When learning is not confined or defined by space or place

I delivered an education sociology lecture in 2008, whilst teaching at the University of Tasmania, from the back of the lecture theatre. I sat about 6 rows from the back in the centre block and started my lecture from there. I sat next to a student.  The intention was to challenge 260+ pre-service teacher-education students to think about how education was constructed and how it affected the learner and their learning.

I wanted them to become aware of the hidden curriculum and education as sites for the constructions of difference. How educational outcomes are affected by the way that students access, or are given access, to education. We roamed through some of the early sociologists, Bernstein, Illich and Bourdieu, but then brought it back to Shor’s participatory education model. Education as a democratic dialogue, with myself and my students as co-owners, shaping and investigating together, everyday themes, social issues and academic knowledge. I wanted to make them think about how they choose education, how they access the education that is in front of them, to think of themselves as becoming active agents in their own learning.

It was a powerful metaphor and reactions from students were thoughtful and deep.

Deconstructing space and place

Challenging teachers and academics to create communities of practice for learning in any situations. Creating the Freedom to learn!

Karin Oerlemans, 2019

It is one of my passions, the desire to explore how place and space determine learning and educational outcomes. I am drawn to the work of Ira Shor (1992, 1996), whose writings on empowering education explored how power structures and traditions in classrooms reproduced existing societal divisions, and the role of student as passive learner, subordinate to the professional gaze of the teacher.

But deconstructing the learning space is not just for in the lecture theatre or classroom. I like to challenge how teachers and academics create communities of practice for learning in any situation (Wenger, 1999), which recently has focused on online learning. Research continues to decry the value and power of online learning to bring about the same educational outcomes as face-to-face. How do we change that dynamic?  


An amazing opportunity to explore this difference came my way when I took on a role as Educational Designer for the UC-wide SAFFIRE Project working with Health Academics, helping them develop new ways of thinking about teaching and learning in the online space. With my active support, we engaged with an in-depth rethink of their teaching and assessment practices for online learning.

Together we explored using new technologies, including many Web2.0 applications, considering differing ways of presenting knowledge and engaging students in their learning both online and face-to-face. We moved courses and units fully online, whilst others used a blended learning approach (see here for some examples of practice).

For my efforts, I was part of a small team of like-staff from across UC awarded the VC’s Award for Excellence, for programs which enhance learning. But mostly I enjoyed working with Health Academics, watching light bulbs go on as my colleagues ‘got it’, understanding what it meant to actively engage learners for learning online and not just in the classroom (Bonk, 2009).

However, it was certainly challenging, as at UC Health learning is very hands-on, as suits their profession. I spent hours reflecting about how to make equivalent learning happen online for this discipline, often sitting up till late researching and learning about new options, learning how to make the technology do what they wanted. And I was therefore as excited to share with them those moments, when having adopted new learning approaches, they received great feedback from the students.

The Freedom to Learn

the freedom to learn

But the greatest joy came from noting with them the improvement in student learning outcomes. Particularly, when less students dropped out, because the technology gave them better access to their learning. When more students passed, because the technologies enabled them to view and review the learning covered in the course. And when there was an overall improvement in student grades, because access to the learning encouraged them to revise and rehearse key areas of course materials, to learn.

As educators we need to encourage students to move from passive receivers, to become active agents in their learning, to take ownership of their learning. Well structured, subject matter bespoke online learning practices can help academics and teachers create online learning environments that will support the learning of all students. To achieve the same outcomes no matter where the teacher or the student are situated. To give students the freedom to learn.

Bonk, C., J. (2009). The world is open:  How web technology is revolutionizing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shor, I. (1996). When students have power:  Negotiating authority in a critical pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity: Cambridge University Press.

©Karin Oerlemans 2019

Freedom to learn
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