Physical Learning Spaces and Teaching in the Blended Learning Landscape
The proliferation of digitalized education has, perhaps counterintuitively, renewed an interest in physical learning spaces. Technology evangelists routinely evoke cloud services and “anytime, anywhere” discourses to downplay the importance of location – and, within education, to question the future viability of “bricks and mortar” institutions (Goodyear et al. 2018). Yet many teaching practitioners reject the view that online/mobile/blended learning automatically depreciates classroom interaction. They strive, instead, for alignment and complementarity between the physical and virtual spaces they use. They argue that face-to-face pedagogy in physical spaces can strongly and productively influence online teaching and learning and vice versa.
The research literature increasingly concurs. One research meta-analysis argues that courses using blended learning – where face-to-face teaching is systematically integrated with online activities – significantly outperform both online-only and face-to-face-only equivalents (see Baepler et al. 2014). Institutional strategies for digitalized education might, therefore, judiciously retain face-to-face teaching. In doing so, both co-present and online modes of education will be reshaped – recontextualized as elements of wider blended learning landscapes. Such landscapes encompass a broad spectrum of interconnected “environments” (including the physical and virtual, the institutional and extra-institutional) and “resources” (such as teachers and other professionals, other students, personal connections and family members, and nonhuman resources – including digital artifacts). Collectively, those environments and resources support and structure the learning experiences of an educational community. Institutional policy often urges innovation in using online environments; neglecting, by comparison, the value of physical learning spaces. Teachers urgently need to be empowered to evaluate and articulate the latter, as practices there are reshaped and reimagined.
Published literature furnishes many accounts of physical learning spaces influencing teaching outcomes and overall student experiences (Bligh and Crook 2017). And countless new learning space designs are appearing within institutions. Nexuses of room construction, décor, furniture configuration, technical connectivity with personal devices, and audiovisual installation, these new designs are built to support bold and distinctive visions of future teaching. The underlying institutional estates investment is often significant – though not often integrated with the development of the online environment.
This blended learning landscape is challenging for teachers: relentlessly destabilizing their practices and frustrating attempts to form new stabilities. Many institutional classrooms stymie rather than support teachers’ aspirations; even some aesthetically modern-looking spaces seem pedagogically aligned with earlier eras. Accustomed to standardization, teachers are expected to exploit new spaces with unfamiliar configurations and idiosyncratic technologies – exhorted by intimidating claims, sometimes transparently hyperbolic, about what will be achieved. The practical difficulties and uncertain professional discourses dovetail with other professional dilemmas: those accompanying students’ rapidly changing expectations, class-size pressures within massified education, pressure to furnish higher-order thinking (or “twenty-first-century skills”), and neoliberal audit cultures. Long-standing practices judged to be inadequate, teachers must contemplate change while weathering contradictory demands.
How should teachers respond? They must recognize, firstly, that teaching-learning in physical learning spaces is contextually contingent and emergent and, secondly, that their distinctive voices about learning spaces must be projected within institutions.
The first point implies that teachers must actively develop their practices. Where they encounter desirable examples from elsewhere, they must recontextualize what is valuable; slavish replication is notoriously problematic. The second implies that teachers must be active in institutional space development. Where estate production is dominated by managers and architects with educationalists absent, pedagogical concerns will be downplayed or poorly understood – leaving teachers to choose between unattractive alternatives.
Teachers must, therefore, engage with the spatiality of their institutions. That might involve, as discussed below, insisting that pedagogical practices are central, developing their own understanding of learning spaces, and widening their conception of what teaching is to encompass participation in spatial educational design. One prerequisite for taking such action is, however, to appreciate how the changes confronting them arise within a wider arena of struggle.
New Spatial Ecologies for Blended Learning
Institutional learning spaces are not haphazard containers for artifacts and people; they are designed locations that manifest, imperfectly, different ideals of education. The underlying ideals vary (e.g., between age groups, socioeconomic classes, or subject disciplines) and are widely contested (including by teachers and unions). Nonetheless, sufficiently institutionally rooted ideals get represented via built pedagogy – attempts to embody and realize associated concepts in architectural stereotypes. Particular spaces develop via intentions to embody constellations of values: perhaps traditional, industrial-vocational, innovative, democratic, collegiate, and/or professional.
Since the turn of the millennium, and to some extent in parallel with the rise of discourses about the information society and knowledge economy, forms of built pedagogy have become extensively contested. In part, that is because influential systemic stakeholders – such as government, regulatory bodies, institutional leaders, and student advocates – have been mobilized by negative perceptions that the educational estate of institutions fails to support modes of education fit for contemporary society.
Firstly, many actual learning spaces are perceived to manifest old educational ideals. School classroom stereotypes are seen as hangovers from the industrial revolution, oriented toward producing regimented factory workforces, while university lecture theaters echo the contemplative, cloistered practices of medieval scholars. These traditional spaces stand accused of underpinning information delivery models of teaching – at odds with societal demands for more individualized, flexible, and technologically “connected” education (Wilson 2008).
Secondly, the overall estate is critiqued as uniform, based around a predominance of a few basic classroom types. Since students’ and teachers’ needs vary and oscillate fluidly, that uniformity is seen as damagingly restrictive.
Thirdly, whatever variation does exist is seen as hemmed into siloed ecologies: disciplinary clusters, formal/informal places, and spaces for “instruction” and “support” (such as libraries) are dislocated. Such siloing, it is argued, reduces socialization and serendipitous interaction and thus constrains the flourishing of educational communities.
Arguments of these kinds, teachers should bear in mind, supply a strong moral imperative for change. Significant uncertainty about future estates development is acknowledged, yet the status quo is seen as indefensible.
It is against this backdrop that new learning space designs are proliferating. Designs acquire institutional footholds via claims of harmony with educational ideals. Not all such designs gain wider traction. Some fail to escape single sandpit implementations, for widely varying reasons; others prove financially viable only in flagship locations. Yet some do get replicated, or mimicked, more widely – the design stereotype often acquiring a name in the process. Many manifest the conscious rejection of “old” pedagogies – typically, a desire to replace information delivery with “richer” social interaction, thereby nurturing higher-order thinking skills.
To be clear, these are but three examples from within a wide-ranging variety of campus design innovation activity happening internationally, sometimes resulting in quite fundamental change at an institutional level (for case studies, see Elkington and Bligh 2019). Perhaps the most striking aspect of contemporary development is the starkly divergent direction of change in different places – some institutions, for example, are developing larger lecture theaters equipped with advanced technology just as others move to abolish lecture theaters campus-wide. Such proliferating diversity in design partially addresses the “uniformity” critique of educational estates that permeates the change discourse, as discussed above; yet the task of conceptualizing how this heterogeneity of spaces – new and old – can be recruited into curricular contours remains conferred to teachers and learners.
[all] typically feature tables with moveable seating that support small group work. The tables are often paired with additional learning technologies such as whiteboards and student computer-projection capabilities for sharing work, microphones to hear student voices, and wireless Internet access to retrieve resources […] The net effect of the classroom design is to create a learning environment in support of active learning pedagogy and collaborative problem solving. (Baepler et al. 2014)
Teachers must conceptualize the variety of spaces arising in their blended learning landscape, thinking both reflectively (about current practice) and creatively (about new possibilities). Yet thinking about spaces alone is insufficient; teachers must also consider how they relate to particular educational objectives.
The What and the How of Learning Spaces
Teaching in the blended learning landscape will, as discussed below, involve educators in inter-professional collaboration. To collaborate successfully, teachers must first appreciate that their own professional competence is a distinctive educational asset. Just as learning spaces are contingent and emerging locales, their utility is not intrinsic but develops in relation to concrete educational objectives. Teachers are crucial agents for projecting that message and must become accustomed to articulating it – to themselves, their colleagues, and students.
The core questions are these: When some concrete curriculum is taught within some particular community, what are the educational objectives and the spaces used? And how do the spaces contribute to achieving the objectives?
Thinking through their own current and previous educational experiences is a useful reflective exercise for teachers; they might reminisce about how spaces have been used in their direct presence and speculate about the other spaces used by their students at other times. Discussing with students where and how they study, inside and outside of formal class time, and incorporating such discussions into teaching practices is also worthwhile and can benefit teachers and students alike. Such discussions are more likely to be productive where they occur regularly and in relation to concrete experiences, since students find articulating spatial issues notoriously difficult. One feasible approach might be for teachers to discuss particular examples – such as where a student group went to undertake their project, out of class time, and which aspects of the provision there were useful – and to position themselves as a conduit for sharing reflections and useful examples within and between different educational communities. Such recurring conversations with students can, over time, progressively equip teachers to express themselves when they engage with other professional stakeholders within their institutions.
One obstacle is that teachers, like students, find learning spaces difficult to talk about. Relative experts in educational objectives (the what of learning spaces), educationalists find it difficult to articulate how learning spaces contribute to achieving them (the how). The specialized vocabularies of estates and architecture are intimidating and, importantly, fail to sufficiently grasp pedagogical concerns. What is needed is a pedagogical vocabulary of learning spaces: a tool to support ascribing value to particular spaces when used, or potentially used, to support particular educational objectives with particular students.
Learning spaces mediating pedagogical practices: a six-level model. (Adapted from Bligh and Crook (2017))
Information delivery landscape examples
Blended learning landscape examples
Eliminating unwanted sources of distraction and irritation; facilitating a focus on desired objectives; doing so in ways that people hardly notice
The room contains enough seats for students; a lectern allows the teacher to access controls and store papers. Microphones amplify the teacher’s voice; configuration dampens other acoustic sources
Everyone can easily send information from their own devices to shared screens. The technology control system is easy to use – and familiar from its use across the institution
Rendering it easier for people to undertake certain practices; noticeably inviting some practices (and/or discouraging alternatives)
Seating orientation and sight lines direct students’ attention toward the teacher and information display. Narrow spacing of furniture discourages ambulatory movement
Wheeled furniture enables rearrangement by users. Lack of central lectern position encourages teachers to rove round student groups, not orate
Providing sensory experiences; housing and arranging artifacts to provoke cognitive/affective reactions
One large screen allows teachers to project information for everyone. Books and other devices are consulted by individual students
Students explore environments and exhibitions with mobile guides. Buildings display real-time information
Setting expectations by mimicking spatial stereotypes; invoking cultural references
The “classroom” and the “lecture theater” are cultural stereotypes; invoking expectations of teacher information delivery to docile students in an enclosed ecosystem
Elements of café décor invoke gregarious feelings of sociality. Soft-seating invokes sense of playfulness
Supporting the construction, manipulation, and display of solutions to educational exercises
Chalkboards allow students to see teachers constructing solutions, following teachers’ verbalized thought processes
Multiple screens resource compare-and-contrast approaches to thinking-through problems. Students manipulate simulations and write on surfaces
Accommodating a community; forming part of pedagogical rhythms and history; being a community product (and/or community controlled)
Content is erased and spaces returned to their original configuration at end of session. Lecture theaters, academic offices, and student hangouts are siloed
Students leave materials on display, visit spaces in and outside formal teaching hours, and shape space layout through use. Different spaces are integrated and/or co-located
Table 1 provides definitions and illustrative examples. The examples, hypothetical and necessarily abbreviated, deliberately emphasize stark information delivery and blended learning landscape stereotypes; those might provoke approval or disagreement. The examples highlight that the mediational levels do not map directly onto physical components; notice, for example, how furniture is highlighted in different places depending upon its mediational function.
How some real learning space mediates real pedagogy, and how valuable that is, must be a professional judgment for teachers to make contingently. Even where broadly agreeing with stated educational ideals, educationalists might identify positive value in how “old” spaces mediate practice that ought to be retained; or highlight issues with the actual enactment of some built pedagogy stereotype. By foregrounding real practice, unpicking design assumptions, and highlighting contradictions, teachers can better contribute to both realizing educational ideologies and resisting their totalizing imposition from above.
Teaching Across the Blended Learning Landscape
The blended learning landscape is sometimes perceived as a threat to teachers’ professional identity. Pervasively negative rhetoric about information delivery is easily conflated with repudiating “teaching,” and the wider landscape is ever more conspicuously the product of disparate, powerful stakeholders. There is also a tendency to view teachers’ knowledge and expertise as narrowly salient at learntime: “when a learning space is in active use, for example” (Goodyear et al. 2018). Teachers’ capacity for strategic contribution, by contrast, is often underappreciated – including by themselves. Yet the blended learning landscape disaggregates the teaching function, demanding inter-professional working with blended professionals (such as instructional designers and librarians) and team teaching – practices linking strategic and “learntime” expertise. Similar practices are required in relation to physical learning spaces.
The blended learning landscape, then, invites a redistributed teacher workload, with fewer direct contact hours but proportionally more active orchestration of diverse student activities (Baepler et al. 2014). Teachers must devote significant proportions of their workload to strategic, deliberative practices of curriculum planning and inter-professional collaboration – viewing those practices as integral to teaching, not a distraction. They should recognize face-to-face teaching episodes in physical learning spaces as occasional: treasured keynote events and moments within the longer timescales that students spend studying, with powerful potential for wider impact.
Reconceptualizing teaching in these ways is likely to have numerous implications for practice.
Firstly, teachers must become involved in ongoing, institutional learning spaces production: engaged in management conversations, formal consultation, and productive relationships with estate professionals and others (Bligh and Crook 2017). Cross-service working groups focused on learning spaces issues are increasingly common in educational institutions, especially in post-compulsory sectors, sometimes following sectoral models suggested by national policy bodies. There is a real need for pedagogical advocacy in discussions within such groups, given the idiosyncratic priorities of different stakeholders (cf. Wilson 2008). Teacher involvement, therefore, can be pivotal to shaping the education that institutions provide. Yet educators will require institutional support for such involvement. To be a feasible option for many teachers, the labor involved must be recognized, by workload/incentive systems and by teachers themselves, as integral to resourcing educational objectives and student experiences – in other words, as integral to teaching.
Secondly, teachers must embracingly conceptualize the spectrum of their students’ educational activities and the learning spaces mediating their experiences. While students have long studied outside class time (think of school homework and university reading weeks), educationalists must now more extensively integrate these practices: recognizing their centrality to achieving educational objectives, explicitly orchestrating out-of-class practices, and resourcing synergies with co-present teaching occasions.
One familiar approach involves configuring out-of-class practices to support co-present teaching. In the flipped learning pedagogical model, for example, teachers present online materials that students use for advance preparation. Those materials, often screen-cast lectures, redistribute “information delivery” practices within the blended learning landscape. Yet institutional flipped learning is often agnostic about out-of-class physical learning spaces (where students engage with the materials, and other concurrent, pre-existing opportunities in students’ lives) and conceives overly linear relationships between teaching occasions and out-of-class study. Recognizing all learning as both integral and physically located, by contrast, implies supporting multi-directional relationships between occasions. For example, teachers might manage task setting, group formation, and initial tasks during co-present occasions to galvanize successive group working, by students meeting up face-to-face or online, in ways that “echo the social connections formed” in the classroom (cf. Baepler et al. 2014).
Thirdly, teachers must reconceptualize traditional learntime events – where teachers and students are co-present in physical space. The priority is integrating practice and space in pursuit of experiences that will strongly influence and/or which cannot be supplanted elsewhere within the wider blended learning landscape.
Because the blended learning landscape invites redistributing information delivery outside the classroom, teaching in physical spaces will likely prioritize unique, emergent spatial experiences – to the detriment of replicable “performances.” Well-known exemplars describe occasions of intense interpersonal interactivity supported by novel technologies, such as problem sets or “clicker” exercises (Baepler et al. 2014). Yet, while replicating practices from elsewhere might be a useful means, it should not become an end. Teachers should start by considering their actual objectives and then analyze the spatial opportunities and implications.
For example, a teacher might desire students to verbalize disciplinary vocabulary and jointly mobilize previously inert knowledge; they might then utilize a seminar room offering facilities to deploy wall-sized ecologies of digital materials to resource whole-class verbal explanations (Bligh and Crook 2017, p. 83). They might wish to engage students with problem-solving or demonstrate their own real-time processual thinking; thus exploring live demonstrations or room simulations together with students. Lecture capture might record emergent interactions for later reflection, not produce “reusable” content. As highlighted before, teachers might wish to galvanize joint working out-of-class; setting up group tasks where students use personal devices to lay the groundwork for later online collaboration.
In practice, teachers might pursue multiple priorities, managing smooth micro-transitions between scenarios. Learning spaces offering direct support for such classroom orchestration – executing electronic lesson “scripts” via room management systems and smart furniture – are emerging but still uncommon. Moving between co-located spaces within a less-siloed estate might, therefore, provide a more immediate mechanism for supporting scenario transitions (cf. Bligh and Crook 2017).
Teachers must engage with the spatiality of teaching in the blended learning landscape. That means developing their understanding of learning spaces, utilizing spaces and practices that foster particular experiences in pursuit of particular objectives, and taking a wide-angle view of what teaching is when participating in inter-professional activities. Some co-present teaching occasions will be radically changed, but not all. Particular decisions should be viewed by teachers as an opportunity for rethinking and projecting pedagogical values, not reacting to trends.
- Elkington, S., & Bligh, B. (2019). Future learning spaces: Space, technology and pedagogy. York: Advance HE. https://web.archive.org/web/20190315000828/https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/Future%20Learning%20Spaces_1.pdf
- Wilson, H. (2008). The process of creating learning space. In D. Radcliffe, H. Wilson, D. Powell, & B. Tibbetts (Eds.), Learning spaces in higher education: Positive outcomes by design (pp. 17–24). Brisbane: The University of Queensland.Google Scholar