Flexible learning spaces are learning spaces that can easily be rearranged by their users, to support different kinds of learning activity. Flexibility is important for at least three reasons: one economic and two educational. Architects, facilities managers, and other budget holders want to avoid creating spaces that are too rigid, because this can lock in some kinds of learning and teaching activities and inhibit others. Changing a space in response to unanticipated needs can be very costly. In this article, the focus is more firmly on the educational benefits of having flexible learning spaces. Flexibility gives teachers more freedom in the ways they teach. They can reorganise the spatial distribution of student activity and learning resources to suit their educational objectives and pedagogical preferences. Flexibility also makes it easier for students to change their learning environment. It is valuable for students to get practice in configuring environments that conform with their learning needs and the needs of the tasks on which they are working. Learning to create a congenial learning environment is part of how one becomes an autonomous life-long learner and effective problem-solver, though it does not get much attention in the education literature, compared with other aspects of self-managed learning.
Learning spaces are often conceptualised in terms of the physical or material boundaries, contents and qualities of the environment in which learning is taking place. Classrooms, lecture halls, science labs, zoos, and museums are familiar examples. Reference is also made in the literature to digital or virtual learning spaces: computer-generated spaces where software provides the user(s) with some modes of interaction, navigation, and so on that echo experiences in the material world. Digital learning spaces can be more flexible – easier, quicker, and cheaper to rearrange – than is the case with more conventional physical learning spaces.
Increasingly, people researching, creating and using learning spaces are working with complex hybrids, that mix elements of the material and digital worlds. For example, if students in a (physical) lecture hall are listening to a lecturer at the front of the room and are also using laptops to work on tasks set by the lecturer, then they could be said to be acting in a hybrid learning space. Developments such as virtual reality and augmented reality add further educational possibilities, but also make the conceptual work of analysing and designing learning spaces more complex.
It can be useful to distinguish between learning spaces and tools and other artefacts. Educational technology has focused much of its attention on the educational use of tools and artefacts, somewhat neglecting their spatial configurations – and indeed neglecting spatial issues more generally. Learning spaces are experienced differently from tools and other such artefacts. Among other things, spaces create possibilities for organising perception, in ways that help people to help themselves work more productively on complex problems. The distribution of tools, artefacts, and people in a learning space can help structure how someone works on a problem: noticing and rearranging objects in a space, and moving around in a space – changing one’s point of view – can make a task easier, in part by sharing some of the load on working memory. Think, for example, of the way a cook places ingredients and tools on a workbench, or the shift between ‘print’ and ‘outline’ views when wordprocessing a document.
To understand flexible learning spaces and their relationships with educational activities and learning outcomes, one needs a set of connecting constructs capable of explaining links between the material world (and its digital analogues) and learning activities and between learning activities and outcomes. The latter connections are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, the focus is on ways of understanding relations between learning activities and the learning spaces in which those activities are situated.