Thursday, 7 February 2013

‘Exploring Spaces’ - understanding the learning spaces that libraries provide

Martin Edwards attended the Experiences of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL) conference on ‘Exploring Spaces’ (Orlando, Florida, January 2013) with financial support from the Kathleen Cooks Fund. This is Martin's overview of a project to review learning spaces at the University of Wales Newport and some of his experiences of attending and delivering a paper at the Conference.

The location for HETL’s ‘Exploring Spaces' conference depicting part of the university campus at the University of Central Florida, Orlando


Back in May 2012, the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL) called for papers on the theme of ‘Exploring Spaces’ for a conference to be held at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. At the University of Wales, Newport, staff in the library service had received a ‘learning and teaching’ grant to try and understand the learning space the libraries provides for its users, with an original remit to:

  • To gain a better understanding of space (physical and virtual) and how this meets the learning and research needs of our learners (staff and students)
  • To investigate whether teaching can be supported with our learning centre resources
  • To investigate whether there is a difference between a learning centre and a library and if so, how this impacts on the learning experience.

The rationale for this came on the back of a university restructuring process which laid more emphasis on learning centres and less so on libraries.  We were also keen to see how much the notion of an information commons had progressed in a decade or so since its inception.

The Conference Experience

The conference itself was hugely different to both the library-specific and non-library conferences I had attended in the UK.  The scale of it (both the size of the campus and the number of delegates and speakers) may at first have appeared overwhelming, but I was impressed with the efficiency of the organisation, the structure of the programme and the pace of the change from keynote speakers to symposia to roundtable presentations and panel discussions.  HETL was a new association to me and I was impressed with its global coverage and the commitment of staff from across the world (who were mostly present at the conference).

UWN Newport City Centre - The Learning Centre including an information point, some of the IT study spaces and (towards the back) a social space.

My presentation focused on the qualitative and quantitative methodologies we had employed at Newport to try and identify a relationship between the learning styles of our students and the study spaces we provide. It is clear that there still needs to be a demarcation between the silent / individualised and the group / blended learning areas.  Strong support was also shown for more IT zones and bookable study rooms.  This has largely been achieved at our new campus in the city centre, but is something we are still working on at our older campus at Caerleon.  Other points raised in the presentation noted the need for social spaces, and this is something I am starting to look at in conjunction with the Newport Riverfront Arts Centre, aiming to deploy techniques from the commercial and non-education sector into higher education libraries.

I was also part of a roundtable group identifying the relationship between learning spaces and student experience. This involved attending other presentations on library themes including:
  • the design of a bespoke ‘Learning Ground and Sandbox’ at ‘Portland State University’
  • non-linear approaches to teaching students information literacy / fluency from ‘To The Point Research/Google, Inc’, and
  • managing media technology and services (both on-demand borrowing and service support) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 
It was good to gain an insight into what other higher education libraries in other parts of the world are doing and the Q&A session at the end reinforced the notion that we share the same issues and problems, including:
  • how to support research in higher education (whether through faculty or a dedicated graduate research centre);
  • bridging the digital divide and avoiding disintermediation (both for users and front-line staff), and
  • the growing role of marketing and use of social media.

A ‘snapshot’ of some of the findings at Newport, with a demand for improved spaces of all types, replete with improved environmental factors.  This is something we have started to address by laying less emphasis on printed stock and opening up floor space and study rooms.

The role networking plays in such a large conference is invaluable and it was really useful to have informal discussions with academic staff from a wide range of disciplines as well as library people. For instance I had a good dialogue with the Head of Service at Bishop’s University, Quebec and it would be invaluable to continue communications with him to learn about the outcomes of the design and construction of their new library.

The Future

In relation to HETL, I would like to stay informed and become involved with activities in the future.  In relation to the work done at Newport on learning spaces, as mentioned above, I am embarking on a research investigation at the Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre as part of a Strategic Insight Programme and aim to bring ideas about space from another sector and service back to the library to increase the engagement we have with our learners and researchers.  Part of my presentation will also be delivered at the forthcoming event Learning Spaces and the Student Experience: Do Spaces Matter? at the Senedd, National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff on March 11 2013. 


It is with sincere gratitude that I acknowledge the funding from the Kathleen Cooks Fund which made my visit to the HETL Conference possible. Thanks to Dr Bela Arora, who also participated at the conference and has been instrumental at setting up a learning spaces forum at the university.  Thanks also to Angharad Evans and Madeleine Rogerson for all the work and research they performed at Newport when we initially received the learning and teaching grant.  As the university mergers with Glamorgan University to become the University of South Wales, then this is an ideal opportunity to re-examine the learning spaces we provide across multi-campuses.

Martin Edwards is Team Leader in User Services, Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at the University of Wales Newport.

CILIP Cymru Wales is grateful to Martin for providing permission to publish this report.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post and lot of information to perceive. Thank you for posting this up.
    Education in UK