Calm designs for rich co-presence in crowded learning spaces: countering the fragmentation of the learning community


Here’s the overview for a paper (or possibly a chapter) that I am working on.

Acceleration and the centrifuge

2015 marked the 50th birthday of the University of Warwick. It has been, in that time, one of the world’s fastest growing institutions – in terms of size, capability, reputation and global reach. In the last ten years of especially intensive change we have seen the campus transformed from parkland with buildings to a fully urban space. A crowded space. Student numbers have increased, pushed by government policy and pulled by economic and social demands. Everywhere is busy. Everyone is overloaded. And at the same time the ubiquitous computing revolution has amplified this complexity and intensity many times over. A student is no longer ever truly alone. Few in the present generation will know what it is to be on an empty top floor of the Library with only books – paper books – for company. Or in a lecture where the lecturer commands attention easily by virtue of being the only voice present. No, today we are, it seems, inescapably hyper connected, 24/7, 365 days a year, and in every kind of space and social situation.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

University of Warwick Library, 1965.

This is not exactly what Yeats meant when he wrote of the end of western civilization:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

But there are doomsayers in the University who might recast these apocalyptic words as foretelling the present day post-modern condition facing every lecturer – or falconer.

Warwick University Library 2016

University of Warwick Library, 2016.

In this first section I draw upon accounts of the student experience from across the 50 years of the University to illustrate the effects of over-crowding and acceleration. Fundamental changes have occurred in the being and becoming of students. I address the question: if this goes any further, will we still find space for learning together? As our mental and physical matter becomes ever more accelerated, are we inevitably thrown away from each other, with stronger and deeper bonds broken by the centrifugal forces of a crowded network, what will survive? And more worryingly, what unconscious cognitive biases are brought into play? Does acceleration and the centrifuge, for example, increase the likelihood of political violence on campus?

My answer is: yes, it is real, and it is having a damaging impact. But also: no, we are not yet doomed – we can design platforms and practices that help us to thrive in and on the chaos.

In the second part of the paper, I look for inspiration in two places:

1. How some people cope brilliantly but many others do not
The sociologist Margaret Archer has undertaken of studies investigating how students cope with these changes, how they are developing new ways of being and becoming, mediated through novel forms of “reflexivity” and “internal conversation”. Some people do this in a way that fits easily with the world today. Others use different methods with unhappy results. I have extended Archer’s work with insights from cognitive science showing how people use spaces and technologies to extend their reflexive strategies. We can look to these cases for inspiration as to the design of learning spaces and technologies that help people to cope with and benefit from the crowded conditions of today’s university.

2. Calm designs enable rich co-presence within the crowd
It is not too outrageous a claim to say that John Seely Brown, Mark Weisser and their colleagues at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) invented the modern world. The world of ubiquitous computing was their vision. They prototyped the classroom of 2015 back in the 80s. But more importantly, they studied and theorized the impacts of such technologies on people – socially and cognitively – working alongside anthropologists including Lucy Suchman. Seely Brown and Weisser described a set of design principles that would much later inform Apple’s mobile devices, including the Apple Watch. They aimed not simply to give maximum connectivity, but to find ways in which people, technology and the network would co-adapt so as to enrich our capabilities and lives, rather than overwhelm them. They invented the terms “ubiquitous computing” and “ubiquitous learning” but accompanied these powerful ideas with “calm technologies” – based upon design techniques that aim to maintain the optimal state for human attention, concentration and distraction, putting technology into the periphery of attention, but maintaining channels through which we can swiftly shift our focus without disruption.

Designing for calmness and rich co-presence in Higher Education

Finally, in the third part of the paper I return to the crowded University environment, and the over-crowded student experience, of today. I illustrate ways in which some designers, often people who do not even consider themselves to be designer, are creating physical, digital and blended platforms that implement calm design principles. Not only does the modern world demand better designing, but its platforms are intentionally more designable. Thinking back to Archer’s work, it seems that some people are rising to the challenge, exploiting the “magic of the platform” (as one of my colleagues calls it), so as to help themselves and others to succeed under these accelerated and hyper connected conditions. The paper ends with some simple recommendations for every student and every teacher – easy ways in which we can all start to apply calm design principles.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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