Reflections on CELT Symposium 2018

I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit NUI Galway last week for the annual CELT Symposium. It was the first time I’d been to Galway, but it reminded me a lot of a (much!) bigger version of my home town of Stornoway in the Western Isles so it felt a bit like home away from home.

The theme of this years symposium was Design for Learning: Teaching and Learning Spaces for Higher Education and, as always, it was a really thought provoking and engaging event. Although I’ve never been to CELT before I always follow the conference hashtag on twitter so it was great to be invited to participate in person this year. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the entire symposium, but I do want to briefly mention a few highlights.

Alastair Blyth, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Westminster, opened the conference with a keynote on Re-imagining Learning Spaces in Higher Education. Alastair noted that conversations about space are never just about space, they’re conversations about pedagogy, curriculum, technology, time and most importantly people. Learning is a social process, so learning spaces need to be learner centred and inclusive, and they need to enable collaboration between both students and teachers.  Alastair also highlighted the important civic function of universities, which blurs the boundary of public and private space.  This is a function that has always been central to the University of Edinburgh and indeed the university’s civic mission is written into the institution’s vision for open eduction.

Lorna Campbell & Donna Lanclos, CC BY-SA 2.0, Catherine Cronin

Anthropologist Donna Lanclos also gave a really inspiring keynote on supporting active learning pedagogies through creative physical spaces.  Creating the space is just the starting point, staff need time to develop a curriculum that maximises the effectiveness of active learning spaces. Experimenting with teaching in this way can be unsettling for students, as it’s a different model of authority. Teachers that are comfortable in active learning spaces, are comfortable with the realisation that they are not the main point of the learning experience.  Research shows that active pedagogies and active teaching and learning strategies break down inequalities in student success. If we choose not to adopt these approaches, then it becomes a social justice issue.  Donna cautioned against asking students what they want from libraries and learning spaces; instead, ask them what they do, where they go, ask them about their own learning spaces. We need institutional spaces that facilitate collaborative learning, we can’t just send our students to Starbucks. Donna also introduced us to the wonderfully icky concept of Sticky Campuses – campuses that students want to come back to.

Another session that really captivated me was Catriona Carlin‘s lovely talk about designing biodiverse spaces to feel joy and inspire learning. Catriona reminded us that the outdoors isn’t just for ecologists, the outdoors enables people to think outside the frameworks that constrain them, allowing them to notice, observe and think.  A timely reminder for us all!

Given the Symposium’s focus on physical teaching and learning spaces, I was a little worried that my closing keynote, The Soul of Liberty,  on digital open learning spaces, might be a little off the mark, so I was really encouraged by all the positive feedback I got from participants on twitter both during my talk and after I posted the transcript here on my blog.  It’s particularly gratifying to see such a positive response to our Open Content Curation Student Interns and the Wikimedia in the Classroom initiatives led by our wonderful Wikimedian in Residence Ewan McAndrew.  I’d also like to give a little shout out to Alice White, WiR at the Wellcome Library, and my colleague Anne-Marie Scott, whose gorgeous photographs of the Processions collaborative art work I used in my slides.

I’d just like to finish by thanking Catherine Cronin and Ian McLaren for inviting me to the Symposium and to all at NUI Galway who worked so hard to make it such a welcoming and engaging event. Tapadh leibh a huille duinne!

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