Andy Blunden and Michael Arnold write a chapter titled Formation of the Concept of “Collaborative Learning Space” for the book Collaborative Projects. They share a story of developing a new concept “Collaborative Learning Space” which challenges the traditional policies for the maintenance and construction of shared teaching spaces at the University of Melbourne from 1999 to 2000.
During 1999 to 2000, Andy Blunden was the supervisor of the Audio-Visual Unit of the university and led a group of technical staff to support teachers using the equipment in the lecture theatres. From this career setting, Blunden found a “problem” and started developing a “solution”, the core of the whole process is the formation of a new concept.
According to Blunden, “The social situation we have in mind here is the university, specifically in the 1990s in Australia. Universities are institutions which, as a key part of their activity, provide rooms to teachers and students for the purpose of teaching and learning. However, those in the university responsible for designing, building and allocating teaching spaces, on the whole had an understanding of teaching and learning which reflected a centuries-old, unchanging conception of how university education is done, objectified in the University’s buildings and the configuration of their teaching spaces (c.f. Leontiev 1978, p.66). The teachers on the other hand had diverse views on how to teach, which responded not only to tradition but also to continuously changing views on learning, and had a variety of opinions on what might constitute a suitable space for teaching. Most teachers found the existing infrastructure for teaching unsatisfactory in various respects and to various degrees, but had no means of addressing the problem, as teaching space was largely provided by the central bureaucracy, and there was no position within the bureaucracy responsible for planning and supply of teaching spaces. At the time, there was almost no research literature on the problem of design of physical spaces for teaching and learning. In 2002, a monograph was published in the US (Van Note Chism & Bickford, 2002) raising the same concerns, including a literature summary which confirms that research on university classroom design was embryonic even in 2002.” (2014, p.159)
This is the beginning of a new concept of “Collaborative Learning Space”.
3.2 Three Phases of “Formation of Concept”
The concept of “Collaborative Learning Space” represents Blunden’s solution for solving the problem. However, the formation of the concept or the development of the solution is not simple. Blunden and Arnold review a contradictory developmental process that includes various forms of objectification of “Collaborative Learning Space”. I’d like to summarize their story in three phases.
- Phase 1: Initialization
- Phase 2: Objectification
- Phase 3: Institutionalization
In March 1999, Blunden conducted a research about teaching staff’s expectations on ideal teaching space infrastructure. On 30 March 1999, Blunden reported to management about his insights with an email which initially mentioned a new term “Collaborative Learning”. On 15 April 1999, Blunden used a similar term “Collaborative Learning Space” in an email that informed his collaborators about the concept and the need behind the concept. On 11 May 1999, Blunden received a reply with an allocation of funds “for the development of Collaborative Learning and Teaching Spaces as part of the 2000 Lecture Theatre Upgrade Program” including $165,000 for the Cecil Scutt Room. (2014, p.159-160)
This is phase 1 of the project: Initialization. Blunden points out, “We see here how the term ‘collaborative learning space’ was invented by teaching staff who were frustrated by the implicit assumption, evident in the configuration of teaching spaces, that all teaching and learning at the University is didactic (teacher-centered) delivery of information.
AB (Andy Blunden) provided a vehicle to mediate between the need and a means of its resolution, so that the word ‘collaborative learning space’ first became objectified in AB’s communications, and eventually in an allocation of funds by the University for the construction of ‘Collaborative Learning and Teaching Spaces.’
Initially, no one knew what such a space would look like, only that it would meet a certain deficit in the university’s infrastructure, by supporting specific modes of activity, that is, concepts of teaching and learning; and none of those responsible for the provision of teaching infrastructure had even heard of the concept of ‘collaborative learning.’ The problem now was to concretize the concept and institutionalize a solution within the university’s material fabric, self-consciousness and practices.” (2014, p.160)
The second phase is the Objectification of the concept “Collaborative Learning Space” at the Cecil Scutt Room. Blunden started working with Arnold at this phase. They decided that the project should focused on meeting the needs of Arnold who is one of 3000 teaching staff. Blunden says, “If successful, the remaining 470 rooms could be subject to a similar process, building excellence through diversity rather than convergence — that is by supporting a range of exemplar concepts of teaching, rather than a single prototype or ideal of teaching. This approach enabled effective collaboration between one teacher and one architect with a clear concept of what was needed, rather than a compromise between numerous stakeholders with the concomitant danger of meeting no-one’s needs.” (2014, p.161)
Blunden claims that there are three aspects of Objectification: symbolic, instrumental, and practical.
Symbolic objectification refers to giving a name to a new concept or symbolically represented in some other way. The term “Collaborative Learning Space” is a good example of naming a concept. Instrumental objectification refers to inventing and producing some new instrument or constructing of material artifacts. For the project of Collaborative Learning Space, they found that the oval table is the essential object of instrumental objectification. Blunden says, “We have noted that although the oval table was created with the completion of the very first CLS, it was more than a year later before the oval table was recognized as the germ cell. When Blunden (2000) gave a lunchtime talk to staff on CLSS in October 2000, the audience questions focused almost exclusively on the oval tables: where to buy them, how much they cost, what size, shape, etc. It was only at that point that it became clear that the oval table was the ‘germ cell’ of the CLS. But developments over the succeeding decade have shown that indeed the germ cell was the oval table, despite the fact that the table design continues to be refined to this day.” (2014, p.172)
The third phase is Institutionalization. At this phase, the project becomes a sustainable project which attracts support and resources from various institutions. The concept of the project is adopted by many institutions while the objectification of the concept becomes normal routine within a community. According to Blunden, “Over the three years before AB retired in 2002, a further 24 CLSS was built using University central funds and others using departmental funds…Of 39 Australian universities, 27 now (2011) have Collaborative Learning Spaces, 5 more have Collaborative Suites or Studios or Rooms, and only 7 have not explicitly applied the term…The concept of designing university classrooms to support collaborative learning is now mainstream, though the spaces are not called ‘collaborative learning spaces’ in every institution. Nonetheless, it is clear that through the creation of the concept of ‘Collaborative Learning Space’ and its instrumental, practical, and symbolic objectification have ensured the transition of the project launched in March 1999 to institutionalization.” (2014, p.166, p.168, p.170)
A Diagram for Project-oriented Activity Theory
The Collaborative Learning Space project is a wonderful example of the Project-oriented Activity Theory. Inspired by the case study and other writings. I design a diagram to present the core ideas of the new approach.
The above diagram highlights three developmental phases of “project as the formation of concept”: Initialization, Objectification, and Institutionalization. We should notice that the process of “formation of concept” is a dynamic process. Blunden points out, “A concept is a unit of a social formation and cannot be said to exist until it has achieved a degree of stability and interconnectedness within that form of life. Further, a concept is subject to modification in the course of its objectification which must be taken as part of the concept formation, and not simply the ‘registration’ of the concept.” (2014, p.171) In order words, the key is formation. We should adopt a process view of concepts. The process of “formation of concept” is a process of an idea transforming from an “unreal concept” into a “real concept” through various objectification in the real-life world. This is the whole point of Blunden’s 2012 book Concepts: A Critical Approach.
The process is not simple and linear. There are possible misconceptions within different phases. It is possible to enter the initialization phase with a misconception of the situation and start a project with a wrong idea. According to Blunden, Hegel mentioned four developmental stages of projects. The second stage is “on becoming aware of the problem there will be a series of failed projects arising from misconceptions of the situation…”(2014, p.8)
It is also possible to reach failed objectification from a misconception of the connection between the concept and the linguistic representation, visual representation, material artifacts, and situational routines. For the Collaborative Learning Space project, according to Blunden, “There is one misconception which has arisen from the 1999 initiative which is instructive. A key feature of the original design was the IWB (interactive whiteboard), which allowed direct manipulation of and shared eye contact with an electronic text by the whole class…But the IWBs are used as presentation devices, and rarely used for collaboration…and it takes at least two years for teachers to overcome the difficulty in using them…During those first two years, learning is markedly less collaborative. ”(2014, p.169)
Blunden also mentioned a dramatic phenomenon in the phase of Institutionalization. Once the concept of a project becomes a popular idea, some institutions would adopt the concept with their own words in order to brand their activity and property. For the Collaborative Learning Space project, Blunden points out, “This also raises the questions of the role and power of prestige in the institutionalization of a concept. Not all universities in Australia have adopted the term ‘Collaborative Learning Space.’ Every University that has gone through the same process of inventing new designs of classrooms to meet their pedagogical needs, or to meet their need to position themselves favorably in the education market, has branded their infrastructure with a new name: ‘Advanced Concept Teaching Space,’ ‘eLearning Studio,’ ‘Flexible Teaching Space,’ ‘Digital Classroom’ and so on. Every institution highlights its innovation with its own brand name.” (2014, p.170)
The above discussion focuses on one case: Collaborative Learning Space. By reading this case, we go through a journey from abstract theory to concrete practice. By designing a new diagram, we take one step of Objectification of the concept “Project as formation of concept”.