Covid 19: Distancing and Social Learning ?

Creche facility in Inner City housing project

With COVID-19 we have quickly been thrust into a new world in which we have previously only partially been engaging with. As schools have been closed, online or remote learning has now become the norm in varying modes for school children globally, at least those of those lucky enough to have access to electricity, a computer or smart device and a stable data connection and of course a quiet space to study in. (Data is a human right ?)

With this comes a series of very interesting questions and observations around the concepts of the nature of space and our homes, around teaching and learning and the role of social learning.


Our homes are being called on to function in several modalities; as places to work from, places to study from and as our sanctuaries. Our large suburban houses can take this all onboard fairly easily, but what if you live in a shared inner-city unit or an informal dwelling? If we just dwell on the inner city of Johannesburg where the housing density has increased exponentially over the past ten years with units getting smaller and smaller with increased occupation density, you will appreciate the challenge of space being able to function in multiple roles.



The playground at Elangeni Gardens, Johannesburg.


In our social housing projects, we have consistently strived to acknowledge the role that shared amenities play in dense living environments and have provided not only play areas for children but homework rooms for school children and young adults.


Much is being written about the quick successes of remote learning and very little about the spatial and social relationships attached to learning. 

Allan Knott-Craig writing in BizNews in an article entitled “Could SA by some miracle dodge worst of Covid-19 curse?” states; 

“People have opened their eyes to the power of online education. No need to have the world’s best math teacher living in Butterworth. No need to print and deliver millions of textbooks. No matter where you live, you can have a world-class education (assuming you have affordable broadband).”

He is right, but not entirely. Teaching is not only about delivering content. It is about understanding and assimilating that content. This is where the skill of a teacher comes in, if not in teaching the material, which could be delivered in any number of formats, but in the role of translator and mediator of that information to the learner. Learning from the group is just as important.

In our work in the higher education sector, we have engaged with the idea of social learning and how that impacts on the types of spaces provided in the university environment. Here we consider the total environment as a multi-functional live- learn- work-play space, where the connections and spaces between formal teaching venues are as important for social connection and social learning. These interstitial spaces are then not merely passages or lobbies or meeting rooms that can only be booked for lectures. These are the spaces where social learning takes place, often enabling the serendipitous exchanges between peers that spark ideas and innovation. The social staircase and the verandah become important spaces in mediating between formal and informal spaces.

Because learning is also a social exercise, we learn from each other through informal exchange. The future is now, and education going forward will almost certainly be a mixed-mode offering. But when we design spaces of learning, we need to consider the role of space in social learning; the multiplicity and overlap of uses and how they absorb a 24-hour cycle of blended learning models.

                                        Concept drawing for student ‘chill’ zones in Sol Plaatje University. Kimberley proposal
                            Students at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley in one of the informal lounges
Student learning group in informal tutorial space at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley