Hostile learning architecture

How often do we design our learning spaces to restrict and exclude?

As I stood in-front of the Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) last week (an important sidebar to my participation in Online Educa Berlin) and considered its crumbling concrete blocks, twisted wire and colourful graffiti art my thoughts returned to the subject of hostile architecture and design which I first considered at Digital Pedagogy Lab (University of Mary Washington) this summer (Aug 16) as part of Amy Collier’s design track.

How often do we – as learning designers – intentionally (or unintentionally) design with hostility? Do we always create the best conditions for learning?

The Berlin Wall was constructed to exclude, to restrict and control. It was an aggressive articulation of political power and a suppression of human rights. It was a physical barrier, an ‘Anti-fascist protective wall’ separating the GDR (German Democratic Republic) from the so-called ‘fascist’ behaviours of the West. It was the ultimate attempt to socially engineer behaviour.

A remnant of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie (Dec 2016)

There are pockets of urban design in the UK that remind me of the Berlin Wall, where spaces have been planned crudely and defensively with the aim of ‘designing out’ certain behaviours. For example:

Contextual differences aside similar underpinning aims of control and exclusion are at play. So how does this translate into our learning environments? When we purposively design to influence learning behaviour do our designs become hostile?

  • When we design our learning spaces to prevent cheating what impact does that have on the learning environment? Should we support our students to use the right citation methods, provide regular feedback and more low-stakes assessment or do we invest our time in managing punitive plagiarism detection software (e.g. Turnitin) as an adjunct to the LMS? And when we choose the latter what underlying messages do we send to our learners (e.g. hidden curriculum) and what compromises are we making about ownership of their academic artefacts?
  • When we design our online learning spaces without a place to sit comfortably what impact does this have on the learning environment? Should we design our online learning with a central welcoming space -a warming social hearth – or do we create linear activity-driven learning that doesn’t provide adequate social space for discussion (academic or otherwise). Our classrooms or training rooms are bustling places where learners share stories, talk about the weather and what they had for lunch – these exchanges help to build trust and rapport. These exchanges enable the learning and discussion that occurs. Encouraging these conversations online are, arguably, as important as the academic content of the learning itself.
  • When we measure our online learning using quantitative analytics alone what impact does this have on our learners? Our Learning Management Systems and other digital learning apps increasingly have in-built analytics tools that provide opportunity to track learner’s movements within a programme of learning. How should we use data to track student learning habits? Learning analytics focus on quantitative data that provide specific intelligence to organisations, teachers and/or trainers. Are learners always aware of this data capture? How does a lack of learner awareness about analytics or conversely an awareness impact upon learning? Are our interventions based on quantitative data always best placed to support and encourage? What data sets don’t provide are qualitative insights that, when used alongside analytics, provide a richer contextual picture of our learners.

Hostile design in learning spaces is usually unintentional or thoughtless rather than deliberate. Organisational drivers such as issues of compliance result in an empathy deficit for our learners and the conditions in which they thrive. The homeless spikes, mosquito sound alarms and indeed the Berlin Wall should serve as a reminder that how we design influences outcomes. Exclusion and control results in further division and inequality.

So- the next time you design a learning programme visualise those homeless spikes and ask; how can I create learning spaces that exude hospitality? Inclusive and empathetic learning design sends a positive message to our learners: – ‘you are very welcome here. How can we support you to achieve the best outcome for you from this programme of learning?’

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