There is much debate about the role of higher education at present. Learning, innovation and quality are themes which dominate much of discourse and there is genuine concern about how these intersect for the benefit of students, researchers and universities. Within this debate, higher education as a sector has recognised its responsibility to demonstrate how its outcomes can contribute to a better society and thereby emphasising the nature of the role of universities. This recognition has stimulated a theme of translational research, the idea that there is still much work to be done once research has been completed, in disseminating discovery through a reconstrual of the outcomes for different audiences in order to pass on knowledge in understandable ways. Without attending to the effective dissemination of research, half the job of researchers is left undone.
In this volume, there is a concerted effort to pass on the findings of the research of experienced and new researchers alike, those who have been investigating universities, learning and space for many years, and those who have just begun the challenge. In all cases, the goal has been to reveal the outcomes in such a way as to push the field on, to reduce ambiguity in shared terms and concepts, to canvass different methodologies which tilt the lens of analysis on learning space. These different approaches to researching university design and learning space reveal different aspects of the phenomenon, and to aim to deal with the complexities of the variables involved, which seem to grow with every new innovation in pedagogy and technology.
The concept of universities as ‘learning spaces’ that underpins this volume, comes at a tipping point in the international higher education sector. New pedagogies, new technologies, new partners in the provision of higher education and new drivers for the outcomes of higher education to deal with the workplace and third place, those places supporting informal learning, have meant that learners and teachers are finding themselves in new configurations of physical and virtual learning space, both on and off campus, in social and professional contexts and in rural and international areas. This growing variation in the structure of the learning space has meant that teachers find their approaches to design having to mature and become more sensitive to the affordances of the learners’ context in order to leverage learning benefit where possible, and avoid impediments that it might create. This is no easy matter. Consequently, the more that studies reveal these complexities and their solutions, the better informed educators and those concerned about the quality of higher education will be.
One of the challenges for the field of learning space research at present is the separation of the physical and virtual. The field has tended to be divided into two foci: those focussing mostly on the built environment, and those focusing mostly on the online environment. The problem with this division is that from a learner’s perspective at university, students are often required to pursue learning tasks across in-class and online spaces, repeatedly back and forth, both on and off campus, until they understand the purpose of, and have demonstrated their understanding of, the activity in which they have been engaging. This volume addressess this weakness in the field by including research studies into both the built environment as well as the online environment and how activity design that traverses both spaces can contribute to learning outcomes.
Another key challenge for learning space research that this volume addresses is evaluation. One of the difficulties of evaluating learning space for its contribution to learning lies in the observation that it is unlikely to have a direct impact on learning. Rather, it is the way students engage with aspects and configurations of tools and people within and across physical and virtual learning space that is likely to have an indirect impact on their outcomes. Consequently, discovering new ways of evaluating the contribution of learning space to the outcomes sought by students and teachers remains an ongoing objective in the field, an objective on which this volume brings some sustained reflection to bear.
The thread that ties this volume together across all the reported research studies is a desire to put into practice a translational cycle that will move the field onwards. By considering university futures in the first part, arguing for an evidence-based model in the second, and then seeking to uncover knowledge which can be acted upon to improve learning space design in the third, this volume provides a useful and helpful approach to addressing many of the pedagogical and material challenges in the design of universities as places of learning.
Robert A. Ellis