The Space Between Spaces

A phrase you’ll hear on the lips of many student leaders on Ontario campuses is the ‘broader learning environment’ (BLE). Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “never let school get in the way of your education”. While I don’t really believe that school does get in the way of anyone’s education, the sentiment – that learning can take place outside of the classroom – poses an interesting question to universities today: is a University a home for all kinds of learning, or simply the type that takes place in the classroom?

I say our institutions should support all types of learning. This is reflected in our campuses’ clubs, events, services and job opportunities, as well as the less formal meetings that occur in pubs, conversation on grassy knolls, and the general atmosphere of learning that exists in university space, and, as I call it, the space between spaces.

So let’s unpack this idea a little. If education doesn’t simply exist in the classroom, within the boundaries of marks and rubrics, but beyond, how do we determine if a university has a successful BLE? How can we measure it? Some university rankings measure student space and opportunity, two elements that certainly contribute to the BLE, but do not adequately examine how they impact learning. Here I’d like to introduce what is perhaps the centre-point of tying together the BLE with the classroom: the idea of student success.

Student success in university is influenced by every factor of the university environment. I’ll provide three examples of how the BLE can influence student success in the classroom. Firstly, research shows that library usage and space increases strongly correlate with student performance. Libraries constitute a space of formal research and self learning, but also come stocked with communal areas, study rooms and desks at which students congregate and work. In group study we see an explicit manifestation of learning outside of the class. In communal self-study areas though there is still the implicit collaboration that goes on through witnessing our peers’ study habits, and through online communication. Both these forms of learning are taught to each other by each other, in an environment broader than simply the classroom.

Social ties and networks are also an element of the university experience. During orientation week the universities in Ontario try to create a sense of community, and begin the process of teaching students social skills and teamwork. Further to this point, we know that developing social ties and support networks on campus makes each student healthier. Healthier students means students who are more prepared for the stresses of the work force, as well as better marks (or at least, more accurate marks) in the classroom.

Lastly, work experience is increasingly required to get a job out of university. Much of this experience will (and should!) come from opportunities on campus. Ontario and our university admin both share in the responsibility of decreasing the work-study ‘gap’ in modern universities, and student unions themselves can work with them to arrive at that goal. My friend, Justin Reekie, has been working at student run services for most of his university career and owes much of his success to the interplay between his experiences working with a variety of people and personalities in differing contexts as a drama student, and the managerial responsibility of being involved in a service. That is the broader learning environment: lessons that exist in class, the extracurricular, and everything else. Not simply campus places, but the space between that space is where our learning must evolve.

Colin Zarzour
OUSA Steering Committee
Academic Affairs Commissioner of the Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University