Global trends in physical learning space research: A commentary on the current state of the forthcoming research database “Learning Spaces – Lernwelten. An international research database.”

by Stefan Volkmann

In April 2013, Dr. Richard Stang of Media University Stuttgart, Germany, launched the project “Learning Spaces – Lernwelten. An international research database.” to gather and consolidate the advances of learning space development in education institutions worldwide (Volkmann & Stang, 2013). In Germany, especially libraries and adult education centers expressed a dire need for guidance and good case practice. Consequently, a bibliographic collection was initiated, drawing together both, exemplary projects and research initiatives internationally. The result is the largest bibliographic database in the entire field. For the first time, 1600 records, covering especially Germany, the English-speaking world, and Scandinavia, enable us to trace the progresses and trends of this young discipline on a global scale.

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Learning spaces growing visibly strong in English speaking countries!

Learning Spaces are definitely not “An under-researched topic” (Temple, 2008) any more. Today, the motto rather is “Keeping Pace with the Rapid Evolution of Learning Spaces” (Morrone & Workman, 2014). Especially in the Anglo-American tertiary education sector, a great amount of institutions have begun creating informal, flexible learning environments, designed specifically towards the needs and working preferences of their students (Lippincott, Hemmasi, & Lewis, 2014; Thorne, Gattrell, Michelle, & White, 2014; Turner, Welch, & Reynolds, 2013; Watson & Howden, 2013).
Through high-end technology integration and demographic shifts among the learners, the physical space blends in with the virtual, and enables learning anywhere at any time (Fang, 2014; Keppell, Souter, & Riddle, 2012; Oblinger, 2014). Through novel partnerships across campus, services and resources are consolidated in learning centers, -commons, and -hubs (Allen, Gould, Littrell, & Schillie, 2010; Maybee, Doan, & Riehle, 2013; Melling & Weaver, 2013; Schader, 2008). Eventually, the academic library transforms into a single point of access, uniting stakeholders on campus (Bulpitt, 2013; Meunier & Eigenbrodt, 2014; Sparrow & Whitmer, 2014).
The wholeness of these projects become more and more controlled and documented. In an open-innovation approach, universities increasingly share their experiences through reports and presentations, and educational research institutions supply a theoretic, systematic, and methodic fundament . Entire journals (Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), n.d.; OECD Centre for Effective Learning Environments (CELE), 2012; University of North Carolina UNC Greensboro, n.d.) and research communities have been founded to provide practitioners, architects, and decision makers with scientifically reliable tools. A sheer mass of models for designing and evaluating learning spaces have sprung from these ambitions. Academic learning spaces are by far no risky endeavors or experiments any more: they became an integral part of campus development and institutional public reputation (den Heijer & Magdaniel, 2012; Fisher & Newton, 2014; Meunier & Eigenbrodt, 2014; Naaranoja, 2014) – and increasingly, the same can be said about other institutions, such as primary and secondary education, and public libraries (Nygren, 2014; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.; Skot-Hansen, Rasmussen, & Jochumsen, 2013; Sutherland & Fischer, 2014), where Europe’s advance is far more solid (Büning, 2012; Heinemann, 2012; Hell, 2012; Jochumsen, Rasmussen, & Skot-Hansen, 2012b; Kulturstyrelsen & Realdania, 2013; Mair-Gummermann, 2011; Overgaard & Larsen, 2013; Palmer-Horn, 2013; Pihl, 2012; Piikkilä & Sågfors, 2013; Riedl, 2013; Skot-Hansen et al., 2013; Thorhauge, 2010; Weinreich, 2011).

Disconnected research and Babylonian confusion

Interestingly though, many research hubs worldwide seem to strive to invent these fundaments and models by themselves, instead of collaborating and building upon each other. Rarely do authors cite colleagues and projects from other countries: oftentimes, the discourse remains a national one, although similar trends, challenges, and experiences can be found just across the border.
The language barrier reinforces this obstacle. Exchanging ideas between Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, is not a linguistic problem – between other countries, it is. Not surprisingly, project reports and research frequently circulates only in the respective lingua franca, which deters the comprehensibility in other countries, but much more: it hinders the discovery of the publication!
Consequently, throughout the ongoing research for this database, one major challenge has been to identify the equivalent of the term ‘learning space’ in other languages. In Norway, for instance, the word ‘læringsarena’ is used (e.g. Akerholt, 2008; Egeland, 2011; Hermanrud, 2011; Jochumsen, Rasmussen, & Skot-Hansen, 2012a), which translates to ‘learning arena’ literally – a term that makes sense by logic, but hardly any non-Norwegian would intuitively assume this word is used to refer to learning spaces in Scandinavia. Interestingly however, Scandinavian authors themselves sometimes use the exact latter words in their English publications (e.g. Høyrup Pedersen, 2012; Minken, 2009), and this limits the discoverability of their publications. (Besides, Scandinavia formed terms like ‘læringsrum’, ‘læringsmiljø’, ‘læringscenter’.)
The situation in Germany is arguably even worse. Here, a dozen synonyms circulate, such as Lern-, Bildungs- and Wissens, -raum, -zentrum, -umgebung, -arrangement, -ort, -punkt, -studio, or -atelier … constructs that sometimes are decades old already (Neidhardt, 2006; Pätzold & Goerke, 2006). This suggests that the research collaboration even halts between regions, possibly institutions, and that the prominence of the topic is still marginal – otherwise, there would be a more precise way to communicate about learning spaces in Germany.

Capturing today’s complexity in realizing the perfect learning environment

Simply compromising on a single term that is synonymous or most frequently used in each language (e.g. learning space – Lernort – læringsmiljø, for English, German, and Scandinavian) will not be the ideal solution, however. A pilot usability study on the here presented database “Learning Spaces – Lernwelten.” illustrates that even among an unrepresentative sample of learning space stakeholders, a strong ambiguity of search term connotation is present (Volkmann, 2014). In short: ‘learning space’ is a highly general collective term, which stands for everything from design, over technology and digital environments, learners’ profiles and pedagogic concepts, strategy, organizational forms and partnership models. These aspects also need a standardized vocabulary.
We are not just dealing with students and designers, but also with teachers, administration and staff, policy and decision makers – all of which have a slightly different idea and interest in changing physical and digital learning landscapes (Clugston, 2013; Dahlstrom, Brooks, & Bichsel, 2014; Lee et al., 2011; Pivik, 2010; Rozgonyi & Whalley, 2014; Stang, 2012). The publishing community has to account for them! For instance, architects and designers are expecting visual materials (Volkmann, 2014), while most journal publications and reports only consist of fairly uninspiring rows of text. Besides giving stakeholders better access to information and best practice, the ground needs to be set for them to interact! Identifying the key areas that learning space projects include, and the interfaces, where these stakeholders meet is crucial (Akinsanmi, n.d.; Bligh & Flood, 2014; Dantzer, 2013; Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung – Leibniz-Zentrum für Lebenslanges Lernen (DIE), 2012; Franz, 2010; May & Kannenberg, 2014; Meunier & Eigenbrodt, 2014; Sparrow & Whitmer, 2014; Stang, 2012; Willis, 2014). Only then can the ongoing global research connect scientists and practitioners of all kind.
Evidently, realizing the perfect learning environment goes far beyond simply placing modern furniture in refurbished classrooms. Satisfying and mediating the demands of all interest groups is only one element among a growing range of project management issues. The abovementioned increased share in institutional strategy, management, and public relations in turn requires projects to feature methods and key performance indicators that measure its success. In all sectors, user engagement in the entire project cycle, from researching learners’ needs and behavior, and involving architects, teachers, and learners in design and evaluation procedures is addressed excessively in the major research networks around the globe (Clark, 2010; Cunningham, Doherty, & Giblin, 2014; Foster, 2014; Germany, 2014; Kanyal, 2014; Meunier & Eigenbrodt, 2014; Rozgonyi & Whalley, 2014; Willis, 2014; Woolner, 2014).

A controlled vocabulary creating a global research community

This variety of terms, which address ‘learning spaces’ in general, illustrates how difficult it can be to find publications in and beyond one’s own language on the said topic. The quite young discipline definitely suffers from a missing controlled vocabulary and a broad taxonomy. This deficit prevents an international exchange of research and innovative practice.
For example, the concept of ‘campus cooperation’ is widespread among Anglo-American institutions – but it remains a marginal agenda in public libraries, schools, and adult education. Quite the contrary is the case in Germany: among the latter institutions, cooperations and partnerships are a key strategic endeavor. Therefrom springs the innovative trend towards what Stang calls ‘spatial integration’ (‘Räumliche Integration’) (2010a) – different types of educational institutions physically joining forces under the same roof, spawning novel synergies (Berthold, 2013; Götz, 2010; Mair-Gummermann, 2011; Riedl, 2013; Stang, 2010b; Weinreich, 2011). These trends cannot be discovered by direct search itself, but only by serendipity! With its large-scale taxonomy, the database “Learning Spaces – Lernwelten.” provides this exact feature.
The broad scope of the research database finally establishes a universal platform to make such trends visible globally. It sets the foundation for international and interinstitutional research synergies and good case practice exchange. Thereby, we strive to connect the worldwide research hubs and support institutions, practitioners, and politics with the necessary information to benefit from everyone’s’ experiences on the planet.


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