Working space as learning place

Graham Attwell challenged me to describe my working place as a learning place: illustrating my description with five photographs. For me, like Steve Wheeler, work and learning are pretty much inseparable – indeed I’ve used the term ‘Personal Work and Learning Environment‘ in a few papers I’ve written exploring how an individual’s informal learning during work might be supported through technology:

So in the following pictures and descriptions, the learning (articulating challenges, formulating plans, adapting practice, reflecting on successes and failures) occurs right where and when the work occurs, and is inseparable from it.

I’ve just moved office (coinciding with a change of role) and now share an office with two other team members. One of our first tasks in this new team was to quickly analyse some qualitative data, and the benefit of being able to slip between focused individual analysis and team discussions to refine codes and report progress was immense. It really helped the new team come together, recogniseour strengths and weaknesses and fill in the gaps. I’ve always preferred sharing an office, perhaps going back to my origins as a lab scientist: labs are a great example of an integrated (and very social) work and learning environment.


Nevertheless, working at home does save a commute of almost an hour each way, so I try to work at home at least once a week. I usually try to save work that does benefit from solitude (writing and reviewing) for these days. My wife and I have a study/home office setup – mostly used for our out of hours working. While C tends to use the home PC, I bring my laptop home with me so there is the inevitable changeover and swapping of cables. Usually, I also have to clear work papers out of the way too – I’ve never had to formally hot-desk, and am not sure I’d like it. While it is a bit impersonal, and can take a bit of settling in to, the printer, second screen and mouse (no need for a keyboard) makes this an effective space to work.


But when I work at home, I’m usually the only one in the house. And when that’s the case, I rarely slink off to the study. Instead (like now), I usually find myself at the kitchen table, close to coffee (and biscuits) and a stereo.  I usually have music on, I don’t usually find I have a problem concentrating. If I am at home, I tend to move around more – I’ll sit away from the PC if I am reading.


Most of my PhD thesis was written on the No 17 bus between Byres Rd in Glasgow and Paisley. My funding had finished and I was working creating distance learning materials at the University of Paisley. I’d print out the current draft of a chapter each night, edit and expand on it on the bus journeys that day then slink into the lab late at night to use the PC to type things up and print something else to work on the next day. The key here, is that while the physical space on a bus is never ideal, it worked for me because it was a regular time (10 times a week, for 40 minutes) when I could immerse myself in writing up that didn’t get in the way of my new work responsibilities. Bus journeys have always been a key learning space: after I left Paisley,  I spent five years commuting to Heriot-Watt and read for a couple of hours on the bus everyday during that time. I’ve also spent a lot of my life living and working between Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly  ‘crossing Scotland’s waist‘ on the No. 500 bus – giving me even more time to read and learn. I’m ashamed to say that I read much less nowadays and I’ve always maintained that during that time I got out of the habit of reading at other times when I had so much time to read on buses. Now my commute is car and bike based, so reading isn’t an option, but I routinely use my commuting time at each end of the working day to plan and reflect.


Finally, to reiterate a message from what I wrote above, work and learning is about time as well as place. Like many, I am a terrible procrastinator, and I do my best work against hard deadlines. That often means working late into the night. As a student I never started studying before 10pm – my studying was soundtracked by John Peel – and I still feel this is when I am at my most focused. I remember finishing writing the JOLT paper ‘Patterns of Engagement in Connectivist MOOCs‘ (ref. below) deep into the night, finally submitting it after 3 am in the morning (the deadline must have been midnight EST). I can use late night sessions to finish work, but also to break the back of a problem – so that I can be in control of timescales further down the line.

I read Steve’s, and Graham’s and Angela’s pieces while I was writing this – one thing that stood out is that Steve highlighted the resources that stimulate his creativity. In contrast, only my work office has any resources in it – and if I am honest, they don’t really get much use on a day to day basis. Instead, my resources tend to be in my PC. I suppose that helps for the portability of my workspace.

Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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