Based not only on the contemporary theories of Lave and Wenger but also Bruner (1986, 1990) and their social learning forefather Vygotsky (1962,1978), a general agreement amongst academics regarding the value of social learning opportunities has led to a more varied curriculum and the promotion of a range of different types of learning activities both inside and outside of formal classroom contact time, in many U.K. universities. Brown and Lippincot note:
More learning is taking place outside of class time than ever before. With an increased emphasis on collaboration and group projects, students are learning in small groups outside of the classroom as they accomplish work related to their courses. (Brown and Lippincott, 2003:14).
These out-of-classroom learning opportunities make up the bulk of the university educational experience. An Ernest Boyer study, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, states that "more than 50 percent of student learning in college occurs outside the classroom" (Boyer, 1987:180). Kenney et al, assert that students “spend on average 70 hrs per week on non-academic activities other than sleeping, such as socializing over meals and participating in athletics or other co-curricular activities” (Kenney et al, 2005:38).
Given that most learning happens in more informal environments, a more considered approach to how these informal environments are designed is needed, given the potential gain in positive learning outcomes.
Social Learning Space
New forms of space, aptly named 'social learning spaces', are being designed and developed. Williamson and Nodder (2002) cite Oldenburg's (1991) definition of social learning space, "a physical and/or virtual area that is not predominantly identified with either social or work/study perspectives but transcends both and facilitates both formal and informal student centred collaborative learning" (2002).
The US and Scandinavia lead the field in the development of social learning spaces. Many US universities offer college ‘commons’ spaces, a central area that provides a range of student and staff facilities. The UK has also made some headway in the development of these spaces, the most prolific space, perhaps being the Saltire Centre at the Glasgow Caledonian University which aims to provide users "with a variety of different spaces, from noisy social interaction areas for group work, to places for silent study" (http://www.gcal.ac.uk/thesaltirecentre/building/index.html). The Reinvention Centre has also invested in the development of two innovative spaces drawing on current pedagogies around the importance of social learning.