An interview with...

An interview with… Kris Roger

The fourth interview in our series is with Kris Roger, who, with his colleague, presented an interesting and informative lecture on the transformation of learning spaces at LSE at the second BILT annual symposium, which launched our new theme, ‘ReThinking Spaces’. Kris’ is a Senior Learning Technologist at LSE and his expertise includes flipped learning, learning spaces design, active learning methods and educational use of digital media. 

What benefits do students experience through a better understanding of learning spaces?

With appropriate learning spaces design we can enable teachers to embrace pedagogical approaches that are based on student activity and experience rather than transmission of information. Appropriately designed spaces will create opportunities for students to engage in activities where they are making, discussing, and analysing collaboratively. Such spaces allow teachers to move around the room while they observe, listen and guide their students through the construction of their own knowledge. It is also possible to design flexibility into such spaces to allow for those occasions where there may need to be some transmission of information required or to consult online content while in class. Some institutions are establishing or switching to programmes of study founded on student-based active approaches to learning, such as team-based, problem-based and flipped learning. Designing social learning spaces that students actually want to use will also encourage students to stay on campus and hopefully instil a sense of belonging to the academic community of an institution.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

One of the key ways we can help students understand these benefits is to fully involve our students in the design of social or informal learning spaces. This isn’t always easy, we sometimes need to make the benefits of contributing to the design of such spaces clear. We need to help students feel a sense of ownership over their spaces – it’s an opportunity to shape and create their own work and study environment. In addition to being involved in the initial design, this sense of ownership can be encouraged through making those spaces flexible and giving control over certain aspects of the environment – such as lighting and placement of furniture. In terms of understanding the benefits of the design of classrooms it’s more important that students understand the approach to learning enabled by flexible learning spaces design. This is more about setting clear expectations for active learning so that students see the value in actively participating and engaging. Also, if spaces designed for active learning are primarily used for lecture-based teaching then students are unlikely to see and understand the benefits of such classroom designs. Therefore, it is key that we work with our teachers to help them understand the possibilities enabled by modern learning spaces.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current learning space design?

As education professionals we are interested in all potential learning spaces that our students use – from bedrooms at home or in halls, to the local coffee shop. However, we can only really influence the design of our own spaces on campus – such as classrooms and spaces where students work independently of their teachers. Space is a critical part of shaping learning and teaching and one challenge that we face is to ensure that these learning spaces are fit for the learning and teaching needs of our students and teachers. What does that mean? Many classrooms and lecture rooms continue to be built around a traditional teacher centred approach, without interrogating alternative pedagogical approaches. Students are arranged in rows, for efficient space planning, or in a horseshoe, with all eyes on the teacher at the front of the room. Is that the best layout if the curriculum demands that students partake in collaborative activities in class? Extending this line of questioning, do universities provide sufficient space for students (and staff) to collaborate in groups outside of class. Often, the library is the place to go for independent study where the expectation is silent individual study. Additionally, students value workspace proximity – they like their independent workspaces to be near to where they will be attending class. We therefore need to create attractive modern workspace environments wherever we can find space on our campuses, ranging from those that enable a short stop between class to spaces for working in groups for an extended amount of time.

In terms of design, we often face a number of tensions. How do we enable pedagogical needs to have primacy over other requirements, which are often the first considered, such as the need to maintain the capacity of a particular space? How do we define value for money? Sometimes when we are asked to cut costs or “value engineer”, these initial savings result in a fatal compromise in the design of a space. Also, limited attention is sometimes given to the environmental properties of learning spaces – light, colour, textures, temperature and noise. Our learning spaces need to be engaging, inspiring and comfortable.

Finally, we need to ensure that we design spaces in collaboration with students and teachers. Too often new or refurbished spaces are created as copies of existing spaces without consultation with those people that will be using the spaces. This requires an institution wide collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders including educational development professionals, learning technologists, estates, timetables, technology support and more.

What is your favourite learning space in your university?

My favourite learning space at LSE is actually a collection of spaces in our Clement House building. It is the project that I feel closest to, as we had full creative control over a variety of space types. The idea was to create a set of experimental spaces in response to student demand for more independent and collaborative workspaces, where they could charge their devices, work, eat (without having to buy something) or simply chat with friends. The spaces range from comfy armchairs designed for reading to a space with little in the way of seating, but the walls are covered in writable surfaces. We also created individual identities, based on global cities, for each space. Outside of term time, I even use some of the spaces myself when I want to work away from the office.

What inspired you to first start looking at learning spaces and advocating change?

My interest in learning spaces, as a learning technologist, started with my involvement in creating a “Flipping the Classroom” staff development workshop. In the workshop we would discuss various alternative classroom activities with our teachers and they would always ask “How can I do this group discussion activity in a lecture theatre where the seats are fixed and nobody can move around easily?”. So, with our head of learning technology, I grew my interest and involvement in transforming LSE’s ‘traditional’ teaching and learning spaces.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

A good place to start is Diana Oblinger’s “Learning Spaces” book published back in 2006, available as a free PDF download. While some of the case studies are now a little out of date, it provides an excellent outline for the rationale behind the movement to rethink teaching and learning spaces in higher education. It was probably my introduction to the field of learning spaces design and I’d say my favourite chapter is “The Psychology of Learning Environments” by Ken Graetz.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Like others I’m deeply wary of the increasing marketisation of HE in the UK and the unintended consequences of measuring things that are difficult or impossible to measure. But, I am keen that reward and recognition for teaching be given a higher priority in (some of) our institutions.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My favourite teacher was Jim Fanning who taught me history in my 1st and 2nd years at secondary school. He showed immense enthusiasm for the subject, took us on many field trips and always taught with a great sense of humour. He truly conveyed the idea that we would understand the subject if we could imagine how it felt to be a particular person at a particular point in time. It wasn’t about learning dates and facts, it was about actively experiencing history, as far as is possible.

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