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New Learning Spaces: Method of Evaluation

December 17, 2012 Leave a comment
Observation in evaluating learning spaces

Observation in evaluating learning spaces

This is a continuation of ideas being developed around the evaluation of learning spaces at City University London.

At City University London there is a need to better understand the effectiveness of new learning spaces that are being created. City University London is currently engaged in the redevelopment of its estate. A major part of this is the re-conceptualization of the Learning Spaces. The Learning Development Centre (LDC) is working closely with City’s Property and Facilities to ensure that pedagogical principles are considered in the redesigning of City University’s learning spaces.

Understanding the effectiveness of new learning spaces is crucial for two reasons: to evaluate the effectiveness of a space newly created and to prepare better for future learning spaces design and construction. As such, this formal evaluation will be a ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ of the space. It is this stage of the evaluation cycle that presents the greatest challenges in aligning the evaluation method with the rational and practical outcomes that drove design intent. However, it is also crucial as the formative model for a full design and evaluation process, and as a source of data for new informal and collaborative spaces (Lee, 2009 in Radcliffe et al, 2009).

At a broad level, it is important for educational developers and education researchers to better understand how lecturers and students relate to the new built environment and what this means for the exchange of knowledge. To this purpose, it is understood that efforts to develop more effective learning spaces need to be informed by the extensive research into environmental behaviour and psychology (Jamieson, 2007).

To this end, I am found that the observation method is a popular tool in evaluating new learning spaces (Radcliffe et al, 2009).  Observations are builds on the principle that for research into the use and effectiveness of the new learning spaces, it is best to observe what actually happens in the natural setting (Descomber, 2003) rather than to ask for thoughts retrospectively.

In line with the epistemology of participating observation, this study would enable the research team to participate in natural learning situations, enabling better understanding of the learning processes involved in the new spaces. The observations will take place in the natural learning spaces as the research team is interested in the effects of the environment on learning as it happens, rather than they happen under artificially created conditions. This allows the research team to record information as it happens and record critical incidents as they occur (Creswell, 2009).

The observation method has a number of characteristics which cannot be found in other education research methods and which are better suited in understanding the new learning spaces. These include:

  1. It directly records what the user does in the space, as distinct from what they say they do are their perception of the room.
  2. Observation is well matched with other research methods being applied in understanding the SLE and learning spaces. As it is more about the behaviour it complements well other research methods that rely mainly on sharing thoughts.
  3. When combined with contextual information, which will be the case here, observation can give significant insight on the effects of the learning space on behaviour.

We are continually working on developing our research methods for evaluating the learning spaces. Please do share your thoughts and experiences of evaluating learning spaces.

Shadowing Research Approach in Evaluating Learning Spaces in Higher Education: A Methodological Discussion

November 16, 2012 1 comment

Observation

Research is a major part of understanding the impact of new learning spaces at City University London. However, like all Higher Education research, methodological questions soon arise. I had a number of discussions with colleagues working on ‘Learning Spaces Evaluation’ about the best method of developing an understanding of the functionality and effectiveness of the new learning spaces at City University London. My current thinking is that an ideal method would be the ‘Shadowing Research Approach’.

Observation has an anthropology root and originated in the colonial encounter between Western people and colonized non-Western people, as Europeans tried to understand the origins of observable cultural diversity (Wikipedia, 2012). Later on, it seems that the observation method leaked in Psychology and Sociological studies. So although the observation method started as very intimate, stretching over many years, it was adopted to fit the demands of time and resources limitation in the West. This more ‘laboratory’ or ‘quasi-observation’ approach has a number of weaknesses, one of which is that it does not provide a holistic picture. Also, as pointed out to me by Kate Reader, observations can create unnatural behaviour in the learning spaces user. Furthermore, observations tend to focus on overt behaviour and does not consider the internal thinking and intentions (Denscombe, 2003).

As such, I suggested we consider taking a ‘shadowing research approach’. In essence this approach combines quasi-observation (or peer- observations which is what we had planned) with case study work. It does not have to be as intimate as the original anthropological observation (i.e. we are not going to follow the academic home!) yet it will give us a richer and holistic view of the users’ behaviour and patterns of using the technology.

So the chosen user, in this case, a staff member becomes the centre of the case study. We would employ a tool kit of research methods, such as in-class observation, out-class interviews (conversations), and usability questionnaire for a stated period of time (1 month for example). The approach would demand that we look at the staff member with a wider lens, meaning that we would seek to question and understand:

Observation camera

Observation in evaluation of new learning spaces at City University London

  • their interaction with technology generally (e.g. what technologies are present in the user’s life);
  • their teaching style (e.g. do they know about ‘blending learning’)
  • attitude and perceptions toward education technology
  • understanding of learning spaces

At the end of the one month period, we should have a better understanding of the relationship between the user and the learning space. And as we have more information on their attitudes, perceptions, and general interaction with education technology across their academic teaching, we should get over the problem of having a single snapshot of their use of the space.

The approach allows us as the researchers to identify ourselves as active participants in the construction of the learning spaces experience for the user and not to shy away from our explicit influence on the interpretation of the data.  This now permits us to interpret the relationship of the user with the learning space through our expert viewpoints.

In conclusion, there are a number of ideas to discuss further with City University’s Learning Spaces experts before implementing the ‘Shadowing Research Approach’, including:

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