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From Needs to Deeds: User Experience Informing Pedagogical and Sustainable Campus Development


Lectio praecursoria by MA Niclas Sandström, given at the public defence of his dissertation on the 29th of June, 2020

The word ‘campus’ is originally Latin and stands for ´field´. Why do people choose their field, that is, their campus environments, over their homes, cafés, or co-working spaces? Did COVID-19 not disencourage us all of the wellness of our office spaces, when work was forced to be carried out from home for many?

The aforementioned seems to have enormous relevance to campus development. It has all the potential of making way for groundbreaking transformations in the way campuses are used, managed and conceptualised.

This dissertation comes at a time when growing attention is being paid to the functionality, healthiness and usability of physical learning environments, alongside digital development. Space and the built environment broadly have a significant connection to how people in different operational contexts can learn and develop further their practices. Harrison and Hutton express it neatly in their 2014 opus magnum: “Learning is the hub of the community.”

Space, in turn, is in a dynamic relationship with the people, the tools and practices that operate and are operated in it. Digital solutions and ubiquitous work and studying create new opportunities where this dynamic relationship becomes relevant in many new ways. In the dissertation, this dynamic relationship was studied from the perspective of the learning environment.

In the dissertation work, consisting of 4 published articles, I set out to study

  • student experiences of the campus learning environment in chemistry and teacher education
  • student expectations and pedagogical needs and their fulfilment in a campus change process


  • participatory design as a vehicle informing future-ready learning landscape design

The topics were approached using a set of qualitative and interpretive methods. Individual and focus group interviews were spiced up with workshops and service design. During the research trajectory, the studies started to form a story.

From learning how chemistry students experience their learning environment, and what teacher students report about hindrances and support for learning from their campus environment, the storyline went on to approach a campus environment change process and student experiences of the fulfilment of their basic and pedagogical needs during that process. By understanding and modelling the salient issues brought up by the students, we maintained that the overall quality and usability of the learning environments could be enhanced.

The results showed that for instance the basic psychological needs, such as a sense of belonging and contribution, can be supported by both social scaffolding and physical elements in the environment. An experienced sense of safety was an important factor found in all the studied contexts, chemistry and teacher education alike. There was a strong wish to have more informal, agile spaces for social encounters and co-presence producing an attachment to the scientific community.

The digital affordances supported a sense of competence, and the dissertation introduces the concept of campus reliability, defined as the ability of the campus learning landscape to cater for the fulfilment of basic needs, thus providing the users with usable, safe and attractive spaces and places that support both individual and co-creative learning and work.

Student experiences from all the studied contexts pointed to a need to develop and integrate more anthropocentric usability considerations. This means that usability could be ensured more integrally throughout the design and construction process by understanding what, how, with whom, where and using what kinds of digital affordances students learn.

We ended up discussing flipping the campus, meaning that under the same roof, there could be varying space typologies that support different phases of students’ and other stakeholders’ work, enable unplanned social encounters, and form a trajectory from co-quiet self-studies to more co-creative group sessions – and back.

Also sustainability stepped in the picture. This was partly due to personal interest in the topic, partly due to strategic alignment on the organisational level.

Sustainability was integrated in the last study where a preliminary inventory for alternative key performance indicators was performed. These alternative key performance indicators included attributes such as sharing and partnerships as in “How did the process promote open communications, networking and connectedness?”; or learnings and assessment as in “What and how was learnt during the process?”.

Catering for the various needs and hopes that campus stakeholders have, is complex. These stakeholders – teachers and researchers, students, support services, maintenance and management – have various ambitions related to the spaces and practices. These ambition levels should all be catered for, but with style and precision, stability and consideration. This catering requires proper expectations management, which is part of any well-functioning and effectively led process producing also organisational learning.

As a case in point, it took us 1,5 years of negotiations, roundtables and workshops to build a basis for a common ground, i.e. shared language about what campus change means for educationalists and architects, ICT personnel, etc. The work has not finished yet.

By discussing learning environments from a multifaceted, holistic perspective, this thesis stands at a crossroads, and standing at a crossroads is risky business. One has to look first to the left, then to the right, and preferably know where one is coming from and where one is headed. Due to the multiple perspectives entertained during the thesis work, my dissertation may have seemed a bit uncontrollable at first sight. This was mostly due to the various perspectives taken to the topic. I could not help it – I did not WANT to help it.

The final dissertation does, however, have a streamlined, dense core. The two excellent pre-examiners ensured that many of the ambiguities have been polished and resolved. You can find that core in for instance Figure 2 of the dissertation, depicting the learning environment as an ongoing, dynamic and multifaceted relationship between the learning organism, the physical and artefactual context, and the social relations as well as cultural practices. All these are active in the learning environment.

There is a number of givens that still seem to drive campus change. I present three of them with my arguments as anti-theses.

I Learning environment refers to the physical, digital, virtual and socio-psychological dimensions of the surroundings in which we operate as learners.

I say: Learning environment is the dynamic and continuously ongoing relationship between humans and their surroundings. It is a modern version of a perpetuum mobile – it never seizes to be and it never stops. When it does, we no longer exist.

II Campuses can be managed and maintained building on what is known about facilities management and learning sciences.

My argument: Campuses do not serve their purpose well if managing and developing them does not embrace user experience and emerging digital affordances and knowledge practices.

III Collaborative efforts are sufficient during the design cycle

My argument: Collaboration is not enough. What is needed is co-design and participatory methods from before the design process through its whole life cycle and beyond. Only this way, also sustainability issues can be discussed and integrated into people’s thinking and behaviour.

Returning to the questions I posed at the very beginning of this talk, frankly speaking, I would say that many people cannot wait to return to campus and to be able to also pace out their studies and work, not being endlessly tied to their own kitchen table. What has surely changed during the global pandemic is how working and studying are conceptualised and how people arrange their time and tasks. At home, there is maybe a dog and the cat   …  that ate the rat that moved the dust, and maybe kids and a partner. All of this is perfect and lovely, I am not denying any of that, but there is a limit to everything. Could it be that campus environments have the potential of becoming a safe haven and even a space for time ”off” so to speak, once this emergency is over?

Are campuses becoming extinct? I would side with people who say ´no, they are not´. Do campuses have to change, and if so, in what ways? My answer is a definite yes. The recent developments caused by an external factor – the pandemic – have put many of our taken-for-granted assumptions under a different light. Perhaps we will start to understand the pros and cons in both remote meetings and sessions and face-to-face get-togethers. My public defence is a lived experience of that.

Through a hierarchy of what is beneficial to perform using distant modalities of working and learning and what should, if possible, be done in physical co-presence, we may also be better prepared for the sustainability challenges that are lurking behind the corner. I take this not as an epistemic subjective claim but as an ontologically objective entity.

Circular economy and sustainability issues are a growing trend and also a necessity on a global scale. I have the privilege of being a member in a value network of experts from engineering and economy as well as sustainability science. Researchers from 6 European countries are participating in the creation of learning modules for circular economy and value engineering. One of the guiding principles in the academic and development and innovation work that I am involved in now and in the future is to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to educational design, continuing professional development and process learning.

Measuring and assessing tomorrow’s learning landscapes with yesterday’s tools is not feasible. Maybe the current transformation also leads to more nurturing spaces that are driven by well-being and participation.

Such a change could produce what could be called an even stronger facilities pull, i.e. that people want to go to campus because it is just so nice and fosters collaboration, co-creation and innovation. It fosters meaningful relationships and communities of practice. As Wenger states in his 1998 book Communities of Practice, “We function best when the depth of our knowing is steeped in an identity of participation, that is, when we can contribute to shaping the communities that define us as knowers”


”Honoured Opponent, Associate Professor Göran Lindahl, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation.”

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