Mapping spatial practices and social distancing in smart schools: Sensory and digital ethnographic methods

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Faculty of Education


This 18 month interdisciplinary project collaborates across the fields of Education, Architecture, and Design to improve our understanding of the lived experience of school buildings. This project combines sensory ethnographic methods with social mapping methods, to trace complex networks of relationality and spatial practices in buildings. Our aim is to generate new mapping methods that better document the sensory-affective dimensions of school environments. These dynamic maps will offer time-lapse representations of how staff and students experience the school buildings, shedding light on problematic spaces in the built environment. This constitutes a cutting-edge methodological approach that assembles participatory methods of design-based research with sensory ethnographic mapping. This hybrid ethnographic method involves following the key actors involved (staff, students, visitors, stakeholders), while also attending to the sensory force and impact of the built environment itself. The research team will collect sensory ethnographic data, codify and correlate with voiced/texted concerns regarding building use, assemble the data using mapping software, and create dynamic visualizations of the spatial practices and sensory environment, as it mutates over a 9 month period of time.

Working with three secondary schools in Liverpool, our iterative research design involves alternating between 3-month cycles of ethnographic study and 3-month cycles of data processing and map making, for a total of 9 months in the schools. Our methods directly involve school communities in collaborative processes of collectively mapping the complex sensory-affective spatial practices within their buildings. Young people at the schools will increase their understanding of smart architecture and passive sensor technology through their participation in the project. Workshops with students and staff will commence in the first 2 months, exploring participatory methods for sensory ethnography in smart schools. The cycles of ethnography and mapping will follow. Co-designed interventions in schools aim to address problematic spaces during mapping phases. The research team will meet with an advisory group 5 times over the 18 months, which includes experts in UK school architecture, learning environments, and digital design, as well as representatives from the schools.

We are partnering with an architecture firm esteemed for their school architecture, and their national and international contributions, over the last two decades, to education learning environment policy. The participating schools were built by the architecture firm, which is contributing person-hours throughout the project, as well as school architectural plans and blueprints, and other planning documents used to visualize the occupant experience. We are also working with a design company that focuses on innovative wearable sensor technologies and citizen science, with experience in school building interventions. The project is situated in our Manifold Laboratory for Biosocial, Eco-sensory, and Digital Studies of Learning and Behaviour, where we have access to equipment and research infrastructure (

Academic and creative outputs will include (a) a project website, documenting both research process and findings, with a secure blog for posting news and progress, (b) project exhibitions and events in Liverpool public-access sites, such as The Baltic Triangle PLACED digital academy, and Make Liverpool North Docks Warehouse, and the Manchester Whitworth Young Contemporaries space, and Manchester School of Architecture, (c) academic publications (3), conference papers (3), and a report to local education agencies. Findings will also be shared with the Association for Learning Environments (ALE-UK), the UK National Data Archive, and the learning environment group at the OECD.


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