Last month (November 2017), the vice-chancellor of Birmingham’s Aston University, Alec Cameron, told UK newspaper The Guardian: “we’ve ‘maxed out’ in terms of participation for what is currently offered”.
To any higher education institution with invaluable infrastructure assets lying unused for half of the year, Cameron’s words hold an intrinsic optimism. Why? Because the underlying message is this: there’s opportunity to reach out to new and wider audiences, be that the knowledge-hungry business community and workforce, or post-millennials eager to learn something new.
But, in common with all institutions hungry for pieces of society’s emerging pies, universities must change, evolve and move with the times. Atkins human-centred design (HCD) approach to physical asset construction is transforming the delivery of education at primary level and it can do the same for post-school learning too.
Philip Watson, Design Director at design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins, has witnessed that change manifest already. As the company’s education sector lead, Philip has led the design, construction and post-occupancy evaluation of a number of schools, colleges and universities.
Philip says: “Decision makers have come to the realisation that a didactic/dictatorial style of teaching is not as effective as the more personalised approach. Therefore, universities are building less lecture hall type learning spaces than previously, and delivering fewer lessons that way. That passive observation method of learning, with its inherent attention fall-off rate, is declining in our schools and that approach is filtering into further and higher education pedagogical styles.
“Where we are building lecture theatres, we’re building them as collaborative spaces. Places in which academics deliver short talks that are followed by discussions amongst learners in small groups.
“As that old-style ‘Chalk & Talk’ methodology is blended with more self-directed learning styles in schools,” he adds, “learning activity now revolves around breaking classes up into two or three cohorts that come together to discuss a topic that a teacher or tutor has introduced. There is a desire to have those groups break away into smaller groups, learn individually and with their peers before presenting the ‘lesson’ themselves.
“It has manifested in a requirement for more flexible learning environments and design elements that allow more flexibility in the space you have to play with. Of course, as designers you’re working within a defined building area – so the use of moveable partitions, flexible-use furniture, and the organisation of space so that it can be used in multiple ways has become more prevalent,” Philip added.
The Atkins-designed Lime Tree Primary Academy in Greater Manchester is classified ‘outstanding’ by the Ofsted inspectorate. The ‘Forest school’ delivers half its curriculum outdoors, embracing a pedagogical approach to maths tutoring that enthuses Philip immensely, “teachers take pupils out onto the sports field and measure how far each can long jump to teach them the mathematical concepts of mean and median.
“By analysing the statistics around real, collaborative and individually experienced actions, pupils draw on their physical interest and feelings for what has happened. It creates a personal way for pupils to experience the complex concepts and it resonates with them in a way that learning averages within a traditional classroom set up won’t.
“That rejection of the didactic/dictatorial approach to teaching has transitioned to universities over the last decade, with the language I’ve been hearing on school design now more prevalent in higher education. I suppose that isn’t what you’d expect: schools pioneering and universities following suit, but this is clearly what has happened.”
Universities and the virtuous cycle
The late Sir David Watson’s book, The Engaged University: International Perspectives on Civic Engagement, explored in detail what he told an international conference on university community engagement in Australia in 2011. He said: “Community engagement from a university perspective often means taking a university back to the reasons for its founding, if we look carefully we will see nearly all institutions were put there to make life better for communities in terms of prosperity and social cohesion.”
Today, we’ve all but lost those traditional marketplaces and community civic centres where a community heartbeat was palpable, where people from diverse backgrounds congregated to share their lives, stories and ideas. They have been largely replaced by drab disparate contact centres and out of town shopping centres.
The question is this: Could a university recreate that sense of belonging and local community heartbeat within its walls? And if it did, what might that look like?
“Of course,” says Philip, “some universities are speaking on a worldwide level, but they do also need to speak on a local level. Encouraging students to become part of the community beyond its grounds is a sound approach. Universities are, after all, creating the entrepreneurs and employers of the future. There is little sense in graduating them into a community they’ve been cloistered from since Fresher’s Week.
if we look carefully we will see nearly all institutions were put there to make life better for communities in terms of prosperity and social cohesion
“Nurturing a skilled workforce and promoting lifelong learning can be self-fulfilling for universities, and they have the facilities to facilitate greater collaboration with business, with the locale and worldwide community.
“It’s worth thinking about what greater integration between work and study might look like and how that would involve innovating with the design of its assets. While this might be a challenge for some universities, it’s one they are increasingly taking on.”
“Universities are seeking to become an integrated part of the local community more and more. The universities that are buying into this philosophy understand their social responsibility to the immediate community.
For Philip, this is evidence they have embraced the idea of “that virtuous cycle” of learning, teaching and helping society progress in the way Sir David envisaged.
Sense of belonging
“That social responsibility aspect formed part of the philosophy around our design for the Harraby Campus in Carlisle. Rather than just being a school, Harraby is a multi-agency operation. There are two types of nursery, a community centre, a children’s centre and an arts theatre.
“All its facilities are flexible and can be used outside of hours but also during the school day. The different groups and cohorts all exist in the same building. What this has created is a community asset that is in use as much as possible. There are classes for the elderly a couple of nights week.”
Harraby Campus is a utopia of public engagement, like the marketplaces of times gone by where everyone, regardless of age, had a reason to visit. “In a setup like this, you’ll find casual interactions happening that you don’t get when community groups exist in siloes.
“While the social benefits that may be hard to measure, you instinctively know that those old age pensioners are getting out of their houses, interacting with others and combatting social exclusion.”
This is similar to what Philip calls the idea of a sticky campus, “what universities want is for students to come to the campus, spend time with their tutors and then stay on campus, socialise, eat and use the sports or other facilities on offer – not just slope off to their halls or bedsit and not have any involvement with the wider life at the university.
“They want their students’ experience to be a good one, and if it is good generally, then people will come out with a good degree, rate that university well and then other students are more likely to come there. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”