Spatial Context

How can digital tools and media be used to spatio-temporally contextualize learning in online learning environments?

Introductory Notes

The following work is presented as a web essay. Chicago/Turabian citation style has been used to preserve citation structure in case the work is text-copied or printed as well as to comply with traditional academic convention. Inline references and bibliographies are arguably obsolete in a hypertext medium where linking out from the relevant text itself or a superscript indicator provides the same functionality more quickly while getting out of the way of the text. Chicago endnote style approximates this approach, though links "out" will need to be accessed through the intermediary of the references list.

This work ultimately identifies strategies to be applied to digital learning resource creation. Some of those strategies are implemented within the work itself to authentically demonstrate what is discussed. To suit the linear structural flow of the work, as well as correspond to traditional academic writing, commentary on and analysis of those strategies is presented in a section following an exploration of theory. "User notes" are given in-text where each strategy is implemented. While a sequential reading of this work will result in encountering the implemented strategies before their analysis, it is recommended to return to those features again afterwards.

I am not a professional web developer - nor even a reasonably competent one. Care has been put into ensuring this work is error free and responsive to different viewing media (phone, tablet, laptop). HTML5 and javascript (including jquery) have been used in the modification of a Bootstrap-based template. Due to practical limitations it has only been tested in a single environment: Chrome running in Windows 10 on a ~13" laptop. It should work across most platforms - but in the event it doesn't, please try viewing it in the most similar conditions possible.

Finally, these introductory notes should be viewed as an "orientation" for the (re)viewer and should not be considered part of the work for purposes of assessment of "word count" or of academic quality and writing style.

Il n'y a pas de hors-texte.
(There is no out-of-context.)

-- Jacques Derrida

A Constructivist Premise

The context of experience exerts a great amount of control over determining what knowledge and understanding are formed in that experience. As is popularly said, 93% of communication is non-verbal1, “the medium is the message”2, and “there is no out-of-context”.3 These notions are well-explored both in academia and in popular culture and point to the undeniable importance of context in meaning-making. This contextualization of learning is essential to constructivist theory in which knowledge or meaning is formed in the interaction of ideas and experience.4 Building on this foundational premise, constructivism has taken multiple paths of development. It is helfpul to consider these constructivisms in order to clarify the premise of this work.

Ernst von Glaserfeld describes radical constructivism as breaking away from “traditional epistemology”, discarding an orientation towards knowledge as representation of ontological reality in favour of one of being “useful in accomplishing a task or in achieving a goal that one has set for oneself.”5 This is a pragmatic constructivism that seems to suggest an epistemological relativism. This conception is expressed by Marie Larochelle and Nadine Bednara as “[breaking] radically with the foundations of empirico-realism.”6 For Shanti Gulati this constructivism that places value on diverse views and ways of knowing forms the basis of her criticism of teaching practices which privilege the teacher’s choice of discussion topics.7 Here constructivism becomes a platform for discourse on power relationships.8

Social constructivism positions learning in a social context where “the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers”.9 In its strongest forms it claims that all knowledge and thought are products of social interaction.10 The theory of situated learning operates within a social constructivist view, presenting learning as a sort of apprenticeship in which the learner is enculturated into the norms, concepts, skills, and values of particular community.11 Authentic learning is similarly used to describe practices in which the learner is placed in “real-world” context and engaged with a community of learners.12

Criticism has been made of these constructivisms. Derek Louis Meyer challenges von Glaserfeld’s radical constructivism on grounds of its relativism.13 Other critics have offered more comprehensive attacks on such relativism, both practical and theoretical (Meyer cites Christopher Norris as a prominent example),14 but Meyer very concisely points out that though all “knowledge … is in the heads of persons”, it does not logically follow that all in the heads of persons is knowledge.15 Likewise, “social isn’t the whole story"16 and to assert that all learning is socially mediated amounts to an absurd tabula rasa position that is contradicted by empirical evidence, as demonstrated by Steven Pinker, for example.17

I agree with these critics that the strong claims of those theories are problematic, if not outright false. It is in a critic’s interest to exaggerate the claims of their target, however, and problems with a theory do not negate the truths or insights it provides. It would be foolish to dismiss wholesale the product of years of application of great minds. Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, taken as models of learning and not as epistemological or socio-political treatises, have been powerfully influential and effective in informing the practice of teaching.18, 19

As an example, it is no trivial task to convey the experience and reality of war to students separated from that context by thousands of kilometers of distance and decades of time. Here constructivism offers a starting point, reminding the educator that the student's understanding will be formed in and by the student's mind. The student's mind, then, should be placed in a deliberate context that will shape their experience and thus their learning.

It is therefore appropriate to take here what von Glaserfeld would call a “naïve interpretation”20 of constructivism – one which makes no strong claims on the sociality of learning, does not seek to overturn epistemologies or power dynamics, and remains both vague and simple. It is my intention here only to develop or illuminate practical approaches that allow for greater awareness and intentionality about what the learner actually learns. Keeping a simple premise - that learning happens during an interaction of a learner’s ideas and their environment - is all that is necessary, and yields results that are more broadly applicable. One conclusion follows, and is shared with the constructivisms discussed; context must, to some extent, shape the learning that occurs. Setting aside internal context, such as existing knowledge, values, beliefs, and emotions, I will suggest ways to affect learner's experience of being present in the external contexts of time and space. The dimensions of that presence must first be considered.


A "minefield" has been constructed beneath the following section of text. Invisible "mines" randomly placed throughout the section are triggered by touching them with the mouse cursor. Note that this implementation may not work as expected on touchscreens or other non-cursor interfaces.

Use the button below to activate or deactivate the minefield. Note that triggering a mine will cause a loud sound as well as flashing visual effects that may be startling or trigger seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy. The "Safe Mode" button provides a warning prompt before the explosion.

Turn your speakers up - but not too much.

Activate Safe Mode

Temporal and Spatial Presence

The commonsense notion that our life experience happens where and when we are present is as complicated as our conception of presence is complicated. Technological change has allowed parts of what we consider presence to be mediated across space and time. Technological mediation is not new – smoke signals and cave paintings are prehistoric examples – but it is especially obvious and significant in the context of contemporary virtual reality, augmented reality, and social media. In light of digital and network technologies, scholars have described and classified aspects or types of presence in many different and often incompatible ways.21 Almost universally, a sensory presence forms a major part of these typologies and descriptions. Half of Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton’s six identified types of presence are described in spatio-temporal sensory terms – presence as “transportation,” “realism,” and “immersion”.22 They also note that “our visual and aural senses dominate our perception and have been most often identified with presence.”23 Visual experience very obviously informs our spatial understanding of our environment, but auditory experience also functions as a powerful dimensioning agent that can even compensate for deficiencies in visual information.24 Furthermore, in surveying the literature, Lombard and Ditton identify a widely held belief that the capacity for presence to be experienced is increased with a greater number of (consistent) senses.25 It is important to note that that this belief had not been extensively researched, as Lombard and Ditton admit,26 but it will be taken as a reasonably safe premise with empirical verification left outside the scope of this work.

Temporal and spatial dimensions of experience extend beyond sensory experience as well. Siân Bayne, Michael Sean Gallagher, and James Lamb have explored how space is “enacted” in the context of online, distance students’ experiences. Boundaries, territorialisation, and centering of authority and of belonging were identified in their interviews with students, demonstrating strong non-sensory spatial aspects of the students' experience.27 One might critically object that these meanings were superimposed through the interpretation of the researchers and that this is not necessarily reflective of the students’ own subjective experience. It is not relevant, however, whether or not the students themselves identify spatial dimensions in their experience; the fact that a spatial metaphor can be mapped onto it gives spatiality to that experience. Any conceptualization of space is, after all, a metaphor itself that is based on a mapping of the physical world.

Heather Greenhalgh-Spencer identifies Geocaching as operating within a hybrid space requiring simultaneous navigation of virtual and real space using non-sensory spatial information.28 As a form of navigation, Geocaching alerts us to notions of orientation and proximity that permeate our physical existence. “The cache is 350m that way” is a very direct reminder of our spatial existence. Geocaching’s reliance on imprecise location data also offers novel emphasis on precision and uncertainty, transforming spatial Cartesian exactness into a fuzzy quantum experience of location and thus presence. Similar hybrid space could be built into place-centered education, superimposing historical, ecological, or other digitally mediated layers onto the student's local physical environment. Imprecise boundary or location definition could be used to explore the fluid or fuzzy nature of many of the boundaries that mark our world: where the poor/rich/busy/old part of town begins and ends, for example.

Boundaries are also prominent in the experiences of “work” and “home”, which are very developed experiential contexts for most people. Doreen Massey frames these spaces in terms of openness and closedness, spatially presenting them as competing territories (unequally competing since work tends to have an asymmetrical ability to invade home.)29 It could be worthwhile to consider whether a territorial view of a student's lived experience reveals dynamics that impact learning. This notion of boundary also features in Siân Bayne's analysis of digital learning as smooth and striated space, implicating the time-space relationship of motion in the experience of digital learning.30 Given Bayne's discussion of the (im)mobilities that result from the topology of a learning space, it is valuable for a learning resource designer to reflect on how contextual layers might striate or smooth a space, and thus mobilize or immobilize it, for a learner.

Time, treated physically as a 4th dimension along with 3 spatial dimensions, can not be neglected in this discussion. In addition to the obvious experience of duration, Ernst Pöppel identifies multiple other ‘elementary time experiences’ - including simultaneity, order, and continuity, as examples - in our neuro-cognitive processes.31 Marc Wittmann points out that reliable neurophysiological models of human time perception have not been developed and suggests that body signals and emotive state may play important roles.32 These findings demonstrate the complexity of our experience of time, as well as its interconnection with other aspects of our experience. Time experience in the learner can thus be affected indirectly. Conversely, the learner's experience of time can modify other experiential dimensions.

Temporal and spatial aspects powerfully shape our experience of being present, and so form a large part of the contextual environment in which learning takes place. Acknowledging but not exploring other dimensions of presence, temporal and spatial dimensions - boundary, time progression, and territory, as examples - can be used to deliberately shape learning.

The Experience of Time

The two buttons below can be used to turn on/off or toggle between two sensory contexts for the following text. Each contextual layer sits "behind" the text for the whole page. Context A is a looped video clip that is 18 seconds long. Context B has a ~10 second audio loop as well as a "creeping" background colour layer that takes about 1.5 minutes to cover the screen. Each should be used for at least 30 seconds while viewing the text section but any longer than that is not strictly necessary.

Context A Context B

Example Strategies

Minefields: Territory and Sensory Violence

The experience of a space is shaped by the territorialisation of that space. ‘Foreign’ or ‘domestic’, ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’, ‘trustworthy’ or ‘suspect’; these labels might function as powerful experiential lenses.33 By creating a ‘minefield’ of invisible cursor-sensitive regions of a digital text, image, or other space, the learner is forced to engage with the content in a context of uncertainty and danger. Unexpected and violent sensory experiences are triggered by the ‘mines’. This combination of uncertainty and violence could create emotional associations with the text. Invisible boundaries are enacted for the learner, with some degree of approximation; there are obviously dangerous and safe areas, but the boundaries between those are not precisely defined.

Learning about the Bosnian War could be a learning context for this strategy. The experiences of crossing ‘Sniper Alley’34 during the Siege of Sarajevo or of living with the reality of landmine contamination are not adequately understood outside of spatio-temporal context, such as by reading a narrative account or viewing visual statistical data. Making the learning experience itself a dangerous and tense space, coupled with the unsettling and distressing effects of sensory violence, could help students more deeply and accurately comprehend these realities and make appropriate emotional associations.

In my research I discovered that a similar augmented reality implementation of this strategy was used by the UN Mine Action Service and ad agency Critical Mass in an exhibit at the New Museum in New York City.35

By marketing metrics, the event was a great success and has become a permanent exhibit at the UN headquarters in New York.36 While anecdotal, this would give some support to the suggestion that even small additions of spatio-temporal context can significantly affect the learning experience.

Time: Moment or Progression

Two sensory contexts have been created for the text. In one case the web browser becomes, as a real window, transparent to a scene beyond. The scene evokes the experience of being in the moment or the “specious present”.37 Time is evident in the motion and sound, but there are no events conveying past or future. The video is looped and thus portrays an infinite moment. Similarly, in the other case there is an infinite loop in the audio. This is an infinite progression, however, achieved through the use of a Shepard Tone effect.38 It conveys steady and unidirectional climbing where every moment is referential to the past and future through pitch. A visual layer is included, portraying an analogous (though finite) progression of a colour boundary. This combination seeks to force the viewer out of the moment and to be made constantly aware of time’s progression.

Shepard tone frequency progression

Image: a frequency spectrum progression for a Shepard Tone loop.

The first context – that of being in the moment – could help provide digital learning activities with temporal space for reflection or conversation. An affective calming effect might exist for a student, which can further alter the sense of time and create emotional associations with or conditions for what is being learned. It could be temporally similar to the experience of walking along a beach to provide the time space for an important conversation with a friend or reflection on a major life decision. A text chat (typically temporally marked and measured with timestamps on each comment) could be situated in-the-moment, which might have a qualitative effect on the discussion and therefore the learning. Perhaps more appropriate than long readings, short reflective questions or statements given in this context would benefit from the moment-expanding effect.

While the second demonstrative context serves here as a contrasting example with seemingly fewer appropriate applications, the time-progressiveness of a steady rhythm or beat might help maintain focus and productivity on tasks such as mathematical work, coding, or certain types of writing. These and other time-progressive devices, such as numerical or pictorial timers, could support learning where quantity or scale of time must be appreciated – such as about geologic processes or historical timelines. Durations can be measured out and defined emotionally as short or long, then scaled to the relevant time interval. This could be used to give a tangible sense of the length of a billion years, or how quickly a computer calculation occurs.

Concluding Statements

As shown in these two simple demonstrative examples, spatial and temporal layers can be added to conventional digital education media, modifying the learning experience without requiring extensive technological change. Thoughtful consideration of what constitutes the context of the learning experience - with reference to theory and research - can illuminate possibilities for deliberate crafting of that context, and therefore, the learning that is constructed therein.

The possibilities of VR and AR systems for creating context are great and well-publicized; there is tremendous opportunity for their educational use. It is worthwhile, however, to keep in mind that already-ubiquitous tools and media are not being used to their full potential. The goals of the education community could be better served if some of the enthusiasm and resources allocated to "the next big thing" in educational technology were spent improving and developing the ways we use the technologies that are already "at hand".

The general suggestions and specific illustrative examples given offer a suggestion of how we might more intentionally use those technologies to affect - and hopefully improve - learning.


1. Jeff Thompson, "Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game?" Psychology Today, September 30, 2011.

2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

3. Jacques Derrida, "Afterwords" in Limited, Inc. (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 136.

4. Jean Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child, trans. Margaret Cook (New York: Basic Books, 1954).

5. Ernst von Glasersfeld, "Why constructivism must be radical," in Constructivism and Education, ed. Marie Larochelle, Nadine Bednarz, and Jim Garrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511752865.

6. Marie Larochelle and Nadine Bednarz, "Constructivism and education: beyond epistemological correctness," in Constructivism and Education, ed. Marie Larochelle, Nadine Bednarz, and Jim Garrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511752865.

7. Shalni Gulati, “Compulsory participation in online discussions: is this constructivism or normalisation of learning?,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45, no. 2 (2008): 183-192, doi: 10.1080/14703290801950427.

8. Ibid., 187-188.

9. Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 90.

10. “Social Constructivism,” Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center, accessed April 18, 2016,

11. Lisa Dawley and Chris Dede, "Situated Learning in Virtual Worlds and Immersive Simulations," in Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, ed. J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jan Elen, and M. J. Bishop (New York: Springer, 2013), 723, doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-3185-5_58.

12. Audrey C. Rule, "Editorial: The Components of Authentic Learning," Journal of Authentic Learning 3, no. 1 (2006): 1-10.

13. Derek Louis Meyer, "The Poverty of Constructivism," Educational Philosophy and Theory 41, no. 3 (2009): 332-341, doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00457.x.

14. Ibid., 333, referring to Christopher Norris, Reclaiming Truth: Contribution to a critique of cultural relativism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). Pass,

15. Ibid., 338.

16. "Manifesto for teaching online," accessed April 19, 2016,

17. Steven Pinker, The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature (New York: Viking, 2002).

18. J. Roy Hopkins, "The Enduring Influence of Jean Piaget," Association for Psychological Science, accessed April 18, 2016,

19. Vasily V. Davydov, “The Influence of L. S. Vygotsky on Education Theory, Research, and Practice," trans. Stephen T. Kerr, Educational Researcher 24, no. 3 (1995): 12–21, doi: 10.3102/0013189X024003012.

20. von Glasersfeld, Why constructivism must be radical, 23.

21. Kwan Min Lee, "Presence, Explicated," Communication Theory 14, no. 1 (2004): 28, doi: 10.1093/ct/14.1.27.

22. Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton, "At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Presence," Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3, no. 2 (1997): "Concept Explication", doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00072.x.

23. Ibid., "Causes and Effects of Presence."

24. David B. Anderson and Michael A. Casey, "The sound dimension," IEEE Spectrum 34, no. 3 (1997): 46-50, doi: 10.1109/6.576008.

25. Lombard and Ditton, "At the Heart of it All," citing Anderson and Casey, "The sound dimension"; W. Barfield and S. Webhorst, "The sense of presence in virtual environments: a conceptual framework," Proceedings of the fifth International Conference of Human-Computer Interaction, 699-704; T. Kim, "Effects of presence on memory and persuasion" (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1996); J. Short, E. Williams, and B. Christie, The social psychology of telecommunications (London: Wiley, 1976); J. Steuer, "Defining virtual reality: Dimensions determining telepresence," in Communication in the age of virtual reality, ed. Frank Biocca and Mark R.Levy, (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995,) 33–56.

26. Ibid.

27. Siân Bayne, Michael Sean Gallagher, and James Lamb, "Being 'at' university: the social topologies of distance students," Higher Education 67, no. 5 (2013): 569-583, doi: 10.1007/s10734-013-9662-4.

28. Heather Greenhalgh-Spencer, "What Technology Reveals: Countering Binaries and Moving Toward the In-Between," Philosophy of Education Society Yearbook (Urbana: Philosophy of Education Society Press, 2013), 315-323.

29. Doreen Massey, For Space (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2005), 179.

30. Siân Bayne, "Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces," E-Learning and Digital Media 1, no. 2 (2004): 302-316, doi: 10.2304/elea.2004.1.2.6.

31. Ernst Pöppel, "A hierarchical model of temporal perception," Trends in Cognitive Sciences 1, no. 2 (1997): 56-61, cited at "The Experience and Perception of Time," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed April 21, 2016,

32. Marc Wittmann, "The inner experience of time," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364 (2009):1955-1967, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0003.

33. See, for example, Bayne et. al., "Being 'at' university," 576.

34. "Sniper Alley," Wikipedia, accessed April 22, 2016,

35. Grace Chung, "Ad Agency Creates Chilling Landmine Experience," AdvertisingAge, published April 8, 2014,

36. "UNMAS - Sweeper," adtech 40, accessed April 22, 2016,

37. "Experience and Perception of Time," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

38. "Shepard tone," Wikipedia, accessed April 24, 2016,

Media Credits

Rock plant photo by Okinawa Soba (Rob), under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
"Print Gallery" by M.C. Escher, under fair use.
Mine field photo Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Water drop photo by Roger McLassus, under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Shepard tone frequency spectrum by Grin, under GPL.
Beach video by J.D. Caudle.
Soap box photo by Matt, under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Shepard tone music posted by Scarscape, composed by Pentti701, by permission.
"Greyscale" theme by Start Bootstrap, modified and under MIT license.