Reflections on the Learning Spaces Symposium and Education Conference in May 2018

The beginning of May was busy for Exeter’s education incubator. Two key events focusing on learning and teaching innovation in Higher Education took place over two days. The first was a symposium hosting discussion and debate on learning spaces, held under the provocative title of “Do we need lecture theatres in the 21st Century” at Exeter’s main Streatham campus. The second, taking place the following day, was a conference focusing more broadly on teaching and learning in Higher Education, and included presentations by Incubator Fellows across all three topic strands.

Thursday’s event; the learning spaces symposium was well attended and held in the collaborative lecture theatre in the Newman building at Streatham. I was not alone in feeling the irony of holding a symposium which was overtly challenging the assumption that we need lecture theatres in today’s universities, in a lecture theatre (albeit a collaborative version of the familiar setting). However, when the event got underway, it became clear that this was the ideal setting for such a discussion – the lecture theatre we were in became the subject of much discussion, comparison and critique.

The symposium lasted for the morning and attracted speakers from across the UK, who provided excellent case studies of initiatives and challenges from other institutions – fostering healthy debate and conversation. Sue Prince introduced the morning which included contributions from Professor Alejandro Armellini from the University of Northampton, who provided a provocative insight into the UoN’s new campus, which incorporates no lecture theatres or individual staff offices! Instead it hosts a ‘learning hub’. His discussion on blended learning principles were attractive to many in the room and enabled further discussion and questioning. Professor Tim Quine then gave an overview of Exeter’s contributions and discussed the initiative currently termed ‘Project Exceptional’, highlighting new approaches to teaching and learning at Exeter. Bryony Loveless from the student guild provided an important insight into the Exeter Student perspective on teaching and learning before Professor Norma Martin Clement from the University of Leeds provided an evidence based study into the use of collaborative lecture theatres at her institution.

In the next part of the morning, Hellen Wallace introduced ‘Learning Environment Top Trumps’ – a paired task in which we rated various learning spaces based on a number of important categories included flexibility, atmosphere, group work and so on. Sian Minett of UCL gave an interesting presentation on the challenges of updating old buildings for innovative learning, before the day was closed by Sarah Dyer who provided an overview of the activities of the Education Incubator. A buffet lunch in the foyer provided a good place for further discussion based on the topic covered throughout the morning.

The following day saw many of the symposium attendees head to Penryn, for the Learning Conference held at Exeter’s Cornwall campus – #EduExe2018. The well-attended event provided a platform for discussion of the incubator fellow’s projects as well as external speakers to share their thoughts and insights into education and innovation. The day was opened by Raphael Hallett from Keele Institute of Innovation and Teaching Excellence. His far reaching and engaging key note gave delegates food for thought on a range of issues surrounding the concept of students as collectors, curators and ‘bricoleurs’ of ideas and information. The notion of students curating their learning experiences was linked to the worlds of social media in which information is picked and chosen to suit the user. The argument seemed to be that universities must get better at adapting their various mediums, medias and sites of learning to become more cohesive and open to students.

Break-out sessions across the morning and afternoon focused on the work of Exeter Education Incubator Fellows who each gave short presentations on their projects, demonstrating software and findings to interested audiences. Lunch was held in the sports hall and provided a space for delegates to network and discuss with one another, while poster presentations from projects across the university on teaching and learning provided further interest.

Following lunch, we heard from Janice Kay about the Teaching Excellence Framework in a presentation which gave much insight into this sometime mysterious initiative while attracting wide ranging discussion and questions from the floor. The rest of the afternoon saw sessions continue with incubator fellows presenting their findings in further seminar sessions before all delegates returned to the chapel lecture theatre to hear reflections from Tim Quine, Raphael Hallett, Michael Rofe, Wendy Robinson and Sarah Dyer. The day was an excellent opportunity to hear about exciting and inspiring work in education innovation occurring both inside and outside of the university. Both events worked well together to provide context for further discussion while cementing the important role the Education Incubator fulfils at the University of Exeter. Both events were well organised and rich with discussion. Many thanks to all of those involved – especially to Sue Prince, Sarah Dyer and all of the Incubator Project Officers.

By Lewis Winks

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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