Dancing in the boundary lands through “interesting times”: educational development in the third space

“May you live in interesting times” is a commonly quoted curse, and HE has definitely been going through interesting times for far longer than we might like to admit. Most recently a few “interesting” aspects have been: Brexit; a pandemic; government consultations on funding and regulatory arrangements; and public and press rhetoric about university standards and politics on campus. As educational developers we occupy many spaces in universities, which are often the first to bear the brunt of interesting times. There has been a great deal of discussion on the SEDA Jisc list and in blog pieces here about strategies to adapt to these interesting times and we often support each other with solutions, or at least a listening ear.

As part of contemporary HE we are experiencing institutions which have changed and are changing from images of the academy that many of us remember. Jonathan Grant (2021) explores some of the more positive possibilities of this in his recent book ‘The Power University’. One of the things he highlights in his conclusions is the potential for a shift in the balance of roles within institutions to best respond to the vagaries of a changing context. He writes about an increasing third space in HE between academic spaces and professional spaces and revisits Whitchurch’s (2008, 2013) ideas of ‘the third space’ as a key way of working.

Staff and educational developers have been occupying third spaces for a long time – we walk (or dare I say dance?) in the liminal spaces between. We lead (or guide) projects which cross professional and academic settings; we facilitate groups who come from different roles and places within our institutions. We work with academics, students and professional service staff to move forward positive developments for learning and help join the dots. We are often translators between elements within universities who speak very different languages and have very different priorities.

The pandemic was of course exactly the context in which we had to be fast and light on our feet. It has been third spacers who have been key players in the response to the huge challenges of recent times (what would we have done without educational developers, learning technologists, learning support staff?). While many people are now talking about going back to ‘normal’ in higher education, the truth is there is no normal in contemporary HE – our imagined towers of intellectual excellence are changing almost on a daily basis. These are challenging times and it is those of us who move smoothly and deftly through the boundary spaces who are most prepared for what is happening and what might be to come. We can stress about it, and dread the changes, or we can choose to do our best to dance as positively as possible and continue to make third spaces ones where positive things happen that support colleagues, provide opportunities for staff to stretch and students to learn.

Diane Nutt is an Independent HE Consultant based in York, UK.
Emily McIntosh is Director of Learning, Teaching and Student Experience at Middlesex University, London, UK

Published today, 31st March, from Emily and Diane!
McIntosh, E. and Nutt, D. (2022) (editors)The Impact of the Integrated Practitioner in Higher Education: studies in third space professionalism, London: Routledge


Grant, J. (2021) The Power University: the social purpose of higher education in the 21st century, London: Pearson Educational

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: The emergence of third space professionals in UK higher education. Higher Education Quarterly 62(4) 377–396.

Whitchurch, C. (2013). Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education: The rise of third space professionals London, SRHE.

1 thought on “Dancing in the boundary lands through “interesting times”: educational development in the third space

  1. Pingback: Programme leaders challenging binaries in higher education: Academic vs non-academic? | thesedablog

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