Whilst i was away last week, my favourite cafe disappeared. Quite a shock to the system to find that, today, i am sat in a new space that smells of paint and is altogether smarter than the old one. Sure, it’s still shabby chic, wooden floors and bare brick walls, but somehow it’s contrived, it’s so authentic that it feels fake. Whilst the old space was lazily cosy, the new is trying painfully hard to relax. Change: it’s a difficult thing you know.
Environment is important, it’s the background to where we work and where we learn, but it’s not incidental. Think about reading: i like to read in cafes, in bed, on the sofa and, best of all, in front of a roaring open fire. I don’t like to read in the office or whilst sat at bus stops. Some places feel ‘right’, whilst others are just plain wrong.
It’s the same with learning: some places feel right, some times feel right and others are just wrong. And it’s more than just painting the walls the right colour. We need to create the spaces to learn in carefully, be they physical rooms or semi formal social learning spaces. We need to get the architecture right, we need to let people easily find their way in and out and we need to set the rules clearly from the start.
Formal learning spaces are often clearly demarcated, but when we move into social learning spaces, it can be less clear when we are learning and when we are just talking. It can be less clear when what you are saying is ‘official’ and when it’s just casual. This is more than just a case of graphic design and usability, although it most certainly is both of these things: online spaces need just as much attention paid to the design and usability as real spaces do. We want people to be learning in the space, not learning how to use the space. Functionality should be in the service of learning, not the point of learning and most certainly not something that we struggle to learn.
Yesterday i was trying to pay for something with Paypal on the iPad. They had updated their interface and i just couldn’t figure it. So i gave up and used Google checkout instead. Paypal may have invested effort in their graphic design, in their marketing and in their technology, but they either hadn’t tested it properly on the iPad or their usability was so poor that i couldn’t figure it out. And i’m clear that the fault wasn’t mine: usability is the responsibility of the organisation, not the individual.
I guess i’ll grow to like the new cafe, but the option always remains to head somewhere else. We can’t assume that people will engage in learning spaces just because we tell them too, or just because they happen to be in the building. We need to think about the design and usability of the space if we want people to learn in it, be that in person or online.