The accidental meeting

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University of Copenhagen

During 2015, I have enjoyed the privilege of taking a 6-month sabbatical from my university job. The focus of my sabbatical work has been my current project, which is to provide a thorough, critical, analysis of the development of flexible learning environments, which are all the rage in New Zealand schools. Sometimes referred to as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) (the term first used by the New Zealand Ministry of Education) and as ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILE) (the term the Ministry now prefers), these new building designs provide flexible, transparent and permeable spaces to encourage innovative teaching and learning. In turn, these innovative practices are geared to the provision of educational experiences more in keeping with the 21st century, than the ‘industrial age’ model of schooling is able to provide.

Although most of my sabbatical time was spent working from my desk at home, I did spend a fruitful three weeks in Europe. The first of these three weeks was in Copenhagen, where I met two associates,  Eva Bertelsen (University of Copenhagen) and Lisa Rosén Rasmussen (Aarhus University). My friends kindly introduced me to several individuals and accompanied me to visit several schools and university campuses in Copenhagen.

One of these visits was to a newly modelled building at the University of Copenhagen, where we met the architect (‘Thomas’, for anonymity) who managed and executed the design and implementation of the new build. Amongst the innovations related to the new design was the location of the lecturers’ offices (partly glass-walled) within the library, located on the visible second level. Part of the thinking here, Thomas explained to Eva and I, was to

create the possibility of what we call the accidental meeting between lecturers and students…[If a student was]…sitting there reading and a lecturer is returning from their office and [the lecturer]…see[s] [the student] reading whatever book and say, ‘oh this book is actually quite nice, but in comparison with that one it would be brilliant’. So it’s like six seconds of instruction that would make a connection and confirmation of being there…

The photograph attached to this blog fails to capture the dramatic visual effect of the building and the area described by Thomas, but its ironies are what interest me here. The glass, and its implied transparency, are reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of surveillance. In a neoliberal educational climate that favours accountability regimes (checking-up; checking-on; evaluating performance), marketisation (competing for students) and public choice (‘the student experience’, as my university calls it), the following from Thomas has a chilling ring:

As I said [earlier] when you came to work here you didn’t know where the people were teaching or they were preparing or concentrating or they were out travelling but you can’t share anything because you had no idea what’s happening. Present, not present, no idea. We [the planning team] discussed [creating] a culture being present. It was quite important to have that, we want to be there, we want to participate and share both culture and knowledge. (Emphasis added).

So the physical vision of lecturers at work, in their offices, or of walking between the shelves towards their offices, may be more about ensuring that they can be seen to be doing their work, than about providing opportunities for them to be conducting quality research, for example, or developing exciting programmes of learning. It may only incidentally be  motivated, as Thomas suggested, by the desire to create the chance of ‘an accidental meeting’ of students and lecturers.

Taking even this motivation at face value however, what does it mean in a lecturer’s life to accidentally meet a student for ‘six seconds’? Imagine any chance encounter – there is little likelihood it will ever only be for six seconds. Call it a minute – imagine this multiplied say half a dozen times each day. That is half an hour each week (seeing as we’re counting). Back to the neoliberal demand for accountability and the intensification of work flowing from these demands – academics and teachers are required to do more and more with less and less. Yet here is an opportunity (in the name of transparent learning, and making knowledge public) to add further stress to the work of the lecturers in this building, by the further erosion of their time resulting from ‘the accidental meeting’.

The visually pleasing, more comfortable and more environmentally-friendly buildings increasingly appearing on the educational landscape offer many teaching and learning opportunities, but may also come at a cost, namely that associated with an underlying intent to promote an agenda less concerned with aesthetics, environment, personal comfort or education, and more concerned with promoting an economic vision.

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