Symposia Series Convenors:

Professor Sam Elkington (Teesside University) and Dr Jill Dickinson (Leeds Beckett University).

To watch a recording of our launch event for the series, please click here.


Learning can and does happen anywhere, sometimes occurring in classrooms (formal learning) and other times resulting through face-to-face interactions and virtual encounters between individuals away from lecture halls and seminar rooms (social or informal learning) (Wu et al, 2021). The notion of ‘learning space’ in Higher Education (HE) – whether physical or virtual, individual, or shared – has an important impact on the nature and quality of learning (see, for example, Temple, 2008). This, coupled with the changing educational requirements of increasingly diverse student populations (Office for Students, 2021), has prompted universities over the last two decades to explore and devise more tailored, student-centred approaches to designing ‘environments-for-learning’ on and off the physical campus (see, for example, Valtonen et al, 2021).

More recently, the multivarious learning spaces of modern HE have been profoundly impacted by the swift proliferation of digital learning technologies accompanying the imposed conditions and challenges of the global pandemic (Dhawan, 2020; Office for Students, 2020). Universities and educators have had to adapt to the demands of changing patterns of work and student learning, with the enactment of academic practice occurring across a multitude of inter-connected, digital, and physical environments. Digital technologies have quickly moved beyond being a convenient backdrop for learning, to profoundly affect and shape the character of learning spaces and the learning activities and approaches that they support for both learners and educators. Relatedly, the rapid hybridisation of learning and teaching has seen educators reaching for new strategies to enable learning and accommodate the multiple demands on students (Universities UK, 2022). This has necessitated calls for a radical rethink of the use, design, and location of learning space(s) framed and formed by the affordances of available learning technology (see, for example, Rapanta et al, 2021). Emerging approaches to learning are increasingly needing to be flexible and networked, agile and connected, bringing together formal and informal activities in a seamless environment that recognises how learning can take place any time, in either physical and/or virtual spaces. From this perspective, space, learning, and the effectiveness of HE provision are now more intimately interleaved than ever before.

Overview of the Symposia Series

It has never been more important to have a critical understanding of the complex association(s) between digital technologies and spaces in and around HE. Change and emerging innovation in educational technology is shifting expectations, practices, and discourse around how learning is situated in space and time, extending the locus of student learning experiences both across and beyond the physical campus. The purpose of this three-part Symposia Series is to provoke a critical examination of the changing relationship(s) between digital technologies and learning space, and an exploration of the possibilities for new configurations of learning activities and interactions. The intention is to move beyond totalising critiques of HE learning spaces, and instead consider places for learning according to the level of complexity and depth that they exhibit and the neoteric topologies of connection, social meaning, and practice that they promote. In a networked world, the links between cooperative action and spatial proximity have been broken. The concept of learning landscape is offered as a way of exploring the range of learning spaces that are needed to better align with changing patterns of learning and increasing proliferation of digital technologies. We are yet to properly conceptualise this emerging, pluralised, learning landscape in terms of the relationship between pedagogy, technology, and nascent configurations of learning spaces and environments.

In response, this Symposia Series brings together and engages key stakeholders in a timely discussion and debate to support new thinking in decision-making, policy, and practice as we consider the promise of future landscapes of learning in HE through the prism of three thematic lenses: networks, assemblages, and flexibilities. Each of these lenses represents the conceptual focus for a Symposium with the aim of providing designated space and scope for interrogating a range of theoretical and applied interpretations and perspectives, and generating collaborative, reflexive discussions, and debate.

Drawing on Wang et. al.’s work (2011) around a Kaleidoscope of Notions, we perceive this opportune, accessible, and inclusive Symposium Series as being well-positioned for creating, capturing, and collating stakeholder insights around the future potential for developing the learning landscape across HE. We suggest that the Symposium Series will create considerable potential for drawing on the resulting community of practice and the shared learning produced to support a more holistic understanding of both synergies and possibilities for decision-making around learning spaces and the networks, assemblages, and flexibilities that characterise them.

Symposia Series Programme:

Symposium 1: Networks, Wednesday 26 April 2023

In this first Symposium, we chart a focus shift in HE, recognising that the contemporary learning landscape needs to be considered less in terms of singular learning spaces and more in terms of the ways in which spaces are becoming more connective, permeable, networked, and interwoven (physically and digitally), providing inclusive and adaptive environments in which learning can take place.


Network, meshwork, twine: imaginaries of the digital and what they do

Professor Lesley Gourlay (University College London)

The notion of ‘network’ is commonly used in relation to digital technologies, with the concept of the ‘postdigital’ also gaining recent currency. Negroponte (1998) posits the postdigital on the notion of inseparability of the digital and analogue. In this imaginary, the digital is presented as a fully permeating entity, which is regarded as ubiquitous, and occluded from direct view; conjured as a kind of haunting. In this talk I will critique this imaginary as containing inherent tensions and contradictions, and will also interrogate the metaphor of the network, contrasting it with Tim Ingold’s (2011) meshwork and knots, before considering the etymology of the term intertwine. I will argue that these imaginaries fail to adequately capture the relationship between the digital and nondigital in terms of particular aspects of being in the university: specifically, ephemerality, seclusion and copresence. The seminar will conclude with a discussion of implications for research and practice.

Paper Presenters

Mattering, meaning making and motivation: Building trust and respect through multimodal social learning communities.

Sue Beckingham (Sheffield Hallam University)

Making connections, interacting, and learning to collaborate with peers are vital components of the student experience. This may start in person but there are now many more ways that extend both informal and formal learning through the development of multimodal social learning communities. Students are empowered to co-create their own virtual learning places using social media providing valued space to develop a more personalised and inclusive learning relationship; and the choice to interact when and where they choose. Scaffolded by tutors, this can provide support to develop interpersonal communication and cooperation. This presentation will share suggestions on how social media can support mattering where students build trust and feel significant; steps to ensure they understand what is expected of them in these spaces; and shared experiences where students have learned to work cooperatively, motivating them to achieve the goals they have planned.

Nurturing meaningful connection in a new era of learning

Dr Julianne K. Viola (Imperial College London)

As physical and digital learning spaces are becoming mixed, there is an urgent need to better understand the spaces that nurture students’ sense of belonging. Drawing on data collected since 2019 from two ongoing longitudinal, mixed-methods studies with over 700 Imperial College London students, this talk will provide a unique window of understanding into how the abrupt transition to online interactions in 2020, and subsequent transition to hybrid learning, impacted students’ sense of connection to their peers, teaching staff, and the university itself. 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?

Physical learning spaces and networked landscapes of learning: Prismatic mediations

Dr. Brett Bligh (Lancaster University)

In this talk I will problematise how physical learning spaces mediate networked landscapes of learning. I will proceed by suggesting that how physical learning spaces ‘work’ arises from their position within the activities constituting those wider landscapes—activities that each entwine a range of environments (physical, virtual, institutional, extra-institutional), motivated people, social structures, and resources, and within which physical learning spaces are appropriated and used with varying degrees of success. Essentially, I argue that physical spaces exhibit a multiple mediation, which we can usefully distinguish prismatically for analytical purposes. For example, spaces can be valuable where they are transparent to human attention, invite some actions while constraining others, stimulate sensory and affective reactions, invoke cultural stereotypes and expectations, support the construction and display of learners’ working, and accommodate the rhythms of particular learning communities or groups. Appreciating these distinctions allow us to analyse and debate the place of physical learning spaces for networked landscapes of learning in dynamic rather than deterministic ways.

Symposium 2: Flexibilities, Wednesday 14 June 2023

The second Symposium explores the idea of flexibility as a critical aspect of how learning is situated relative to the demands of students for greater control in fitting their studies around their learning needs and preferences, as well as other aspects of their lives. Such a view implies a widening and loosening of the boundaries of conventional learning spaces to provide greater potential flexibility in how, where, and when learning happens.


Suppleness, modification, and change: spatial flexibilities for the future of higher education

Dr. Jeremy Knox (University of Edinburgh)

Building on the examination of assemblages and networks in previous symposia, this talk will foreground flexibility as an overarching theme for a critical and creative (re)conceptualisation of learning space within the hybrid and postpandemic university. While recent lockdowns and institutional closures have propelled digital environments into the mainstream of higher education provision, such ‘emergency’ responses should be understood within a broader context of research and practice that has long sought to de-centre the physical classroom and negotiate learning spaces beyond the bricks-and-mortar of the university campus. Drawing on spatial and sociomaterial theories which posit a relational ontology of interwoven people, places, and technologies, this talk will outline three interpretations of ‘flexibility’ that might guide the critical discussion and development of future higher educational space: 1) ‘suppleness’, inferring institutional agility and responsiveness; 2) a ‘capacity for modification’, addressing student diversity; and 3) a ‘willingness to change’, foregrounding questions of teacher agency.

Paper Presenters

Spatial fluencies – more than spaces, more than literacies

Dr. Andrew Middleton, Anglia Ruskin University

Spatial fluency describes an individual’s ability to successfully and confidently navigate and negotiate spaces for learning. In the pandemic agility and agency became a necessity for academics and their students. Now, in contemporary life, including educational and professional settings, the need for spatial fluency permeates our lifewide experience. Conceptually, spatial fluency helps educationalists to resituate learning outcomes in terms of assertive acts of boundary crossing, managing competing life responsibilities, and experiential agency. It reframes discourse on digital literacies to one of learning ecologies and assemblages in which a student comes to make their place within a network setting. In this presentation we will consider examples of hybridity, multimodality and polycontextuality, and the challenges and rich opportunities they create for learning, working, and living.

Universal Design for Learning Spaces

Dr. Kevin Merry (De Montfort University)

UDL recognises variability in relation to how learners are challenged and motivated by learning, and how they persist with learning in the face of challenge (Engagement), how they acquire and use information related to learning such as language and symbols (Representation), and how they communicate and demonstrate their understanding (Action & Expression). Successful implementation of UDL is largely about providing flexible options across each of the aforementioned areas to reduce or remove barriers. Barriers are environmental, meaning they are part of the design of the culture, context, approach, and physical setting in which learning takes place. This symposium will explore how the physical learning environment can create barriers to effective Engagement, Representation and Action & Expression among diverse communities of learners. Specifically, the symposium will explore how barriers can unknowingly be created in learning spaces and present some potential approaches supporting their reduction or removal.

Blurring the Pedagogical Boundaries in the Postdigital University

Dr. Namrata Rao (Liverpool Hope University and Dr. Patrick Baughan (The University of Law)

Our presentation will consider the fluid and rigid spaces and places for learning and teaching connections that exist within higher education. Employing an adapted version of the ‘photovoice’ research approach, we examine the significance of spaces and places for facilitating learning and teaching connections, and the implications these have for the teaching practices in the sector. Further, we seek to draw attention to the spaces available to educators for their own pedagogical development and examine the nature of these spaces. Our findings are considered in relation to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, when opportunities for interaction had suddenly and drastically changed. We engage sociomaterial and spatial concepts to examine how spaces entangle and enrich university teachers’ experiences. Our data reveals how the move to digital and hybrid learning is blurring the boundaries of spaces and places, disrupting and reconfiguring what it means to teach and to learn in a postdigital higher education landscape.

Follow-up blog posts from this event are detailed below

A summary of the presenter responses to questions raised during this session is also available here

Symposium 3: Assemblages, Wednesday 13 September 2023

The third and final Symposium examines the expanding spectra of both learning spaces (including their architecture and materiality) and the pedagogical approaches that are being adopted within them. These discussions are presented against the backdrop of challenges presented by traditional decision-making around strategic long-term estates-planning, resource implications, and the need to act swiftly to meet the challenges presented by a dynamic HE environment.


Posthuman pedagogic assemblages: Reconceptualising how objects, bodies, materialities, affects and spaces come to matter in higher education landscapes of learning

Professor Carol Taylor, University of Bath

Feminist materialisms/critical posthumans offer a new conceptual understanding for thinking – and bringing into being – new higher education futures. Their critiques of White, Western colonialist ‘progress’ imperatives, of human exceptionalism, of the anthropocentric, ecological devastation and species extinction it has inaugurated, and their call to value other non-extractive modes of knowledge production, presents a profound challenge to contemporary higher education. Drawing on the work of Deleuze & Guattari (1987), Manning (2016) and Buchanan (2021), this paper focuses on posthuman pedagogic assemblages to argue the need to pay new attention in profoundly changed (and not yet post-) pandemic times to the entangled, productive, and ever-mutating configurations – assemblages – of objects, bodies, spaces, materialities and affects and how they come to matter in contemporary higher education. I discuss how thinking via assemblages opens the way to a radical reconceptualization of the learner-as-assemblage, of pedagogy as a spatial-material praxis of becoming-relational, and of the analytic value of transdisciplinary theoretical assemblages in the creation of new knowledge of and for HE landscapes of learning.

Paper Presenters

Mutually navigating the messy, postdigital spaces of education: entangled design, practice, and knowledge.

A/Prof Tim Fawns, Monash University

How can we think about the role of technology within dynamic and complex educational landscapes? Regardless of modality (e.g., “on camps”, “online”, “hybrid”), there are many learning spaces that I characterise as postdigital and entangled. Each space has fuzzy borders, through which learning leaks out and in, and each offers different meaning depending on what is happening. Many are hybrid: study and bedroom; physical and digital; public and private. Technology is inevitable, multiple, and relational. (How) should educators and institutions seek to influence happenings across these learning spaces? Should we stay in our own designated spaces (e.g., VLE’s and classrooms)? Can we help students navigate their spaces, while leaving space for them to do things their way? Drawing on ideas from postdigital and entangled pedagogy, I discuss some messy questions for design, practice, policy, infrastructure, and relational knowledge and expertise across different institutional levels.

Assemblages of belonging in the digital university

Dr Karen Gravett, University of Surrey

In this presentation, I share some of my current research examining student engagement, belonging and mattering in higher education. My research considers: what do students’ day-to-day connections with the digital university look like? And how can we use theory to focus more sharply on materiality in higher education, as a means to pay greater attention to the question: who and what matters to students’ learning? My research has found that students relate to the material campus in multiple ways. Students told us how they experience multiple belongings, and also curate their own assemblages of belonging. I examine how such enactments of space speak back to simplistic conceptions of engagement within higher education and sketch a more nuanced depiction of what it is to be a contemporary student. I conclude by thinking about ways in which we can draw upon evidence-based research to assist our work in maximising students’ potential for a diversity of students in contemporary higher education.

Picturing Places for Learning – how photographs tell stories about where learning happens

Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor in Organisation Studies, UWE, Bristol

In this talk, I will be exploring how visual methods can provide us with new ways of seeing and understanding spaces and places for learning. I will be drawing on a variety of research projects that have used participant-led photography as a way of investigating user experiences of buildings and the materiality of work. In particular, I will be presenting findings from a research project that studied the post-occupancy of a new Higher Education building, where we asked questions such as: how does a transparent, collaborative, and flexible building affect working and studying practices? What influence does it have on users’ perceptions of the University and is the building operating as predicted? Findings from this research point towards matters concerning power, privacy, and personalisation, and specifically how users of the building seek refuge in corners, nooks, and crannies, and how these rather unorthodox hiding places take on a den-like quality, providing sites for learning, reflection, and seclusion.