Context Matters | A Reflection from the Annual Conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL)

December 14, 2023


Susannah McGowan and Noah Martin delivered a presentation at this year’s International Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (ISSOTL) Conference. ISSOTL 2023 was hosted in the Netherlands by Utrecht University, and the theme of the conference was “Context Matters.” Our presentation entitled “Institutional Change” existed within a thematic group (series of 5 presentations in a row) and provided an overview of two courses that the Red House ran in the Spring 2023 semester as models of “third space” learning engagements.

Image 1: Hello from Utrecht! | Dr. Susannah McGowan (left) and Noah Martin in a train car at the Spoorwegmuseum (the 2023 ISSOTL conference location) in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Presentation Reflections:

For this presentation, we continued to expand our thinking about where third spaces occur in our work and the implications of third space learning engagements on student learning and institutional change. In the context of higher education, “Third Spaces” can be defined as integrative experiences that bring together academics (faculty, students and staff—the first space) with industry, community and government partners (the second space) to create new sites of interaction that are characterized by:

  • Valuing students as partners
  • Transcending institutional boundaries
  • Addressing complex challenges

This ISSOTL conference was an opportunity to present on two courses that the Red House ran in the Spring of 2023, The University as a Design Problem (UDP) (Taught by Jan Menafee, Dr. Randy Bass, and Noah Martin) & The Internship as a Design Problem (IDP) (Taught by Dr. Susannah McGowan). Each course demonstrated several elements of third space learning engagements, which you can see outlined in Table 1.

Table 1 - Third Space Characteristics: An overview of the third space characteristics in the Spring 2023 versions of University as a Design Problem & Internship as a Design Problem

Our presentation was the only one in the “Institutional Change” presentation group that included students in thinking about their role in broader institutional changes, which generated a lot of interest from our audience—specifically about how to create opportunities for students to be brought into the work around institutional change. Many of the questions we received were about how to facilitate student engagement to ensure students are appropriately compensated for their time, and supported in the often long term engagement that institutional change can require. We also had some questions and conversation around the following areas:

  • The Role of the Red House | There were quite a few questions from the audience about the origin story of the Red House in general, and specifically how the space has enabled opportunities for courses such as UDP and IDP.
  • Dismantling Time | There was some discussion about the role of time in student engagement around institutional change—in particular, how we navigate the time bound nature of a single semester.

For additional context on our presentation at ISSOTL you can find our presentation abstract below in the section below.

Presentation Abstract:

This presentation explores the role and application of the concept “third spaces” within two courses aimed to redesign experiential learning experiences within our institutional context. Our institution launched specific initiatives to promote a new campus location seven miles away from the main campus. In order to understand community perceptions and how to engage academic staff and students in building experiential learning opportunities we decided to enact a “third space” lens (McAlpine & Hopwood, 2009) on two courses/modules where students became researchers, designers, and consultants. “Third Spaces” can be defined as integrative experiences that bring together academics (faculty, students and staff) with industry, community and government partners to create new sites of interaction that are characterized by: wicked problems, traversing institutional boundaries, valuing multiple perspectives for mutual learning, and valuing students as partners. Our central questions asked how students operated within these transdisciplinary spaces, what they learned in acting as partners, and how the process of designing for transformation changed their own perceptions on their learning journeys.

We will structure the session through two interconnected case studies conducted in Spring of 2023. The two “third spaces” are credit-bearing elective courses titled The Internship as a Design Problem and The University as a Design Problem. Both courses feature key characteristics of third spaces (Kligyte et al., 2019), such as engaging multiple perspectives on authentic problems in order to address systemic, institutional change.

To illustrate the two courses, we will incorporate anonymous examples of student work and a brief outline of a course session in which students assembled to discuss the role of third spaces in higher education. Based on our initial review of coursework and reflective analysis, we wish to illustrate what these spaces afford for student learning and for transformational change within institutional contexts.


Kligyte, G., Baumber, A., van der Bijl-Brouwer, M., Dowd, C., Hazell, N., Le Hunte, B., ... & Pratt, S. (2019). “Stepping in and stepping out”: Enabling creative third spaces through transdisciplinary partnerships. International journal for students as partners, 3(1), 5-21.

McAlpine, L., & Hopwood, N. (2009). ‘Third spaces’: a useful developmental lens?. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(2), 159-162.

Picture of Dr. Susannah McGowan

Dr. Susannah McGowan

Director of Strategic Transformation Initiatives

Picture of Noah Martin

Noah Martin

Senior Designer for Learning Ecosystems