Reflections on the first “Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Prospects for Space in Higher Education” Symposium

Dr Julianne K. Viola, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

The origin of the symposia series

Last summer, I was contacted by Professor Sam Elkington (Teesside University) and Dr Jill Dickinson (University of Leeds), in partnership with Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE), to be a panel speaker for their new 2023 symposia series entitled “Landscapes of Learning for Unknown Futures: Prospects for Space in Higher Education.” Yesterday, I participated in this symposium as a speaker, and enjoyed the thought-provoking, day-long discussion with colleagues.

Before I share reflections on the day, I want to note that the aim of this series is to bring together and engage key stakeholders in a timely discussion and debate to support new thinking in decision-making, policy, and practice through the lenses of 1) Networks, 2) Flexibilities, and 3) Assemblages. Sam and Jill found my work at CHERS on student belonging and identity in higher education, and invited me to share this research and provide provocation and insight in the form of a lead presentation for the first ‘Networks’ symposium.

The most unique aspect of this symposia series is the intent to carry on these conversations through a variety of continuous, diverse outputs. The three hybrid events will run primarily face-to-face, hosted by SRHE in London. Key components of each symposium (i.e., Keynote, Presentations and Panel Discussions) will also be streamed live so as to also be able to offer a hybrid format and remote engagement, as well as enable the recording of content that we aim to use to promote and report on the symposia series more widely.

My aims in participating in this first symposium on ‘Networks’ were to: 1) share more widely the findings we have learned from the Belonging, Engagement, and Community (BEC) and Bursary projects, 2) further conceptualize the changing landscape of learning space and 3) contribute to the ongoing discussions of the importance of space/place in sense of belonging in the hybrid world. I was thrilled to engage in this discussion in a hybrid setting as well, which prompted some meta-reflections during the lunch break!

Reflections on the first symposium: Networks

The symposium began with a keynote from Professor Lesley Gourlay (UCL), who introduced the day’s theme of ‘Networks’ with a theoretical discussion on the ‘more than digital’ world we live in. I was especially intrigued when she posited the concept of ‘fugitive practices’ wherein people resist the nature of the digital world in their everyday lives and seek ephemerality (rather than recordings and permanence), seclusion (i.e., choosing to not use social media and keep out of the digital public eye), and copresence (being physically in the same presence as another person).

Sue Beckingham’s (Sheffield Hallam) discussed university students use social media apps for group work, and addressed the concept of ‘mattering’ (feeling valued by others) which is one of the key aspects of belonging that Imperial students have discussed with us in our interviews. I was excited to draw on Sue’s engaging talk in my own presentation (which was sandwiched between her and Brett). Dr Brett Bligh (Lancaster University) gave the final presentation, and proposed 6 key factors of space for learning, to aid in supporting the hybrid/blended learning model that higher education has shifted toward in recent years:

  1. Transparency – spaces should eliminate distraction
  2. Enabling – spaces invite some practices but restrict others
  3. Stimulating – spaces provide an affective sensory experience (this idea brought the BEC project’s use of the walking interview method into discussion later on)
  4. Associative – spaces invoke cultural references
  5. Cognitively integrated – spaces support our thinking
  6. Socially integrated – spaces are produced by a community

‘Nurturing meaningful connection in a new era of learning’

When I thought about the day’s theme of ‘Networks’ to plan my presentation, I kept returning to the idea of ‘connection,’ which has been frequently discussed by Imperial student participants in the BEC and Bursary studies. As the past four years have demonstrated, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, connection is not always a given, and requires intention and nurturing. I therefore posed two questions at the start of my presentation:

  • How can meaningful connection be established and nurtured in the context of hybrid learning?
  • What communities and spaces are important for student belonging in this new era of learning?

The longitudinal nature of both the BEC and Bursary projects provides fascinating insight into what issues of (disc)connection have persisted since 2019 and what opportunities are presented, particularly regarding students’ desires for physical touchpoint spaces to meet, socialize, and interact. Our research findings demonstrate that connection means belonging and learning together, and Imperial students recognize the importance of physical proximity to others to build connections, for friendship and the formation of study groups. Drawing on the concepts of ‘copresence’ introduced by Lesley and ‘mattering’ that Sue discussed, I argued that in our hybrid world of learning and teaching, it’s important to create what I call ‘touchpoints of connection’ for students to meet and mingle with peers and staff, and develop relationships with each other so that each person in the community feels connected, and that they matter. This takes intrinsic motivation and an emotional investment!

Final reflections

All of the presenters discussed the social integration aspect of space, a concept that prompted my reflections for the panel discussion at the end of the day. In the panel discussion, we synthesized the common themes that arose throughout the symposium. How can we help scaffold and even integrate spaces students are already using to connect with each other for socializing and learning?  The idea of boundaries (physical, virtual, and emotional) therefore became a central theme that challenged throughout the day, beginning with Lesley’s note on ‘fugitive practices.’ There is some resistance to merging tech for personal use (i.e., social media apps), and a desire to keep school/work separate from what is personal. But there is also a lot of value in harnessing these digital spaces to nurture connection.

The discussion left my mind buzzing. I was so engaged in conversation that I didn’t even notice that artist John Miers had been at the round table the entire time, making illustrations of the conversations that we had throughout the day! I look forward to continuing the development of these ideas through the multimedia outputs that Sam and Jill are working on, including blogs, podcasts, and, eventually, a book-length SRHE publication, capturing and curating the various contributions presented throughout the symposia series.


Some tweets below