Take a Chance?

I went to the 2016 Educational Strategy Forum with one of my colleagues this week. The two day event in Windsor had a very packed agenda containing a mixture of talks, networking and short business meetings (some pre-arranged) with various vendors and sponsors of the event (it was free for participants on the basis of sponsorship by a number of companies engaged in developing edtech and the services and structures that support the student learning journey). In the evening we had dinner – again hosted by some of the event sponsors.

Whilst the content and information contained within the event itself was certainly interesting at worst, illuminating at best and informative throughout, what struck me most about the event across its two days was the way it was designed – its format and structures.

The geographical architecture of the conference held at the Beaumont Estate  created a variety of spaces and settings in which interactions could occur. Some spaces were set up with small high tables and chairs – think towards the round tables and chairs set around pillars in a typical pub. There were also a number of rooms set up café style and used for presentations, some working hot-desk areas and then there were the little spaces within and across these rooms; sofas grouped together or clusters of comfy chairs around low coffee tables. Additionally, power sockets were ubiquitous, offering delegates the possibility of setting up a pop up office.

There were no large, open spaces, and there were only two ways in or out of the section of the hotel occupied by the event. Seating at the main talks and presentations was not assigned and, like myself, many delegates sat at different tables throughout the event, leading to there being an ever shifting collection of colleagues around me.

In a similar vein, the shape of each session also changed frequently. There were fairly traditional talks and presentations, debates, 1-2-1 meetings, a fairly exhausting ‘speed dating’ session, and numerous informal meetings and exchanges of ideas and thoughts. There were also concurrent events happening much of the time; the colour of one’s lanyard dictated which ‘stream’ of events to attend.

I mention all of this detail because it seems that deliberately fostering the opportunity for short meetings, chance or otherwise, was a key aspect of the event design – it encouraged interactions which might (or might not) be the beginning of something more – these were not prolonged engagements, but initial sparks. I gained the feeling that there was always the possibility of meeting someone round the next corner – indeed, I actually met two more colleagues I didn’t know were attending by chance in a corridor – it was these kind of encounters the event nudged to the surface. It was an enjoyable, fast paced and ‘full’ event.

I travelled back from Windsor with my colleague. Having dissected the event and agreed actions to take forward, and realising that connecting to Virgin wifi on a train is a task akin to nailing mist to a wall, we played cards.

We played two games, only one of which has a name repeatable in polite company. Both however, have rules which allow the player full rein for devious behaviour, causing the other player woe of varying scales. It was thoroughly enjoyable to play (just) within the rules whilst at the same making the most of the chance happenings that offered, or took away advantage.

It would seem that a certain degree of chance delights the participant. Chance within agreed parameters or rules can be seen as both play and perhaps playful – it invites in unexpected or unforeseen possibilities within a wider stable framework. The state of play itself isn’t fixed and static; a known thing with a predetermined outcome, but a state which contains flux, a degree of unpredictability, and the possibility of the unexpected. Roger Caillois explains that, ‘an outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result is incompatible with the nature of play’ (Caillois 2001:7).

Both the conference structure and the card games on the way home were playful exercises in engineered chance; little surprises were uncovered within a (comforting?) framework of the expected.

Building on this, it strikes me that a playful sense of jouissance, a sense of safe danger might be part of what we are trying to create at the University of Salford as we build our Industrial Collaboration Zones (ICZs). They are interdisciplinary exploring, making and meeting places for translating thinking into applied action. At their best they’ll become creative play spaces where deliberate chance is deliberately given a chance. We’re developing their structures at the moment. It’s an exciting time…

See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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