The Hyper-Public Learning Space

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Last week I attended the 2011 Learning Design Summer Camp at Penn State University and led a small group discussion for the classroom of the future session. Having just attended the Hyper-Public Symposium at Harvard University and written about private and public learning spaces, I facilitated a discussion around the hyper-public learning space. I define hyper-public as complete openness, similar to a person that is followed around by paparazzi. This post provides an overview of the small group discussion and ideas. 

Using Laurent Stalder's notion of thresholds: "when do you begin to be in the building?", I gave an example of a high threshold: Penn State's Pattee Library (Slide 2 of Preso below), and low threshold: the Seattle Public Library (Slide 3 of Preso below). 

The steps and brick walls of the Pattee Library provide a boundary in a way that a person must make an effort to enter the building. There must be prior intent to enter the building. On the other hand, the design of the Seattle Public Library's auditorium invites a person to participate in a lecture/presentation without having planned for it. The Rolex Learning Center at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland is a great example of a hyper-public learning space, a space that invites someone in and provides a high level of openness (Slide 4 of Preso above). The following video link provides a glimpse into the design of the space from SANAA, the architecture team that designed the center: Video of the Design of the Rolex Learning Center

A hyper-public learning space is a space that actively encourages interaction. The design of the space invites participants. In the Rolex Learning Center, the design concept is learning as a social enterprise. That is, learning is an inherently social activity, and the design of the learning center provides an opportunity to engage and learn with others. In the video of the Rolex Learning Center (link above), the architects explain how the physical spaces are based around organic movement. The curves in the design of the center enable people to avoid collisions. The architects are proud of the space and want to be in the space, but what do students say? Our small group decided that before we can use the Rolex Learning Center as a model for a hyper-public design in our own community, we need to know if students want to be in the space. Are students using it in the ways the architects imagined? Moreover, is the color white for walls, floors, furniture too much? Too stark?

More important than the design of the walls, curves, and colors of a space, are the affordances of the objects within a space. Possible examples of affordances of objects are wheels on tables that allow students to move the tables to meet their needs, monitors/computers mounted on walls instead of tables so tables can be moved, couches instead of chairs in back of classrooms so outside students/people feel invited to sit in on class discussions, and pods that allow students to project their laptops onto wall monitors during group work. In the East Quad at the University of Michigan, learning spaces feature many of these objects and affordances. The following slideshow presents a glimpse of the learning spaces: 

These spaces change the concept of privacy in the classroom. Inviting outside students/people to sit in the back of class on a sofa during regular class activities is radically different than traditional notions of higher education. Is it possible to have our students unlearn their notions of a classroom so they will use and feel comfortable in these hyper-public spaces? Same question for faculty? Or are these spaces too radical?

In an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer and Jerry observe a hospital operation but because of the openness, find themselves as participants because of one Junior Mint candy. Inviting everyone to participate as observers or active participants is what the hyper-public learning space is all about. It is changing the classroom culture and requires a change in teacher perspectives. We have telepresence - the ability to communicate across the world; mixing in higher education buildings - living spaces, learning spaces, and faculty offices are all under the same roof; multi-purpose ceilings - sound can be manipulated to meet the demands of an event; and social media - we are no longer bound to physical space and location. The hyper-public learning space is a mash-up of all of these features. But, will our faculty change their paradigms and use these spaces in their practice? That is the important question.

Other examples of hyper-public from our small group discussion:
  • Bruce Mau's Institute without Boundaries 
  • Facebook's all open office building complete with living room type furniture and sushi bar
  • Apple's volleyball games during lunch hours and Ben Harper concerts

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