by RACHAEL HAINS-WESSON and NIRA RAHMAN
The term ‘third space’ was coined to define teams that encourage professional and teaching academic staff (i.e. often termed non-professional staff) to work shoulder-to-shoulder for mutual gains. “Third space” academics exist in a working space that occurs between academic and professional practice, research and teaching, and sometimes operate amongst the spheres in academia, practice and industry ecosystems. Third space educationists hold significant roles, creating strong parallel links between students, academics, and professional staff within a higher education and industry-connected context.
Third spaces have expanded since the COVID-19 disruption due to working from home orders, massification of education, increased enrolments, downsizing of resources due to inflation and the rise of work-ready preparedness programmes, such as work-integrated learning. These teams are often led by academic educationists, consisting of “third space workers.” These roles span administration, research, scholarship, and teaching domains. Third space teams are often already working in a futuristic state, envisaging, and enacting short and long-term visions and missions to improve teaching and learning in higher education. In recent times, “third space” educationists are emerging as leaders in higher education settings without formal acknowledgement.
Remaining at the forefront of change in higher education takes courage, innovation, and grit. We are examples of third space leaders taking risks while implementing large scale innovation in teaching and learning in our respective universities. We also understand the significance of benchmarking practice to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), mitigating gut instinct and relying on evidence-based and tested models and practice, increasing success.
Third spaces are key to teaching and learning achievement. However, those of us who choose this career pathway are often unrecognised and left out of leadership conversations. Leading change from the ground up to ensure that the projects we work on, the colleagues we support and the innovations we undertake are challenging concepts in academia at the best of times. University leaderships, on many occasions, do not celebrate, elevate, or activate those who are qualified educators within the system of third spaces. Rather, selection for teaching and leadership roles are mostly based on discipline-centric researchers’ track records, over the more important and relevant qualifications, skills, and experience that are required to undertake large scale innovations with diverse teams in teaching and learning environments.
Educationists have spent years honing their skills to lead third spaces in quality design and delivery of the curriculum, authentic task design and evaluation, undertaking and expanding upon teacher scholarship that is evidenced-based. We have personally received accolades and acknowledgments for our work in third spaces. However, we also spend too much time fighting for this cause – continually explaining to leaders that we are already operating in a futuristic state, and that the rise of third spaces is integral to this.
Leaders of third spaces need to provide both professional and academic development, career support and mentoring. We know how to do this well and while minimising costs, streamlining processes, and working collegially with diverse higher education staff across the board. Our remit is to always improve teaching and learning. It is what we were trained for. Yet, without appropriately acknowledging the importance of third space leadership, celebration of the work and inclusivity will remain elusive with restructures, redundancies and dismissals continuing, and at rapid speed.
Lived experience is powerful – teaching and learning decisions must be made by those who are qualified and experienced to work, lead, and participate in such futuristic states within the third space domain. However, we notice that third space leaders, its members, and the work they do are often overlooked and discounted in leadership decision-making processes, policy reform and university leadership ecosystems. This is even more apparent in community-wide media discussions.
It is widely acknowledged that the future of higher education is in teaching and learning. It takes deep expertise, knowledge in the scholarship of teaching and learning, and years of practice, experimentation and risk-taking to become a thought leader and world leading practitioner in third spaces. It is common for third space dwellers to feel discouraged and downhearted by senior leaders who lean on us to drive change and instigate teaching and learning experiments, yet do not acknowledge our work, nor provide a chair at the table.
Momentous change continues to impact third spaces, but it is rooted in the past, not the future. Professional and non-professional third space dwellers are being involuntarily de-coupled from one another, increasing tensions and silos. How do we avoid these mistakes?
Educationists, teacher-academics, and hybrid roles who operate and lead third spaces need to come together, voice their concerns, and initiate much needed robust conversations. We must continue to bring these issues to the masses, to talk, discuss, and debate. We must showcase more how Third Space Educationists are contributing towards quality, diverse, inclusive, and accessible offerings for staff and students.
Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at University of Sydney
Nira Rahman is a lecturer in educational design and student engagement at University of Melbourne