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Dean's Update: Interested in Assessing the Relationship Between Physical Space and Learning?

July 10, 2019

This question, with a specific focus on informal learning spaces, inspired one of the Society for College and University Planners’ (SCUP) 2019 Mid-Atlantic symposiums, held June 17 at Drexel University.

The one-day symposium, which was primarily intended for SCUP members from the Mid-Atlantic region, reached its registration capacity two weeks ahead of the event, bringing together people from not just PA and nearby states, but across the world. Attendees included architects from Seattle and Virginia, as well as a visiting library professor from South Korea. By coming to campus, the over 120 registrants—all with very different professional backgrounds—confirmed there is indeed interest in understanding physical space and learning.

I had the opportunity to assist in developing the topic for this SCUP symposium and to help in planning the program. It seemed everyone, myself included, appreciated the stimulating exploration of key topics addressed that day: How do we define self-directed learning? What is the difference between formal and informal learning environments? Are there any design features that clearly inspire or support learning beyond the classroom or lab? What methods have museums, libraries, and other informal learning organizations used to assess whether learning has occurred through interactions with spaces they manage?

The symposium itself was an informal learning environment. No one was required to come.  Participation was self-directed. Active learning behaviors occurred – people learned alone through listening and self-reflection, in groups through table talks, amidst others with like interests; they were exposed to people from different backgrounds and with different ideas; they were exposed to research outside a formal teaching setting.  

In proposing the topic to SCUP and assisting in planning the program, I also was practicing how to create an informal learning environment that builds community around knowledge, while seeking ways to connect the library’s role within higher education missions. New ideas, new approaches and new solutions come from helping to bring diverse minds together around a shared topic of interest—all core to what academic libraries nurture. The field of assessing learning in informal learning environments is a nascent discipline, drawing multiple professions to it—from architecture, design, education, psychology, learning sciences, assessment, library and information science, museum administration and more.  

This month’s issue of In Circulation offers other examples of ways a library fosters learning by engaging multiple perspectives to address a common topic of interest. Read about the way an associate professor  in the College of Medicine helps others rethink courses to lower the cost of required readings. Take a moment to read our recap of this quarter’s ScholarSip food-for-thought session, and consider what a paleontologist can teach us about history, and our future. Or, learn about how the Drexel University Archives and our students have come together to learn about their university and their city.

Enjoy your summer, with a few cool moments learning in informal places.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries