Category: Luke McCrone

Learning Connections 2019: Spaces, People, Practice

Luke McCrone, PhD student

I attended the Learning Connections 2019: Spaces, People, Practice conference held on 5-6 December 2019 in University College Cork (UCC), Ireland.

The conference set out to answer two central questions:

  1. How can we connect across disciplinary boundaries, and break down barriers between academia, administration, community and industry to strive for optimal student learning in Third Level Institutions?
  2. How can learning in different spaces– physical, active, virtual, off campus, enable all students, as global citizens, to think through and solve big problems?

These questions translated into six conference themes within which conference attendees submitted peer-reviewed digests that summarised lightning talks or concise paper presentations:

  1. Learning space design
  2. Learning beyond the classroom: community & industry partnerships
  3. Inclusive and accessible learning and teaching
  4. Active learning: classrooms, makerspaces, studio spaces
  5. Learning in a virtual space
  6. Innovative methodologies for research-led education

I submitted a concise paper titled ‘Transitional space: learning in the spaces in-between’ which fell under the active learning theme above (theme 4). This paper linked many of my key PhD findings to this theme, and in so doing made a case for the need to consider transition between learning spaces (physical, temporal, cognitive) when implementing and designing for active forms of learning. The spaces that constitute active learning are integral, but the transition between these spaces mediates their connection. This transition operates at different levels, from a student entering or exiting a timetabled lecture, to a student redirecting attention from a lecture to their mobile phone. Transition between these different learning spaces provides opportunity for exchange and interaction that is observably important for learning.

The premise of my paper was concomitant with work presented by the keynote speaker Dr Jos Boys who emphasised the need to think beyond the binary framing of informal and formal learning and to begin considering learning as an interconnected assemblage (see figure). Jos’ background in architecture meant that she alluded to the implications of this thinking for space design and the institutional governance of processes that inform this design. I was very reassured to learn of Jos’ positive experience with projects involving students as active participants in (re-)designing informal learning spaces, given similar recent work at Imperial under the StudentShapers scheme. Jos’ argument was an important one: student active participation should not be limited to classroom learning, but should extend to their active involvement in the creation of spaces that facilitate that learning.

Diagram showing connection between physical and virtual spaces

Jos Boys presenting keynote speech in lecture theatre


In addition to the keynote presentation, I found a guided tour around UCC’s Student Hub particularly useful. This recently built complex consists of a series of next generation teaching spaces and collaborative connecting spaces. The Hub possesses no disciplinary signature helping to break down disciplinary boundaries and provide inclusive space. Many of the Hub’s spaces communicate flexibility and openness, including the atrium-style space in the photo, such that users can use them in a variety of ways and take full ownership; the literature indicates this makes spaces more ‘sticky’ and improves user experience. The hub will be open from January 2020 to members of UCC.

UCC student hub interior, a big empty space

I found a separate session titled ‘Common Room’ similarly fruitful, led by three individuals, one of which was a colleague Dr Brent Carnell from UCL. Brent made a case for the importance of ‘in-between’ spaces where students congregate and move in transit across campus. Physically speaking, this aspect of the presentation shared similarity with transitional space and was therefore a useful affirmation of my recent thinking. However, I felt it missed a deep understanding of why these sorts of spaces are educationally beneficial, an area that remains poorly developed in the literature. Using UCL as an example, the workshop more generally made me reflect on how to cultivate community on a disparate campus.


As is the case with pedagogic research, it is reassuring to see a shift in thinking from designing for teaching and transmission of knowledge to designing for active learning. Changes to curriculum, pedagogy and technology naturally mean that this learning now extends beyond the classroom space. This warrants a change in architectural approach, including the incorporation of immediate transitional spaces that support interactions pre- and post-lecture.

I welcome thoughts and questions on this article so please feel free get in touch via email.

Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference: Reclaiming Study Practices

Luke McCrone, PhD student, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

I attended the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society conference held on 18-20 September 2019 in Leuven, Belgium. The conference focussed on ‘Reclaiming study practices’ and followed an alternative format to usual.

The idea of the conference was to provoke thought about the present state and future modalities of those study practices that define university life for both staff and students: academic writing, lectures, academic research, seminars etc. The impetus for such thinking is rooted in the powers (social, economic, political, and cultural) that have laid claims on study practices, including the space, time, bodies and minds involved in their construction. The eventual aims of the conference were to determine whether certain university practices are worth protecting, defending or re-inventing, and if so, how we might (re-)organise them in future.

Conference format

In order to achieve these aims, the conference consisted of two days: Day 1) Reclaiming study practices; Day 2) Claiming study practices. There were no individual paper presentations. Instead, we received a single booklet containing each attendee’s 1000-word submission that provided relevant material to guide discussions about the conference theme. Having been divided into groups and given allocated ‘study time’ we each read the submissions of those members in our group in near-silence. This method of silent group study itself featured in our later discussions as a study practice worthy of preservation!

Despite not having received much targeted feedback on my research, this format really helped me to place my work within a wider context and to think practically about how it affected the topic at hand. This actually enabled the group to engage with some of my research themes, including the importance of ‘in-between’ spaces and active learning, more meaningfully. I therefore believe this style of conference format has promising potential in other settings, including the Centre.

A note on my submission

My submission began setting the context around Imperial College’s shift toward greater active pedagogy, open-ended curricula and self-directed student workload, given it is the institution I am researching. Whilst these changes are educationally warranted, my claim was that the need for the learner to transition between directed and self-directed forms, and between these more passive and active spaces was a demand that has been overlooked. My reclaim was both a methodology to build an evidence base for better understanding transitional space, and then a suggestion for how careful architectural and timetable intervention can better support and enable transition to both nurture and better understand active styles of learning. The group provided some useful feedback on my submission, including that some had considered ‘in-between’ space as strictly in-between and immeasurable. Others were fond of the idea of modifying physical space and the timetable in order to encourage more serendipitous interaction between students and other members of the learning community in the gaps between timetabled sessions.

Reclaiming and claiming

Following the silent study sessions, the group reconvened to begin discussing the most important themes. Differences in opinions and perspectives made this phase more difficult than simply reading each other’s work, as we were now required to sacrifice certain views we held as sacrosanct in order to arrive at a group consensus. Each member wrote five post-it notes representing what they felt to be the most important themes arising from their reading and these were placed on a board (see photograph).

The group then spent some time grouping common themes and had further discussion about what seemed to be the most prominent of those themes. The following claims on study practices proved to be the most important in our group:

  • The graduate as the employee
  • Authorial obsession
  • Constant demand to produce
  • Shift in sacralisation
  • Outcome-based course design
  • Social media habits

The group then discussed which themes and principles might help universities to reclaim study practices gripped by the above claims. The following resulted:

  • Slowness
  • Togetherness/community
  • Repetition/practice
  • Sacredness

These claims and reclaims were presented as a visual metaphor, the ‘monastic cow’ (see photograph below), which represents learning as a slow process, similar to the process of digestion, and one which should be held as sacred.

Closing remarks

I found the conference useful mainly because it was a time and space to step back and take a critical look at the direction universities are going in. I personally believe Imperial College, among other institutions, need to create time and space for students to escape the pressures of the external world that currently can be educationally counter-productive or even damaging. The keynote presented by Tim Ingold provided extremely insightful elaboration on ‘Building a university for the common good’ by proposing four principles that he feels should guide universities: freedom, trust, education and community. By working against certain undercurrents that govern our society and sector (capitalist forces, marketization), it may be possible for institutions to maintain an environment conducive to these principles.

If you have any questions or comments on the content of this article or relating to my research then feel free to get in touch with me by email.

A PhD in educational research: making the transition

Luke McCrone, PhD student, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would one day be studying for a PhD in Higher Educational research at Imperial College, I would have smiled back at them in disbelief.

My acceptance of one of the first PhD studentships under the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship illustrates an important point: educationally speaking, we have come a long way in a relatively short period. Yet being new to this field has required me to adapt. Given that educational research adopts paradigms from psychology, sociology and philosophy, the approach to methodology, data collection and analysis is initially alien to a geoscientist like myself. Learning about these fields has made me recognise the transformative potential of putting yourself out of your disciplinary comfort zone.

My previous experience representing students and living among student hall residents has granted me a window into the realities and challenges of the modern-day learner at Imperial. Students are now learning, socialising and spending their ‘spare time’ on virtual platforms. This is forcing us to review how we design space, pedagogy and curriculum to keep ‘distracted’ students engaged. My anecdotal experience would suggest that students see value in learning with others since they often do it all by themselves outside of the classroom, hence my support for active modes of pedagogy which encourage students to discuss and critique information, not just receive it via didactic transmission. The World Economic Forum similarly states that the development of critical thinking, social intelligence and analytical thinking skills will be most attainable using active learning strategies.

Through my PhD, I hope to build upon my previous experience by investigating how students perceive and engage with physical, curricular and cognitive educational ‘spaces’. My methodology (phenomenology) therefore supports the incorporation of my preconceptions when collecting and analysing data. My preliminary data is showing something interesting: learning activity inside the classroom influences culture and behaviour outside; ‘formal’ learning therefore frames ‘non-formal’ learning. This may seem relatively obvious, but how we teach and organise learning vastly influences the way students continue to interact outside of the formal setting (independently, in groups or not at all). Ensuring students have access to ‘non-formal’ space, be it common rooms, breakout spaces or cafes, is crucial. If we think carefully about the skills, knowledge and behaviours we wish to instil in our graduates to be adaptable lifelong learners, then a holistic view of physical and curricular space design is paramount.

Educational research and the broader social sciences are receiving increasing national limelight. A £10m initiative between the Wolfson Foundation and British Academy was recently announced as one of the largest grants of its kind for the humanities and social sciences. This stands as evidence for the increasing importance placed on research into not only Higher Education, but also the wider social sciences and humanities.

I look forward to reporting continued updates about my research. If anyone has any questions or ideas then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Luke McCrone, PhD student