life in the old place yet?

well, this week’s mugginess appears to have just broken spectacularly, and it’s now tipping it down outside. i’ve been spending a lot of this week in the adsetts centre extension – partly to escape the sauna that is the office on a hot day (top floor of a building + lack of air conditioning + pine desks + 30 degrees outside = remarkably authentic spa experience. if you close your eyes, of course. and don’t expect fluffy towels.); partly to get a handle on how it’s being used by the few students who are around at the moment (it’s nice to see new users wandering around, exploring, and adopting particular spaces themselves);…and partly to see if i could find a solution to what’s become known [in my head] as ‘the whiteboard problem’.

as a bit of background: when we were planning the design for the top 2 floors of the extension, we were keen that users should develop a sense of ownership of the space.  partly this has been achieved by letting students and staff develop their own level of comfort with accepted behaviours – so we avoided setting expectations of behaviour, or rules of use, at the outset, instead letting these evolve over time. and it’s fair to say that behaviour has been a lot more restrained than a lot of our staff were anticipating (or fearing, depending on your point of view!). it is a very relaxed and informal space, with frequent bursts of creativity, but there’s been no evidence of users disrepecting the space or, more importantly, other users. perhaps the biggest benefit for me is seeing staff who were initially very sceptical using the space themselves, alongside students, for meetings, breaks, and individual work.

another way we wanted to achieve a sense of ownership was by giving users – primarily students, but also staff – opportunities to display their work. there are some formal channels for doing this (submitting photos or artwork to be displayed on the walls) but we also included whiteboards to aid brainstorming, idea generation, and general doodling to brighten the space up. they’re in this area/set up:

large group pod

it’s fair to say that the whiteboards have hit a few snags: we originally left a few whiteboard pens around the place…which disappeared slowly over time (no surprise there!); a few students did bring their own pens with them and used the boards early on, though examples of this were few and far between; but perhaps the biggest snag was that every time something was written on the board, it was cleaned off – without fail – every morning by some members of staff. so any early attempts to encourage activity were removed – and it’s not surprising that students walking into a place with clean whiteboards and no pens were reluctant to use them. despite the bright colours around the area, the boards themselves soon started to feel quite sterile. needless to say we’ve kept an eye on it over the past few months, but without being able to resolve the issue, and it’s unfortunately slipped to the bottom of the list of things to do.

so last week, i decided to have another go. i had a set of unused whiteboard pens that i’d bought on my way to run a workshop last year (i do have a slight stationery addiction) which i figured i’d ‘donate’ to the area. in true blue peter style i set about them with a roll of sellotape, attaching stickers which say:


subtle, no? i then set about the whiteboards at each end of the area writing something along the lines of:

“please do not clean this message off! these pens have been provided for the benefit of all users – please feel free to use them, but please don’t take them out of the learning centre”

later that afternoon, i was way too excited to find that not only were all the pens still there (yay!) but that a student had written “SRI LANKA ROCKS” across one of the boards. not the most academic of arguments, maybe, but the personalisation was good to see. so i scribbled “please do not clean me” above it, and resolved to return the following day to photograph it.

needless to say, the following morning i was less than happy to find that everything – including the “please do not clean me” messages – had been, well, cleaned off😦 someone had even helpfully left a whiteboard cleaning pad at the side of the boards. on a brighter note, all pens were still present and correct.

determined not to accept defeat quite so easily, i started to wonder whether there was a slightly different approach to take. this is what i decided on (click on the images for a larger view of the writing):
less than subtle please-don't-clean-these-boards message :) on Twitpic slightly less subtle attempt at persuading cleaners not to cl... on Twitpic

i wasn’t holding out too much hope but, miraculously, something about this oh-so-unsubtle approach has worked! not only are all the messages still there, but there are more and more doodles/scribbles appearing each day – with people adding new lines/drawings to exisiting doodles as well as writing their own thoughts. and the biggest breakthrough? i’ve just seen one of the cleaners glance around guiltily, pick up a pen, and add his own contribution. made my week, that has🙂 coincidentally, it looks like there are some interviews taking place in the building today – lots of people in suits being brought round on individual guided tours of the space, each one remarking how great it is to see the scribbles on the boards. someone has just walked past and said “it’s nice to see there’s still some life around the space, even though semester has broken up”.

of course, i’m not going to get too carried away. it is out of semester, so whether this is something that will be sustainable as the learning centre fills up from september is another matter. will we be able to get the balance right – having enough place for frivolous scribbles to evolve, while also allowing group brainstorming activities for those who want to use it more seriously? will the pens still remain, if we make it clear that they’ve been donated for all students to use? for now, though, it’s nice to see a few people feeling comfortable enough to make their thoughts – however frivolous – visible. it really does brighten the place up, and makes me think that it might be something we can push forward elsewhere next year.

i’d love to create an area akin to the doodle bar, a place to encourage self-expression and creativity. whether the learning centre is the right place to do this is another matter. does anyone have examples of something similar, whether in higher education or elsewhere? if so, please share them either in the comments, or by letting me know on twitter (reply to @learningspaces). in the meantime, long live doodles!

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loughborough centenary lecture

on 28th april i was lucky enough to attend one of the loughborough university centenary lectures – “the campus is dead: long live the campus”, delivered by peter jamieson from the university of melbourne. now, let’s leave aside the irony of having a lecture about new learning space design being delivered in a large lecture theatre. and let’s politely not mention that it would have been much more useful for me to have written these notes up closer to the time.

i’ll admit to a certain amount of trepidation as i headed down to loughborough – after all, a lot of the learning space things i’ve stumbled across recently have been very same-old-same-old, so i wasn’t expecting it to be that useful. happily, however, i was wrong – and that’s not something i’ll admit to regularly.

so here are some of the main messages that i picked out from the lecture, and a few random thoughts of my own:

  • campuses often lack spontaneity, and can be ‘dead spaces’ with no heart, no unifying features- having concentrated on functionality of spaces, we’ve lost the sense of space;
  • when we’re talking about a ‘place of learning’ we should view learning as something more than a curriculum-related activity – we should be creating communities of scholars for sharing practice and ideas – and as important we should be creating places for students to be [i wholeheartedly agree with the idea of viewing learning as more than curriculum! this was one of those “isn’t that common sense, doesn’t everyone think this though?” moments for me – but i realise that isn’t so] – at melbourne, they’ve found that international students particularly congregate in spaces where they can ‘be’;
  • environments should be enriching – features that make us feel uplifted (eg, atriums, high ceilings, etc) make us feel appreciated [this makes sense to me…though i have no evidence for it];
  • why are we on campus? we need to articulate the benefits of having students together in the classroom, and design accordingly – eg, enable students to learn with and from each other, enable them to ‘let go’ of their own world views and understandings, to share thoughts and outputs;
  • we shouldn’t try to make one space do too many things [at this point i wrote “hurrah!” in my notes – i can only assume it had been a bad week, and i was pleased to hear someone say this🙂 ] – spaces should have 2 core modes of use, for additional functions we should think about adjacency of complementary spaces;
  • we should value emptiness – eg, pathways within a space enourages movement between groups, and encourages unexpected use of empty space [again, it’s refreshing to hear this – we’ve been trying to use a space within our learning centre to demonstrate this, and focus on giving students plenty of personal space around them – but it’s a battle when you also need to focus on providing space for high numbers of students – at a later point, though, he made a good point that rather than “losing capacity” we might actually enhance/increase its use, and students’ satisfaction with it];
  • spaces should be small enough to feel comfortable – intimate spaces are better than large spaces on the scale of heathrow airport [i did chuckle to myself at this point – peter showed some pictures of one space which is frequently touted around people who in my opinion should know better, and said that in his view it was ineffective because of its scale, and that they had to include “silly features” to try and give a sense of intimacy in a space that’s too open];
  • just because we’ve created one space that works, we shouldn’t just replicate it elsewhere on campus – instead we need to look at spaces within context and think what would be the best response in that situation – and we should actively bring staff into new spaces, and let the space “happen” to someone – give them time to use it and experience it for themselves.

so, lots of food for thought – and i’m sure i’ll return to some of these musings as we progress with the next phase of developments here!

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best intentions, and all that!

hmmm, not entirely sure how it’s got to may without me having added any new blog posts! anyhow, here goes (again). and this time, i absolutely really *will* update this more regularly. more in a minute…

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newfound blogging enthusiasm

or, not-quite-new-year-resolution.

having just returned from ELI 2009 i’ve decided to try and re-start blogging and tweeting via the @learningspaces account more frequently. i have blogged previously over at the shulearningspaces blog on blogger – i do like blogger a lot, but just want to try out wordpress and see whether having the blog and informal learning un-report housed at the same location make it any different.

we’ll see!

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trying out wordpress as a way of publishing a report into an informal learning study, as well as keeping a blog (which i’m quite bad at – i get all enthusiastic every now and again and make many many blog posts in a matter of weeks – but then real life takes over and i neglect blogging for months. bad.)

anyway, let’s see how it goes. the report is a work in progress, new pages will be added over the coming couple of weeks.

[on an unrelated note, i have to say that the people at wordpress support are fantastic – quick, effective, and friendly.]

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