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.

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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