Opening Spaces for Learning

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This paper outlines a case study which explores the tensions and enabling factors encountered by both instructors and participants in an open boundary course.

Extended Abstract

With the adoption of social technologies in mainstream society, post-secondary educators have been adopting social technologies as alternatives to traditional learning management systems, perceiving them to be more open, participatory, student-centered, and reflective of socio-constructivist approaches to learning. At the same time, as we open up our boundaries of learning, researchers have suggested that these spaces can be uncanny, unsettling or troublesome as they challenge traditional, hierarchical learning models and their more familiar and comfortable references, roles and norms of the academy. How we incorporate these networked learning principles into the design of open online learning spaces, and how these spaces then are enacted as learning spaces is the focus of this project.

A virtual ethnographic case study of a small, open boundary course was conducted to investigate how the available learning spaces are perceived and used by both teachers and learners, particularly as they intersect formal and informal contexts. To answer the overall research question "What effects do open online learning spaces have on the development of a learning culture in networked learning environments?" a two-tiered analytic framework was developed. The first tier examined the everyday practices within the course, including interactions between material and social spaces, through examination of the structures, communications and resulting practices. The second stage used a spatial lens, based on Boys' (2011) adaptation of Lefebvre's spatial triad (1991), to explore the tensions between how space is perceived (daily practices), conceived (designed), and lived (enacted) by participants.

One finding is that participants all valued direct pathways for their learning experiences and felt that too many resources and routes lead to confusion and disorientation. Finding and maintaining coherence was a challenge for both instructors and participants, with each wrangling with the principles of openness, autonomy and social dialogue to meet their own needs and create different learning spaces. For the instructors this meant providing wayfinding and mooring points through the signalling of pathways, active participation and a repurposing/remixing of the different tools and structures available to them. The participants chose different pathways depending on their expectations and learning needs (assessed/non-assessed), made visible their struggles with technology, and stuck to the course "home" space where visibility, recognition and meaningful connections were more likely to be encountered.

The spatial analysis highlighted that there is a constant shifting and renegotiating within the learning spaces we try to create, both as designers and as learners. In this case tensions related to visibility/anonymity, assessment, flexibility (pathways, time), resources, conceptions of openness, and complexity of the learning environment, all had an impact on how the learning spaces were perceived or enacted. The hierarchically defined spaces created through digital tools, even those created by social technologies that many consider inherently more open and participatory, are only permeable and accessible in certain ways, and to certain types of practices. The results of this research highlight that these underlying structures, with their own set of rules, ownership, and hierarchical ordering affects the resulting spaces, dictating how learners and teachers can shape and interact with them. Those considering designing learning experiences with more open, permeable boundaries will need to ask critical questions about how resulting tensions may create different types of enclosures or barriers, and how this impacts on the spaces for learning.