Designing learning spaces for a mobile era
This originally appeared as a guest article I wrote for ELTjam in July 2015.
The movement towards mobile computing is a great opportunity to rethink our relationship with technology and our relationship to digital and physical spaces. Computing and connectivity are no longer just personal, they’re increasingly pervasive.
The shift from the immobility of PCs to the mobility of tablets and smartphones allows digital space to interact with material space, both in and out of the classroom, in entirely new ways. At British Study Centres in Oxford, where I work, this was an important consideration in our decision to integrate mobile technology into the everyday practice of language teaching. We wanted to create learning spaces configured for doing, in which the elements of the environment would facilitate a multiplicity of interactive possibilities between learners, technology, teachers and course content. Places where instruction, social interaction and digital media could be woven together flexibly and seamlessly. This has taken a lot of thought and planning.
Computer Rooms and the Rhetorics of Space
In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebre writes ‘space is not a thing, but rather a set of relations between things (objects and products)’ and that ‘space is neither a “subject” nor an “object” but rather a social reality — that is to say, a set of relations and forms.’
A good illustration of this is the ‘computer room’, a place where students are taken intermittently to ‘do technology’. These spaces rose dramatically in popularity in the early 1990s and are still a staple in many language schools across the world. Until recently, the principle way that our students would access technology was through the portal of the computer room and, as far as computer rooms go, it was quite a nice one.
But if we take a moment to deconstruct this image, it becomes clear that this space is far from neutral. Even before we explore Lefebre’s ‘relations between things’, the fact that the computer room exists in its own detached space, disconnected from the everyday interactions of the classroom, carries the implicit message (to teachers and learners) that technology isn’tsomething that should be woven into the fabric of knowledge construction. It reinforces a digital/physical dichotomy by literally separating the two through distance.
Returning to the picture, we can see that the computers are arranged linearly, in rows, and there is a single chair in front of each fixed screen. A pair of headphones is connected to each PC for listening to audio. Collectively, this configuration of space, people and technology hinders movement and social interaction and encourages the isolated, passive consumption of digital content, as opposed to the active, hands-on social construction of knowledge.
To be fair, there is a certain amount of technological determinism at work here. Desktop PCs are designed for the individual. In fact, this is why they were called PCs in the first place. They are (usually) clunky, heavy devices intended to remain static. In the past their size was also a consequence of their technological limitations. With operating systems designed for input through a physical keyboard and mouse, a single, screen-facing chair of appropriate height also makes sense. On top of this, most ageing PCs would need to be hardwired to the Internet through ethernet cables plugged into wall sockets. For managers, teachers and learners, it is especially important to consider the impact of technology on learning, as there is a clear interplay between the ways in which we shape our technologies, how they impact the learning environment, and how these choices influence our interactions with media and each other.
Video games, cathedrals, theme parks, prisons, shopping malls and classrooms. The one thing they have in common is that they are all examples of highly formalised spaces. Each one, whether digital or physical, has been designed to encourage or limit particular types of movement and behaviour and to provoke a particular experience. Our movements and actions within these spaces form part of a dynamic interactive system. Designers of virtual spaces, such as those in video games, have an acute awareness of this. For example, in online multiplayer games in which players have to work with or against other human players, a delicate balance has to be achieved between competing factions. Even the careless placement of a wall can provide an unfair advantage for one team and ruin the game. The size and positioning of every rock or building, the layout of each interior space and the distribution of supplies, all have to be carefully contemplated.
If we consider space as non-neutral, we can begin to develop an empowering sense of spatial literacy and recognise spatial design as a medium, or form of discourse. Interactivity stems from choices, and spatial design silently but firmly communicates interactive possibilities.
Moving these ideas from theory to practical application was a significant undertaking for a large language school, involving major changes to infrastructure, as well as hundreds of smaller decisions regarding technology choices, new procedures and teacher training. After months of hard work, planning, ordering, refurbishment, design meetings and network upgrades (you can read about some of the painstaking details here), our former rigid computer room has now transformed into this. We call it The Port.
Aside from the (hopefully) obvious aesthetic improvements, there is an intentionality of design in both the form and technologies embedded in this new spatial configuration. The furniture is completely modular. There are different surface heights and areas to suit either standing interactions, seated groupings of various sizes or individual study. The tables have wheels and can fold together to create an open space for video production. There are different types of seating, with backless low stools for more casual, temporary occupation, normal chairs, and higher seating at the iPad bar. The permanent iPads are fixed and well-stocked with self-study resources and there is also a set of iPads for teachers and a class set for learners. There’s a standard whiteboard for traditional board work and digital media can be streamed to the large flatscreen TV through an Apple TV.
We’ve also upgraded our wireless network to a managed 100 Mb fiber optic connection throughout the school, including outside areas.
This has become a multipurpose space used for teaching and teacher training, as well as meetings and quiet self-study. There is no real centre of focus in the room for a ‘sage on the stage’ as this room was designed for more active forms of learning, allowing students to form breakaway groups to work at different speeds or to work on different challenges before coming back together to share or collaborate. It sets the tone for learner autonomy and creativity.
Our classrooms have been equipped with ceiling mounted HD projectors and Apple TVs. This means teachers no longer have to be seated and tethered to a fixed device for displaying digital content. Students, using their phones or a class set of iPads, can also wirelessly connect to the projector to brainstorm ideas or share their classwork, homework, projects and presentations with everyone in the room. This is ideal for peer correction and facilitates more collaborative forms of learning. It also democratises the use of the board, which doubles as a screen for projection while maintaining its original function as a writing surface.
We’ve embedded digital media into the physical environment of the school with augmented reality (AR) posters. We use these in classrooms to display student work, such as podcasts and video projects, and for delivering information about the social programme and special events. In The Port, we have kinetic typography AR posters containing study tips recorded by learners. This is a great way to pass on local knowledge and advice to new starters.