Tag Archives: Space

Transforming the classroom into a learning environment.

The purpose of school

The purpose of school hasn’t changed since classical antiquity: grouping students in a centralised location so they could learn from the same teacher. They are able to develop and acquire new skills on different levels: intellectual, economical, political and social  (The purpose of school). A school can have one or many classrooms. A classroom is the space, the environment in which class are held.

Classroom Factory

However, this purpose has always been a double edge sword: opening the mind of each student on one hand and teaching the same knowledge and the same skills to the group on the other hand. The roman empire in need for efficiency started to educate clever but like minded citizen to govern over their vast territory. More or less, two thousands years later, the British Empire was in need for just more of the same. With the demand for mass education started at the end of the 18th century and his industrial revolution, the classroom model was pushed to the extreme. This has barely changed since then. Actually, there is not a field depending on information and communication that hasn’t dramatically changed with the booming of new technologies apart from education.

Why is this model not valid any more?

The main issue I would like to discuss about is related to the way students are still taught in the classroom: one teacher instructing un large group of students using rote learning as the main method to retain information. If you are not going to use the information you have rote learned on a regular basis, it will not last in memory for long. Hence, why do we have to remember it? To pass exams. Why do we pass exams? Because it is the best way they came up to standardise everyone’s level in a factory based education. That way, wherever they were send in the empire, they would be able to fill in the same files, the same way. Hundred fifty years later, our civilisation has evolved. On one hand, the empire doesn’t exist anymore, there is no more centralised administration; on the other hand, we don’t need to rote learn because information is accessible in real time at the tip of the finger from anywhere.

What twenty first century world needs is people that can think differently, that can associate things that has never been associated before, people that can come with completely new ways of thinking. To understand how to shift our perspective, first, let’s go through the different models of the classroom?

Four classroom models

There are four main  models of classroom: the “classical-model” with a master and an apprentice, the “analogue factory-model” with one teacher lecturing a group of students, the “flipped-model” which is more student-centred using digital technology but still based on “classroom model”, and the “immersive model” which would immerse the student in an environment customised to his own level of learning and experience which is actually much more like the “classical-model” but scalable to today’s population.

Plato's Academy

The classical-model was a very human way of sharing knowledge. Going back as far as Plato’s school of philosophy that took place in Akademia, the model was based on dialectic. The main difference was made between seniors and juniors. They were learning by trying to resolve different problems and through dialogues with their pairs.

The Factory Model

With the industrial revolution and the exponential population growth, we had to rationalise the classroom. Following Horace Mann approach from the mid-19th century, the classroom was shaped around a group of 28 students in a 800 square foot room: the analogue-factory model. This is the model that still represents the vast majority of classroom on earth. (The following post gives a deeper view into the problem: How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System.)


The last couple of decades have seen all sort of experiences using online technologies to propose “new ways” to learn. The “flipped classroom” is when students learn most of what they need outside the classroom, usually online, and use the classroom to do their “homework”. The teacher can then assist them if they request any help.  Student can learn at their own pace although online video-lecture are actually still based on the analogue-factory model where one teacher is lecturing many students. This usually happens through a screen using a mixture or graphic interface and videos that can bring a lot of other distractions as well. We can find some thorough practical comparisons between 2D and 3D  learning environment in K. Kapp’s book: “Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration”. This brings us to the last classroom model: the “immersion model”.Flipped Classroom

Immersion has always been the best way to learn anything. Language is a great example. The best way to learn a language is to leave with a native speaking family in their country and city. The association between words, people, places and overall cultural context will drive the speed with which the language will be learn. Of course they are many reasons stopping us to apply the immersion method to acquire more knowledge or to learn new skills. We can’t afford sending each kid all over the world in families to learn new languages. That being said, can we use technologies to simulate this kind of immersive environment?

Immersive environment.

Let’s take another example. How can we apply the “immersion model” to learn mathematics. Depending on the specific area to be covered, the participant would immerse himself inside a mathematical universe, guided by mathematicians. They would explain different concepts with all their heart, walk the participant through, then propose to practice with some practical situations. For instance, a child that is learning division would be presented with cubes that could be cut into smaller cubes and put back together as many time as needed. The child can manipulate the cubes, throw them around, put them back together, watch them from every angles, compare with bricks or planets, only his imagination would be a limit. Watch this demo from Goldsmiths Computing Department  to get a hint on the potential of VR.

Mixed Reality Car

This is where Virtual Reality (VR) comes into play. VR has the potential to immerse a participant in such a way that his experience would be as powerful as experimenting in real life or even more powerful as it can be specifically design. Moreover, participants are able to experience it from anywhere, any time without the physical world constraints. Future posts will expand my research in this exciting field crossing over technology, art, science and imagination.

Questions for future posts:

  • How does humans acquire a sense of space in the physical world? How does it compare to virtual environment?
  • What is Virtual Reality, how does it have the potential to expand our real life experience?
  • What is the role of architecture in designing Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

Report: The VI International Conference on Spatial Cognition 


This article was originally posted at Goldsmiths Department of Computing’s Blog here.

PhD student Pierre-François Gerard reports on the International Conference on Spatial Cognition, which took place in Rome on 6-11 September 2015.

pfgIt felt good to leave the already cold London weather early this September and land in Roma’s Mediterranean climate for a whole week of International Conference on Spatial Cognition. What a city, what a history! My daytime was packed with talks and lectures, each giving a different take on situated cognition. My nights were dedicated to applying all those theories along hours of walking and navigating this old city filled with memories.

The conference venue was an interesting building to start with. Situated in an old neighbourhood east of Termini Station, part of Sapienza – Università di Roma, the faculty of psychology was barely recognisable from the street. However, once you got inside, the space was quite remarkable. There was this wide and long mildly inclined ramp punctuated by little steps distributing students and conference participants alike to the four levels of rooms and auditorium. At the back, there was a large court yard to share thoughts and eat lunch in the sunlight.

Keynote speakers – Scientific Method

The main keynotes were given on the top floor. Arrived only on Tuesday afternoon, I missed Monday keynote lecture with Kevin O’Regan: Constructing space: A theoretical basis for how naive artificial or biological agents can construct spatial notions . A couple of early friends informed me that although O’Regan is a quite prolific author, this presentation wasn’t that great. There is plenty to catch up online anyway. On Tuesday was Vittorio Gallese important keynote on Embodied Simulation and the Space around us. He explained the main concept of inter- and extra-personal space used by a lot of authors that week.

The first keynote I attended was quite enlightening on the scientific methodology developed by psychologists. Yan Bao, associate professor from Peking University, explained step by step what is “attention” and how does it work through human’s eyes. To do so, she scientifically answered one very specific question by doing one very specific experiment. From there, a new question arise that lead to the next experiment that will bring a new answer and suggest the following question, and so forth. She presented a cascade of 12 studies based on a cueing task, mainly to demonstrate the effect of “Inhibition of Return”; the ecological significance of this mechanism being that it favours novelty and curiosity.

The next keynote, Inter-subjective relations in lived space and instituted space was given by Shaun Gallagher, an interesting fellow American philosopher. He is actually working with astronauts, trying to understand their feelings in space travel using Virtual Reality. Where it really pumped me up was when he started to talk about how architecture shapes our experience and how we can modulate the way we are experiencing things by modifying our environment. He also coined a powerful concept which is the “affordance landscape”. I will follow him closely.


My favourite lecture was given by Sergei Gepshtein on Solid field of sensitivity: Perceptual structure of immersive space. He works with two well known people, Alex Mc Dowel and Greg Lynn. Alex Mc Dowel was the art producer behind the Minority Report interface and many other film productions. Greg Lynn represent the avant garde of the digital turn in architecture in the nineties with the concept of folding and topological geometry. After a quick reminder of what is the “perspective” we’ve been living by since the 15th century (thanks to Alberti’s “The Pictura”), Gepshtein went on to explain how he is working to change this paradigm; to get past the restriction of this portable window. Their project uses different techniques to go from cinema to immersion by creating maps that can be transferred in solid space: sensory mapping, multi modal design, adaptive smart environment, mixed realities are just a few of the concept mentioned during this really exciting lecture.

Talks – eclectic topics

Every day started with three simultaneous symposium. A lot to choose, from a large panel of research. A variety of fields were represented: psychology, neuroscience, computer science, architecture, social studies and philosophy, to name just the main ones.

Starting from a philosophical point of view to explain “space concept”, T. Holichka defined what is a virtual place at the confluence of possible worlds and fictional worlds. The importance of the concept of affordances (Warren 1984) and places were then discussed by Jonietz & Timpf from an GIS (Geographic Information System) perspective. After that, some phenomenology were involved by Nitsche to analyse impressionist paintings with the notion of distancing instead of understanding. The main question really was: “How do we perceive space?” which brought the notion of situated knowledge.

The next talk centred on a potential new field of research which I am relating to – Computing Embodied Architecture. Prof. E. Ackerman’s talk on developing more appropriate self-directed learning space for children definitely pulled some strings. Then came Paloma G. Rojas, student from MIT, with a methodical approach applying computational model to analyse our perception of space; best hint so far directly related to my own research.

Wednesday’s symposium on Body & Space, explored the concept of peripersonal space and relative perception through the lens of Virtual Reality (VR). You can find more about this research by searching for the CS-IVR Lab, the Immersive Virtual Reality Laboratory and for Mirage Lab, the Multi Sensory Illusions Laboratory.

Thursday’s theme was Navigation. Researchers presented studies exploring how blind people, children, men and women were using different mechanism to find their way around.

On Friday, we returned to the theme of Embodied Space in Architecture with a neuroscience twist. Peri and extra-personal space were still leading the dance backed up with neurophysiological correlations. One specially engaging presentation on central and peripheral vision by Rooney, brought a striking point on how vision drives two different type of embodiment: projected and extended. The last talk I followed, before having to catch the train, was given by Van der Ham, on human navigation in real and virtual environments, and the role of locomotion. The experiment she presented showed the closest settings to mine: participants have to remember their way inside a 3D virtual environment with landmark images hanging on the the wall.

To summarise, an eclectic field of research was represented at this conference. A variety of presentations were showing a large range of disciplines to study the relation between humans and their surroundings and how we are perceiving our body into space. Embodiment, inter and extra -personal space, affordances and places are the main concepts embedded in the body of those researches. VR is used throughout those studies. It is a fantastic tool of research that allows to approach real world situations yet offering a wide range of control, flexibility and scalability on the designed VEs.

Posters – People from all over the world

My poster made a good impression. It gave me the opportunity to start a few conversations with different people from all over the world: Columbian, Swedish, Turkish, French and a couple of Italians. Each had their own take on my project, so being here really brought me a lot of value and new perspectives on what I am working on.

Overall, I had a really great experience. From a scientific point of view, it made me realised how narrow the field of research has to be to conduct valid case studies that answer one specific question at a time. Psychology research definitely set definitely the measure on that matter, by processing one variable in a very controlled environment. However, a new trend is to take research much closer to real life situations. It also brings a lot more data to manage. That is where computation power become really handy for two mains reasons: on one hand, computational models help to simulate systems and behaviours, on the other hand, visualisation engine and Virtual Reality help simulate close to real life environments to work with.

The interdisciplinarity of research also aroused my attention – psychologists trying to make sense of architects’ approach about space perception and embodiment, computer scientists questioning behavioural methodology, or even psychologists between themselves – these were all common discussions during the conference. Only a few presentations were really cross-disciplinary; this is a very interesting subject way easier to debate than to put into real practice.

Most of all, it is the excitement and the enthusiasm of those dozen of researchers from every corner of the earth, supported by the strong foundations of Romans walls and history, that I will carry along my own pursuit of adding a stone to existing knowledge.

Pierre-François Gerard is studying for a PhD in Computer Science

This Post has been published on the Goldsmiths Computing Department Blog on 23/10/2015

Real Virtuality (my first chapter book)

Using Spatial Cognition to improve Knowledge Construction” is the title of the chapter we have written with Karl Smith for this book: “Real Virtuality: About the Desctruction and Multiplication of World.”  It was a great opportunity to discuss with Karl about our ideas on spatial cognition, technologies and “The Art of Memory”.

Chapter abstract
Since prehistoric era, humans have always, due to mainly a survival influx, developed a huge sense of memory link to location in their environment. They have learned to master their memory in different ways: by erecting landmarks and designing architecture, they modified their physical environment, and by walking through known and imaginary environments in their mind’s eye, they have trained and increased their virtual memory. After exploring the way humans perceives their environment, we looked at more recent technologies to understand how we could use those to re-master humans huge potential to organise information around them through the lens of the digital age.

The book content a lot more though. There are around twenty texts from different author giving a very faceted lens on the meaning of real virtulaity in the 21st century. It is worth the reading.

Real Virtuality, About the Destruction and Multiplication of World (with a Preface by Gerd Stern)
Ulrich Gehmann, Martin Reiche (eds.) Transcript Verlag Bielefeld, March 2014.
Increasingly, the virtual became reality by a hybridization of the world as we knew it: the process that went on in recent years is one of a technically assisted hybridization of both space and self, the »old« world is becoming virtualized and functionalized to a degree never experienced before. For the first time in human history, we have reached a threshold where we have not only to re-assert but to redefine ourselves, as regards our fundamental terms of understanding what world means for us, our base of existence and now an assemblage of mixed realities; and connected, what being human means.

Including contributions by
Kristoffer Aberg, Tim French, Michael Johannson, Martin Reiche, David Bell, Mikhail Fominykh, Steffen Krämer, Martin Rieser, Irus Braverman, Ulrich Gehmann, Lyzgeo M. Koshy, Panagiotis D. Ritsos, Marc Conrad, Pierre-F. Gerard, Randolph Langenbach, Carl H. Smith, Martin Cremers, Chris Gerbing, Manfred Negele, Gerd Stern, Katerina Diamantaki, Kristoffer Getchell, Erhan ÖzeSabine Wilke.

Intended audience
Humanities, Art Sciences, Social Geography

Hybridization, World-Creations, Functionalization, Space, Mixed Realities, Changes of the Self, Culture, Media, Cultural Theory, Media Theory, Media Studies, Cultural Studies

Now on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Real-Virtuality-Destruction-Multiplication-Preface/dp/3837626083