Learning precincts

The notion of learning spaces is gaining traction across all sectors of education. Learning spaces are not only used to describe places we can learn, but can also be representative of the human mind. The only difference other than scale, is that physical learning spaces have their limits, whilst no-one has yet been able to define the boundaries of the human mind and its capabilities. And it is from our minds that the concept of learning spaces arises. 

The extent to which we model learning spaces on the metaphor of the human mind may indicate how close we can come to creating spaces that are conducive to good learning at a very personal level. There have been many other metaphors used to depict learning. The industrial revolution brought us the clock metaphor, and later the machine (for example the water mill or the steam engine) as a means of processing knowledge. The technological revolution suggested metaphors of learning that included the mind as a computer, and later as a network, which is probably the most aligned we have ever been to representing the neural connections the human brain makes when we learn something new. Another useful recent conceptualisation of learning involves horticultural metaphors - learning as the planting of a garden, and more recently, learning connections that can be mirrored in the chaotic forms of learning we see happening in hyper linked environments, without centre or boundaries - rhizomatic learning.

All of the above are of course merely shadow representations of our collective and clumsy struggle to try to illustrate and define what happens when we learn. It's not an easy task, because we all learn differently, and we all learn different things from the same stimuli. Perhaps that is why we employ metaphors that reflect what is happening at that moment in the world of innovation. We are all made of the same stuff, but somehow, we are all individuals and we all have our own preferences and strategies for learning.

Whether there is any commonality between learners remains to be seen, but a key question for universities is whether we can create learning spaces that are conducive to learning for all. Professor Rob Allen, Deputy Vice Chancellor at Auckland University of Technology believes we can. In an effort to transform the environs of AUT, he and his team have launched a grand design scheme that will transform the inner city campus of the former polytechnic dramatically over the next two years. Today at the Informa Tertiary Education Summit in Wellington, he unveiled his plans. The Learning Precinct is a structure that will join the entire AUT campus from one end to the other, so that students can wander between spaces, in one very large, continuous building complex. It will include multiple glass atria, a tower block, media studios and flexible lecture areas that feature rotatable seating to encourage collaborative work. Within the learning precinct some of the flexible shared spaces are able to be transformed into formal or informal community spaces for collaborative work, or individual places of self-study. The entire structure will be designed using sustainable materials to provide a comfortable, aesthetic and environmentally controlled space for learning of all types to be supported. Professor Allen promises that the new learning precinct will connect teaching, technology and spaces in an effective and stimulating manner. You can read more about this ambitious, multi-million dollar project here.

You can learn anywhere of course, but for me, the most important thing is to create spaces that are conducive to learning, that students come back to, time and time again, because they enjoy being there. We shall see by 2013 whether AUT has succeeded in its quest to provide a mega-campus under one roof. More importantly, we will find out if the learning spaces that are being created will achieve the goal Rob Allen and his team have set themselves - to provide physically attractive learning spaces that students want to populate because they are socially and culturally relevant to their needs.

Images courtesy of Auckland University of Technology

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Learning precincts by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Excellent article, Steve and the concept of learning spaces interests me so much my blog is devoted to the subject. I've been using the gardening metaphor for a long time about learning and it's a relief to know that something I formulated intuitively is backed academically and neurologically! I now feel confident in exploring this further with learners by encouraging them to 'take some questions for a walk'. Here's an apposite quote from Shunryu Suzuki, "Our tendency is to be interested in something that is growing in the garden, not in the bare soil itself. But if you want to have a good harvest, the most important thing is to make the soil rich and cultivate it well."
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Vincent, the garden metaphor is possibly one of the most powerful, because it has many variants and features to explain learning in all its form. Keep watering the garden! ;-)
Simon Ensor said…
Is this going to be a fashionnable learning resort?

Sure sounds like a sexy educational mall..with its manicured hothouse garden.

Aren't such educational centres missing too many of the points....and the space around them?

Oh my God a bull in the China shop!

Crisis, what crisis?
mvallance1234 said…
Steve. I teach at a unique university here in Japan. The buildings are mostly glass and the enormous space abd classrooms are deemed 'open'.
Our motto is Open Space: Open Mind.
Our courses attempt to mix techies with design students and so our project based learning produces very interesting products (real and digital).
In theory, students can 'wander in and observe or participate in an class.
BUT ..
the building is simply a foundation for opening the minds of both students and staff. The toughest obstacle to change is the pull of tradition - a ball and chain wrapped tightly around progress.
My advice to the New Zealand uni leadership is to invest $$ in staff professional development .. and make it count. The open space is just the beginning. Opening the mind is more challenging.

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