Open Space Learning

Image of woman sitting in wilderness staring at mountains.  This is a stock image with actors.

Image of woman sitting in wilderness staring at mountains. This is a stock image with actors.

Anne likes classrooms because they have walls. She can sit at the front, know exactly where the lecturer is, sit next to them and concentrate. 

So, when open plan learning was introduced at the tertiary institution she attended, Anne (not her real name) was furious. 

“Only one teacher is teaching and you can focus. I wanted somewhere I could put my back to the wall or know where the teacher was going to stand so I could sit next to them. That way I can focus and not get distracted. 

“I’d know which way the room’s going to be and it doesn’t change on me. 

“With open plan, four lectures could be going on at once.  

“I heard more of the other lectures than my own. It was so loud all the time because every conversation in the entire room, you could hear,” says Anne. 

“I complained every semester and got nowhere. 

“’ Dude,’ I’d say, ‘you could easily put a door on that room, get me a door! I will build it for you. I will buy the timber and put a door in there.’ And nobody listened to me.” 

Anne, 26, finished her civil engineering degree six years ago and was diagnosed as autistic soon afterwards. 

She is not using the degree and is currently unemployed after working at several unrelated jobs, mostly in retail. 

“Open plan wasn’t necessarily an autistic thing; it was an extrovert vs introvert thing. Half the population was not happy with this move,” said Anne. 

“A lot of the teachers when they found out they were teaching in those rooms, they petitioned to move.” 

The three-year degree took her four years because of the challenges put in her way – open plan learning was just one of them, the others included crippling endometritis and depression, which she believed were linked. 

The medication for her intense period pains, which she experienced since she was 12, made her depressed.  

“Everything was grim,” until an endoscopy resulted in her finally having surgery three years ago. She was still depressed though, and it was while she was under the service of Adult Mental Health, the autism diagnosis came about. 

Anne liked attending lectures when she was at her tertiary institution, until the introduction of open plan but there were other issues which six years later, she can reflect on. 

Student support services were hard to access; counsellors seemed unobtainable and so she relied on her own general practitioner (a male) for help. 

“I scraped by, I got medical deferrals, but I needed help. I wish they would have told me what was available. I didn’t quite know what they did. 

“Don’t just say we have this thing over in the corner – tell us what they do,” she said. 

“I liked the lecturers that did exercises. They gave us a problem and gave us time to work on them. 

“I liked the ones who said, ‘come talk to me if you’re having any problems.’” 

Anne says there were lecturers who just read their slides, they were fixed on their presentation and that was that. 

“That was absolutely horrible and they tell them not to do that.” 

Six years on, Anne describes her tertiary studies as “fairly neutral.” 

“Some lecturers were good, some didn’t get it, I was undiagnosed at the time and those open plans and I didn’t know how to access the counsellors so I went to my doctor and my doctor wasn’t linked to where I was studying. The lecturers who I told didn’t seem to know how to do anything either. That was my experience,” she says. 


Check out Supporting Autistic Tertiary Learners guides that offer information and strategies under six themes: