At Sheffield Hallam University we are encouraged, and have the opportunity, to work with colleagues from other professional backgrounds. Learning and IT Services is about to merge with Student and Academic Services to form Student and Learning Services. This opens up exciting possibilities for cross-team working with the student experience at the centre of our remit; so I was very interested to read this book.
Overview of Content
Margaret Weaver sets high expectations in her preface '...once read, there's no going back!' (p.XVII) and she is absolutely right. Chapters are arranged in three sections: part 1 covers strategy and structure, part 2 learning spaces, and part 3 research-informed approaches. This works well though I felt that chapter 1 by Les Watson is a relevant introduction to all three sections and should be essential reading for anyone dipping into this book.
The clear presentation and consistent use of headings means most chapters are very readable, though a couple don't seem to fit as well in terms of writing style. Where examples and case studies of research or change projects are included, they make the chapter more relevant and of real practical use. Such chapters motivated me to find out more – to check out their Web pages, to visit the learning spaces described, and to read more about the topic. I found the chapters by Weaver and Hough, and Martin particularly interesting in this regard.
It is heartening, but not surprising, to find that similar issues and concerns affect all Higher Education institutions. The value of a book such as this is in learning from each other and sharing ideas.
There has been an important shift in Higher Education to students as partners, with the student voice, student engagement, and student experience at the centre of most new developments. The development of new social learning spaces gives students the opportunity to take control of their learning environment, and equally importantly it also gives them choice.
This book contains some examples of projects to transform learning spaces, and anyone interested in the topic could also explore the case studies in the JISC infokit . Cohen and Harvey describe the creation of a range of informal learning spaces in existing accommodation (p.79); proof that you don't need new build or huge resources to make a difference to the student experience.
At Sheffield Hallam University two new types of learning space are being explored: social learning space in a new extension to the Adsetts Centre, and learning hubs in the Faculty of Development and Society. Aspden  describes their development and underlying philosophy. One early outcome of the learning hubs development is the positive collaboration between support staff and academics – what Martin describes as 'The emergence of multiprofessional teams' (p.153).
Several authors welcome the move away from a deficit model for student support services. Student support staff are increasingly promoting the benefits of their services to all students, including their role in personal and academic development. Stephenson (chapter 3) discusses the development of one such service at the University of Cumbria and gives an interesting overview of the change process, reflecting on what works well and what has still to be achieved.
Collaborative Working and Staff Development
A common theme running through this book is the importance of learning from each other. An environment in which support professionals work in collaborative partnership has benefits for the students and for the staff themselves. Marsh describes the creation of Learner Support Services at the University of Bradford, 'We have the ability to improve services to staff and students by sharing professional expertise...' (p.64). At the University of Cumbria the new learner facilitator role provides opportunities for staff to broaden their skill sets (Weaver and Hough, p.97).
Staff development is an important element in any change and is discussed by several authors. Describing the evolving role of staff at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Rennie states 'The changes can be challenging for all staff…Consequently, a heavy investment has been made in staff development and training at all levels...' (p.115).
From the evidence provided by the authors in this book, there appear to be some common success factors in initiatives seeking to transform learning support and learning spaces. The most important is placing the student experience at the centre. Also important are strong leadership with the vision to champion changes and anticipate barriers to collaboration, together with the professional will to work collaboratively in multi-professional teams. Three of the chapters concerning research-informed approaches describe projects funded by CETLs (Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning); so perhaps access to resources is also a success factor.
It is very interesting to read how some institutions are developing their services to encompass new ideals of learner support and focus on the learner rather than the service. It's also apparent that there isn't a single solution – depending on the needs of your student body, your institution, and your staff, you may want to borrow ideas from some or all of these authors. You could dip in and read one or two chapters, but will gain more by reading several chapters or the whole book.
- Joint Information Systems Committee (2008). Planning and designing technology-rich learning spaces.
- Aspden, Liz (2008). Learning environments: their role in the enhancement of the student experience. Paper presented at the Higher Education Academy conference, 1 July 2008.