinds of social interactions. This is a tenet of ‘space-syntax‘ (see also CASA), and I first encountered it, in an archaeological setting, in Ray Laurence’s Space and Society. Mark Grahame in Reading Space: Social Interaction and Identity in the Houses of Roman Pompeii took the idea further, and analysed a series of houses at Pompeii from the same point of view (Laurence was concerned about street-level interaction). I later used the same perspective when teaching a class at Birckbeck College called ‘Being Civilised: Polis and Urbs’. Essentially, I was arguing that we could gauge the kinds of emergent social life possible in particular cities, towns, and settlements, based on an analysis of the street-plan. After all, if that’s all you have to work with, you have to be creative in the kinds of approaches you can bring to squeeze information out. This same premise was behind an early agent-based model I built. It is also a premise behind Doreen Massey et al’s ‘City Worlds‘ text book for the Open University, and a driving motivation behind my own work drawing out the different social networks hidden in stamped Roman brick.

The point of all this? The same approach now appears to be making its way into educational circles, as researchers and teachers consider the impact of where the teaching takes place, whether in the physical world or a virtual one. An e-book published by Educause and edited by Diana G. Oblinger explores the idea further, and is well worth the read. From the introduction:

“Learning is the central activity of colleges and universities. Sometimes that learning occurs in classrooms (formal learning); other times it results from serendipitous interactions among individuals (informal learning). Space—whether physical or virtual—can have an impact on learning. It can bring people together; it can encourage exploration, collaboration, and discussion. Or, space can carry an unspoken message of silence and disconnectedness. More and more we see the power of built pedagogy (the ability of space to define how one teaches) in colleges and universities.

This e-book collection—chapters, examples, and images—presents learning space design from the perspective of those who create learning environments: faculty, learning technologists, librarians, and administrators. Other books focus on architectural and facilities issues; this e-book collection makes no attempt to duplicate them, despite their importance. This e-book focuses on less often discussed facets of learning space design: learner expectations, the principles and activities that facilitate learning, and the role of technology. Three trends catalyzed this collection:

  • Changes in our students
  • Information technology
  • Our understanding of learning

Today’s students—whether 18, 22, or 55—have attitudes, expectations, and constraints that differ from those of students even 10 years ago. Learning spaces often reflect the people and learning approach of the times, so spaces designed in 1956 are not likely to fit perfectly with students in 2006.

Many of today’s learners favor active, participatory, experiential learning—the learning style they exhibit in their personal lives. But their behavior may not match their self-expressed learning preferences when sitting in a large lecture hall with chairs bolted to the floor. The single focal point at the front of the room sends a strong signal about how learning will occur. A central theme of this e-book is how to reconceptualize learning spaces to facilitate active, social, and experiential learning….”