Thursday, 15 May 2008

twitter study coming to a close

well, we're just in the final stages of tidying up the twitter study - most of the participants have finished (and are in the throes of exams and final hand-in deadlines) and joel is busy doing the reflective interviews with them at the moment. i had hoped to blog more regularly about some of the emerging themes, but unfortunately real-life took over in a number of ways (best laid plans and all!). so i thought it'd be time to reflect on the methodolgy at this point.

fairly early on in the study, i mentioned that it was working better than i'd hoped - and i'm glad to say that the good feeling lasted! obviously giving students vouchers for participating helped with the motivation, but in terms of the quantity and quality of the tweets we seemed to get more than we'd asked for from most of the participants. asking for the longer summaries based on the information we'd had from each participant was also useful - we were able to ask targetted questions of individuals rather than generic questions, and again in the majority of cases the quality of the summaries was fantastic. it'll be interesting to review again after the interviews and see whether we can identify what the twitter-based part of the study added to the overall process.

in terms of what we can do with the data so far, we've obviously got some really useful information about individual preferences, which we can take out to a larger population in future - one possibility is generating a set of preference statements and using these to develop a survey, which will hopefully allow us to capture a wide range of viewpoints from across the institution. another great use for this very rich, contextual sort of data is within staff development - exploring some of the assumptions that staff and students hold has proved to be a great way of generating conversations and engagement in the past. there are also some ideas about how the institution can make things work better for students - some small scale, quick changes that we can try to implement, some things that will take longer to do. again, having the student voice is often helpful for this, and can help negotiate some of the barriers to practical challenges. and on a more immediate note, it's really good (and reassuring!) to see how some of the changes we're planning for the learning centre over the summer align with the sorts of messages we're getting from the study.

more later :)

Monday, 21 April 2008

endless distractions...

i did mean to update this towards the end of last week, but 'distraction' has been a bit of a theme recently. aside from the distractions provided by various other, urgent work-related things (from which the tweets themselves have been proving welcome distraction, obviously...) we've recently received the first sets of longer summaries from the participants - which have sent me off in all sorts of directions. and one of the themes that's come up time and again is that of - you've guessed it! - distraction(s) within the environment.

we picked 3 things that each participant had talked about, and asked them to provide a little more information about each. the areas we asked about covered things such as:

  • choice of physical location for activity (eg, do you only choose this location for one type of learning activity, or does it support others equally?)
  • what made this location work for you and/or what about it hindered you (eg, presence or lack of technology?; access to resources and/or people?; atmosphere? etc)
  • opportunistic use of locations (eg, unbooked classrooms, transport, etc)

we've now got some fairly rich summaries that cover a number of issues, which we're hoping to investigate further during the later interviews.

one thing that's struck me, though, is the human dimension to the spaces that our students are using. in some cases, having other people around provides a distraction (sometimes welcome, sometimes not!). for example, some students prefer not to use a particular location because the other people who use it create too much noise, preventing them from concentrating or having meaningful discussions. on other occasions, lack of other people can be equally disturbing - one student describing parts of the library as 'too quiet' to concentrate; another talking about how she doesn't like studying in the library over night as it's 'too spooky' with only security staff around. conversely, another student talks about how she often chooses the library to work in because although she can access resources from home, the presence of other students - even those she doesn't know - makes her feel 'safe'.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

the tweeting continues!

3 days in, and this is surpassing all my expectations! we're getting some very enthusiastic tweets offering fascinating tid-bits of information about the variety of places that students use, as well as some great insights into their lives and personalities.

there are times when it makes us jealous - like when we're holed up in the office, and get an update saying that one of the participants is reading in sheffield's botanical gardens - no fair! but nice to see that even in the english spring/winter mid-season, we can still take advantage of the outdoors. (incidentally, sheffield is often talked about as england's greenest city, so on a nice day there are plenty of green spaces to relax in, even within reach of the city centre. this is part of the botanical gardens during summer last year: burnt oh, hang on, this isn't supposed to be a plug on behalf on the sheffield tourist board...back to the task at hand).

there are some interesting notes hinting at the importance of being in a particular type of environment - eg, "in collegiate learning centre, getting helped on some work by a friend. better to meet here than at home - more likely to get work done!" - which is a nice indication of the continuing importance of providing appropriate on-campus environments even when students can access the things they need at a distance. although someone much more after my own heart has told us that she can concentrate better in the pub. she claims it's the lack of computers that does it, but i have other theories... :)

as mentioned above, we're getting some insights into other areas of the participants' lives and study, which are proving endlessly distracting and fascinating - for example one of them has posted a link to her tutor's blog - which looks like a fascinating exploration of literacies, media, and life. one to track for later, i think!

we're gearing up for exam season at the moment, so lots of talk about revision - the notion of 'casually revising' is a new one on me...and even better is a new catch-phrase: 'muddled study' - referring to trying to slot studying around family life, car maintenance, and cooking - i really like that one alot!

finally (for now, at least) something that's surprising me - students finding spare classrooms near their teaching sessions for revision, study, assignment writing. not sure why i find it surprising - though we're always told that there's a lot of pressure on teaching space, perhaps more to do with people block booking spaces then not using them? - but it's these sort of unanticipated uses of space that really interest me. more later...i really must get on with some of the less exciting, day-to-day bits of my work for a while...

Sunday, 13 April 2008

tweeting about spaces for learning

i'm so ridiculously excited about this!

a while ago i started playing with twitter, the micro-blogging site. at first, it didn't seem like such a big deal - writing a short update (a 'tweet') about what i was doing at any point in time (usually either "sat at work" or "yay! work's over - off to the pub...") was mildly diverting, and reading other people's tweets was interesting - but just confirmed that everyone else has a much more interesting life than me. and then one day, while on the cross-campus dash between shu's city and psalter lane sites, i sent an update from my phone - and suddenly, i had a hare-brained idea...

at the time we were looking at appropriate methodology for the next phase of learning spaces research. we're particularly interested in how the attributes of spaces make them conducive - or not - to informal learning. we'd been thinking about using reflective diaries - something that had worked well previously as part of our e-learning research - but what if we could get our students to tell us what they were doing at the point in which they were doing it? what if they could tell us where they were learning there and then?

like most hare-brained schemes, we decided to get it up and running as soon as possible (after all, if we waited too long someone might point out its lack of scientific validity or sanity). and so, this week we're starting a 2-week study, whereby 15 students have been recruited to provide around 15 updates a week about where they're learning. a couple of them have started to provide us with updates ahead of time (if you suffer from continuous partial attention like i do, you can check out to see the updates as they come through - otherwise, i'll post occasional summaries and reflections on this blog along the way).

of course, this is the first time we've ever tried this, so it could all go horribly wrong...but i'm excited anyway to see how it works out :)

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

social learning symposium: post #2 in a series of...

of course, it seems strange to talk about a learning space symposium without talking about the spaces that were used to hold it. so, here's a brief reflection on the spaces themselves.

let's leave aside (for now, at least) the appearance of the wheatley campus itself, and concentrate instead on the simon williams undergraduate centre, which is described here as a dedicated social space 'to support student learning outside structured class time, in which staff and students can meet and develop a shared understanding of academic standards'. here's one image of it:

social learning space - simon williams undergraduate centre

(you can see more images of the space at this set over on flickr)

we spent the breaks between sessions in this area. now, while it's true that furniture alone can't make a space, it had a mixture of cafe-style seating and sturdier, softer (not necessarily comfy, mind) seating, combined with semi-transparent screens. and this did give the space an open, social atmosphere. some people stood around the edges of the room (no doubt trying to hog the pastries - hmph), some sat in groups at the cafe tables, some on the softer seating in small groups. one thing i did notice, but have only just realised, is that no-one seemed to look alone, or ill-at-ease. which has got me wondering how much of that was due to the layout of the area, how much to the nature of the sysmposium (ie, the type and/or number of people there)? and how much did the space influence the way people behaved - ie, how much they 'appeared' to be relaxed, how much they were willing to talk to others? and how differently would it be used by 'normal' staff and students (ie, non-learning-space-geeks)? and...and...and...

[ok, deep breath, before i start to doubt my own existence. will mull further on this.]

i guess the main point is that this space was an attempt to blend cafeteria-style, conversational spaces, with stand-alone pcs. this learning space geek felt that it worked well - though as above, it'd be interesting to see it outside of vacation, and how it's used by staff/students.

the sessions themselves were held in a nearby building - possibly slightly disappointingly - in standard reconfigurable classrooms (ie, small tables, standard classroom seating) and a horseshoe shaped lecture theatre with fixed tabling. ok, i've crossed out the bit about this being dissappointing - predictable, maybe, i do get a bit weary of people (myself included) who stand at the front of a room to talk about learning spaces, and apologise for standing at the front of a room. memo to self: get over it!

this clearly needs a little more thought - but what kinds of spaces would i *not* be disparaging about? more later...

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

learning per square foot, and learning ecosystems

back from the social learning space symposium now - and have come to the conclusion that there's just too much to cover in one blog post. so am going to try and do it in stages, by picking out one or two key messages from each session.

so, will start at the beginning. well, not right at the very beginning - the less said about my 'adventures' on the way from the hotel to wheatley campus, the better. skipping lightly over those details then, and on to the opening keynote, which was delivered by deborah bickford (university of dayton). this was a really great talk - very engaging, with a core message about the importance of community in learning. if you're unfamiliar with deborah's work, there's a chapter in the educause learning spaces e-book that's worth a look: community: the hidden context for learning. now, dayton are in the position of having 95% of their undergraduates living on-campus (with all the attendant benefits and drawbacks this brings) so while some of the specifics might not be easily or broadly applicable, there were some interesting concepts that we'll be wrestling with over the coming weeks and months.

a couple of key things worth picking out here: firstly, the notion of 'learning per square foot'. anyone familiar with learning space discussions in higher education will be familiar with the importance that is placed on space management and allocation, or how many square feet do we allow per student? while i'm sympathetic to the pressures that planners work under, the idea of instead thinking about how much learning there would be per square foot is a much more attractive one to think about. difficult to measure, of course, but interesting to think about how this might open up conversations. we've been having very similar discussions across shu (though possibly not quite as eloquently as that!) particularly in terms of the new extension to the learning centre, and trying to get people to start thinking about effective learning environments, rather than asking 'how many student desks can we fit in here?'. i'll save the outcomes of those conversations for another post :)

the second key idea that i'd like to mention briefly here is the idea of moving away from thinking about individual classrooms, or individual learning spaces. instead, what is important is how these individual spaces connect and interact with each other, how together they can enable effective learning to take place. i think this is a really powerful message - after all, there's only so much that can be achieved in any one setting. but to think about how a formal learning space (let's say a standard classroom) can feed into and be fed from a connected series of informal, social spaces, how the learning can flow between them, and be strengthened by these connections - that offers some real food for thought.

this notion of learning ecosystems is particularly relevant for some of the faculty-based discussions we've been having recently, in terms of co-locating spaces to allow student-centred, collaborative learning activities - in one case, focussing on media production. so having an area where students can record their activity/discussions, co-locating this near to editing/production facilities, with social viewing areas and appropriate support nearby. we're still working on these ideas, and waiting to hear how much we might be able to achieve this year - but the ideas presented at the symposium have given me some new perspectives to bring into the discussion.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

musing on progress to date

rather ambitiously, last year we put together a conference proposal to talk about learning space developments, cultural change, and barrier negotiation. the conference is now looming (yikes!) and i'm having fun putting together the presentation.

no, really, it is fun. particularly as i'm working on the barriers section, and thinking of some of the conversations we've had over the past year or so. the presentation (at oxford brooke's social learning symposium) will be framed specifically around developments in the learning centre, which has been a somewhat contentious issue, some people feeling understandably protective over spaces that they feel they own.

without giving the game away, so far, i've come up with 4 key barriers to cultural change in the learning spaces arena, which appear somewhat predictably regardless of type of space, or stage of development:

  • everyone's an expert (ie, i know what i want from my space, therefore it must be right for everyone, surely?)
  • ownership (ie, you're not changing *my* spaces!)
  • the 'f' word (ie, you're asking what i want? well, it has to be...flexible)
  • the 'i' word (ie, flexible isn't good enough? well then, it has to be...innovative)

exploring these and thinking explicitly about negotiation strategies is proving to be interesting, and i'll start to explore them in more depth over the coming weeks. meantime, this was just a 'starter for ten' post - in the hope that one day, i might get around to updating this more regularly. fingers crossed... :)