Goodbye classroom

When it comes to enhancing learning spaces, those calling the shots need to put people first to achieve positive change. Mark Ferguson reports

UK universities are collectively investing billions in new campus buildings and the refurbishment of facilities as part of a concerted drive to raise their game in teaching and learning. The battlelines are well drawn – in an increasingly competitive market where the student is now a consumer, and the consumer, as we all know, is king, there is a desperate need to show what makes one university’s offer more attractive than the next.

What specialist, industry-standard equipment is available? Which social spaces re-energize their students most effectively? What’s accessibility like? Which areas genuinely inspire knowledge exchange? How will graduates be best prepared for that all-important transition into work? All these points will influence ‘customer’ choice as students embark on their most formative journey. Enhancing spaces isn’t simply about throwing money and architectural nuance at buildings to make prospectuses more attractive. It’s about placing people at the centre of any ambition to facilitate collaborative, active and social learning.

Admittedly, such choices are not always made on such a rational basis. Ego and budget may call for shoebox-shaped behemoths, which look impressive as an architectural concept but don’t necessarily live up to heightened expectations. Appropriately refurbishing existing space will sometimes be a more than adequate solution to creating the desired student experience.

In the past, technological limitations have also influenced teaching space, but today’s wireless capabilities and experimentation in everything from natural lighting and room colours, through to space and temperature, have shown that even subtle design shifts can significantly improve learning. Rethinking environments doesn’t always have to be expensive, but keeping users front of mind is essential.

✥Here follow examples of what can be achieved in enhancing learning spaces:

University of Portsmouth

Earlier this year the University of Portsmouth launched a new initiative to test students on what they should know before starting lectures and seminars. ‘TEAL Studio One’ is described as a new kind of learning facility where students help each other. David Starkey, senior lecturer in operations and systems management, championed the idea in Portsmouth Business School. He explained: “TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) Studio One is a space where lecturers become coaches and students face each other in teams.”

Students are provided with lecture materials, videos, screencasts and pre-readings that define what they need to know before coming to class. They are also tested on each topic before it starts. Starkey continued: “Technologies provided to each table allow students to prepare presentations, reports and screencasts together on a large table screen, where they can edit the same document at once. Selected groups then present on larger class screens. There is no ‘back of the class’ to hide in. Every member of a group makes a contribution. “The time freed up by not delivering a lecture enables the students to work on more difficult problems and projects in class, where the lecturer is always available to answer questions.”

A well-designed learning environment increases student ingenuity, efficiency and wellbeing. At the same time, if spaces and technology become overly complex they are likely to inhibit learning.

The University of Buckingham

An excellent example of such transformation in action can be seen at The University of Buckingham, where rethinking the design of a lobby space at the Business School’s Anthony De Rothschild Building has dramatically changed how students benefit from the space. Dean of The Business School, Jane Tapsell, commented: “Putting two glass rooms into the lobby of the Business School has allowed students to work in groups or study on their own. We also hold some tutorials and classes there. Having glass walls doesn’t change the feel of the lobby, which is still open and spacious. “Prior to the glass-walled rooms being built the lobby wasn’t used nearly as much. The whole area is now always busy. It has become very popular and has a real buzz. It also didn’t cost a fortune to do, but maximises the use of the area.

“This has been so successful that we may replicate the idea in other parts of the University. Instead of just being somewhere to shake your wet umbrella the lobby is now a vibrant and integral part of the Business School and a great place for people to meet and work.”

Debates around student-centred approaches to learning and teaching often focus on curriculum design. However, when learning environments become part of the discussion many argue that more consideration needs to be given to the impact of spaces, rather than areas offered by bricks and mortar.

Regent’s University London

This philosophy has received close attention at Regent’s University London where the University’s Marylebone campus, home to the School of Fashion & Design, is witnessing the redevelopment of a former 19th-century church into high-specification design studios and teaching space. The site will also include a fully refurbished 120-seat theatre. The University’s School of Fashion & Design has produced its own shows for the past 20 years, hosting representatives from brands such as Topshop, Warehouse, Dorothy Perkins, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.

The theatre’s architecture incorporates proscenium [picture frame] arches and a stage designed to maximise space and offer a flexible choice of performance in a theatre-in-the-round arena. David Hanson, Head of Regent’s School of Drama, Film and Media, noted: “The Marylebone Theatre will join a niche group of London theatres able to showcase new and established works to the public. “The new venue will stage the best of modern, traditional and international theatre productions, alongside the work of professional touring companies.”

One of Regent’s most successful partnerships is with The Kevin Spacey Foundation (KSF), which delivers initiatives to discover, train and mentor emerging artists through free university places, funding and creative learning initiatives. This offers substantial scholarships to Regent’s acting, screenwriting and producing students and each spring applicants are auditioned or interviewed for one of nine places shared between Regent’s BA Acting and Global Theatre, and BA Screenwriting and Producing degrees. As a key part of this process Kevin Spacey personally commits time to enhancing the learning experience for Regent’s students by leading master-classes at the University during the year.

Discussing his support for this process and the Marylebone Theatre development, Executive Director of The Kevin Spacey Foundation, Steve Winter, said: “Kevin and I believe the scholarships are life-changing for recipients and ensure they get the chance to discover their creativity and experience a higher education that might not otherwise be available to them. The newly refurbished Marylebone Theatre will undoubtedly prove a welcome extension of this process and we look forward to seeing students continue to develop as emerging artists ready for a professional career.” 

University of Bedfordshire

Learning spaces convey a university’s philosophy to teaching and learning. Active, collaborative approaches are often indicated by designs which are noticeably different, a point not lost on the University of Bedfordshire in the development of its new £46m art library at its Luton campus. The construction project is gigantic. Beginning in January 2014 and due for completion at the beginning of the 2015–16 academic year, the plans build on a previous £350,000 investment in the University’s current library and Learning Resources Centre.

The new building will house the University’s library and learning resources centre across seven storeys and almost 7,500 square metres of floor space. The space will further feature a 30% increase in book stocks and study spaces along with a cafeteria. There is growing demand for this type of learning mega-structure and the library design brief was planned closely with the students’ union. It will encompass not only additional space for books and study, but also deliver a ‘warm and friendly atmosphere intended to develop a sense of community.’

Vice-Chancellor Bill Rammell added: “We believe this redevelopment is crucial to the continued success of the University, ensuring students have the best value university experience in facilities which inspires them to reach their full potential.”

Birmingham City University

When it comes to investing in and developing the student experience on a grand scale, few do it better than Birmingham City University. Officially opened in July last year, the institution’s £62m city-centre campus – The Parkside Building – was designed to become a national centre of excellence for the creative arts and media sectors. This site represents the first phase in a £180m investment in BCU’s estate to deliver on a strategy of realising the very best student experience. Creative disciplines at the new campus include architecture, 3D design, fashion and textiles, visual communication, animation, photography, film and media production.

Visitors are greeted by a five-storey atrium, featuring active exhibition space and open staircases leading to five television studios and shared ‘collision spaces’ to encourage dialogue and ideas-sharing. The facility provides a unique mix of manual and digital services, allowing students to explore the history behind artistic processes while learning how to use the latest technology and techniques. Textile workspaces are packed with digital sewing machines alongside ancient looms, digital printers and manual screen-printing racks, and alumni artwork adorns the walls to inspire the next generation of graduates.

The University’s adjacent multi-million pound Curzon Building is currently under construction and due to open by summer 2015. Housing Birmingham City Business School, and the Schools of English, Law and Social Sciences, the construction process has enabled 140 students to gain practical experience of construction and architecture.

Professor Cliff Allan, Birmingham City University Vice-Chancellor, said: ‘The Curzon Building will offer our students a unique social learning space, including a dedicated student hub, which will incorporate all student support services. It will allow us to capitalise on existing connections with business, supporting our focus on professional and practice-based courses, while attracting and retaining highly skilled graduates in the region.”

Clearly there are a number of considerations which can impact space design, but by maintaining a balance and keeping learning as the primary objective, even the smallest changes can positively contribute to the student experience. The variety of work across all of these projects shows that there is no single or simple formula to successfully develop learning spaces. Not every institution will have the resources to massively reinvent its environments. As much as anything, moving from the classroom to learning spaces is a conceptual shift. Putting learning first calls for continued creativity, innovation and experimentation.

Mark Ferguson is owner of More Fire PR – delivering effective communication solutions for the higher education sector. Find out more at www.morefirepr.co.uk/services 

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