With the move towards blended learning, it can sometimes feel like we’ve been living in a virtual world over the past two years, our heads jammed with thoughts about online and digital spaces. Many of us have been asking the same questions: How can we create an engaging learning environment online? Can we design informal online spaces for students to chat, mirroring those oh so important corridor catch-ups with our peers while we wait to go into the lecture hall?
Yet, blended learning is not just about what is online, it is also about what is offline, and how both work together. It is the purposeful and thoughtful integration of online learning and face-to-face learning. Therefore, thinking through blended learning and its challenges cannot just be about thinking through online spaces. It needs to be about how we can seamlessly blend together the online world and the on-campus one, how we can to design one to support and suit our needs in the other. It is not just our virtual spaces we need to innovate, but our physical spaces on campus as well.
During the pandemic, there has, of course, been a lot of discussion about how we can adapt our physical spaces to make being on campus safe. But beyond COVID, as we look towards a potential permanent shift to blended learning, how can we better design our campus to suit our online teaching and learning needs?
Our physical spaces need to be adapted to accommodate for blended learning. We need spaces which address a greater necessity for both students and staff to access technology. We also need spaces where students can engage with digital resources at the same time as face-to-face teaching, spaces where staff can teach simultaneously in-person and online, and spaces which mean that students can be on campus at 9am for a seminar, and at 10am attend a blackboard collaborate session, an office hour on Teams, or an online careers event.
From putting more plug sockets in seminar rooms and lecture halls, to high-tech installations in every room to support hybrid teaching, the solutions range from refreshingly simple to far more complex, and like with so many challenges in higher education, there is not always a one-size-fits-all answer.
One of the most important solutions in rethinking physical spaces (and one the university is already doing) is providing more campus space for students to engage with online learning. The rapid shift to online learning last year taught us how difficult it can be to find a quiet, safe space to work at home, to battle poor internet connection, slow laptops and chairs with appalling back support. For students tackling these barriers, and for those who live far away from campus or who have an online session timetabled straight after an in-person one, having safe spaces on campus and access to a computer with a strong internet connection to engage with online learning is so important.
As a response to these problems, the university introduced blended learning spaces on campus at the beginning of this academic year. Online classes has meant that teaching rooms on campus are often not in use, so the university has made unused rooms available to students for quiet learning, group study, or joining online sessions. These blended learning spaces have opened up so many more study spaces to students, meaning that all it takes is a few clicks online to check what rooms are free and when to find a quiet, socially distanced space with good Wi-Fi where we can make the most of our online session without the stresses at home.
Yet, I think the university is missing a chance to make these blended learning spaces more accessible, welcoming and functional. Maybe it’s just me, but when I use these spaces myself, I can’t help but feel like I’m not supposed to be there. They are often eerily quiet – yes quiet is often a good thing when you are faced with the daunting task of speaking in front of a grainy webcam to a class full of people, but when the libraries are packed to the brim every day, it makes me think that not enough students know that these rooms exist. More advertising is definitely needed. Even simply having signs on all the doors would let students know they could use those rooms, and help me to shake the unshakeable feeling that I’m not supposed to be there.
There are other things to think about too. Do we need more private spaces where students aren’t worried that they’ll be overheard? Should there be some PCs in the rooms, or a place to access laptops for blended learning spaces? Is it worth investing to make these rooms a bit more inviting and comfortable rather than feeling like an empty, bland room? Or some redesign so that they can easily be adapted from a classroom to being specifically suited for students sitting in an online class?
There is a lot to think about, and I think that the key to getting it right is about rethinking physical spaces in a way which is intentional, designing a diverse range of spaces that don’t feel ad-hoc or like a quick and easy solution, but are thought-through, adaptable and well suited for purpose.
What have your experiences been of blended learning spaces and other physical spaces at the university?
Where else can we rethink physical spaces to make the campus better suited to blended learning?