Space to live and learn

Keri Beckingham explores how universities are improving the student experience by utilising developments in design & architecture

With universities now actively competing against each other to attract their next cohort of students, the pressure is firmly on to make the student experience better than ever. One way to make sure they stand out from the crowd is to utilise developments within teaching spaces and student accommodation, something which a number of institutions such as Solent University and University of Derby are already doing – but how is design influencing the way that students now live and study during their time at university, and how can universities adapt their offering to ensure it meets the high expectations of today’s undergraduates?

The evolution of teaching spaces

When it comes to utilising the teaching spaces that universities have available, flexibility and planning is key. Andy Duck is Marketing and Communications Manager at Bruynzeel Storage Systems, manufacturers of specialist storage systems for academic libraries. They have worked with a number of UK universities and he says: “We have seen many universities encouraging students to work more collaboratively, and a way to do this is to utilise library space. Increased digitisation has created new learning opportunities, and students are now able to learn in a semi informal way – however, in order for this to happen, universities need to conduct specific space planning, which can add pressure.” 

Commenting further, Andy also believes there is a shift towards institutions working more closely with students to develop teaching spaces. He says: “Universities have now become interested in including the student body when it comes to decision making for the development of their teaching spaces. For example, when Greenwich developed their library with architects Heneghan Peng in 2014, they ran a consultation group with representatives from the student body, as well as library staff. We were asked to supply samples which were used in the old library, to assess against student response and see which worked best before they were installed.   

“Although it is not unheard of in the commercial world to work in this way, it is relatively new for us to be asked to do this in the HE space. Greenwich were extremely focused on providing a learning space that was flexible and usable by people who would be using it most.” 

A key focus for universities today is to ensure that students are prepared for life after graduation, and so teaching spaces have adapted in order to provide a more business-like environment that reflects the workplace. Peter Smith is Director at Innova Design Solutions, providers of interior design for education facilities and he goes on to say: “With a shortage of skills, it’s more important than ever to ensure that students are ready for the workplace. 

“As workplaces have become more open plan, university teaching spaces have also become more fluid. Universities are now incorporating ‘zoned off’ areas for informal meetings, quiet individual work and collaborative breakout sessions which put students and staff in a more professional frame of mind.” 

The death of the lecture theatre?

With teaching spaces now being used in a more dynamic way, does this mean that universities will start relying on lecture theatres less as a learning environment? Fiona Edwards is Commercial Director at JPA Furniture, and has lots of experience of working with education providers. Commenting, she says it’s clear that the lecture theatre as we know it needs to adapt: “Lecture theatres still have their place as one of a variety of learning venues but the big question is how to maximise these spaces and the learning experience?  

“We need to forget traditional lecture theatres in rows and focus instead on other possibilities including flexible reconfigurable furniture that allows students and teachers to move around more freely, actively encouraging collaboration and flexibility.”

Matt Tarling, Director at Stride Treglown Architecture, also believes that the role of the lecturer to stand and present information is still important, but learning should take on a more interactive approach. He says: “In our experience of working with more than 20 universities, there is still a demand for large lecture theatres. Undergraduate courses still need to impart significant quantities of information to large groups of students; however, we have definitely seen a change in the numbers of the large lecture theatres required with a far greater emphasis on more group working and collaborative theatres that are more engaging.”

Commenting further, Matt also believes that HE environments need to cater for multiple teaching and learning styles. 

He says: “Different courses place different demands on the lecturer and the students. The more collaborative group working spaces that are provided, the more that are required, and we have seen a similar situation with break-out spaces, cafes and social learning facilities being in high demand as soon as they are opened.”

The future of student accommodation

When it comes to living accommodation, Fiona Edwards has definitely seen universities shift their focus towards their students’ overall wellbeing, in order to enable them to study and socialise in comfortable, vibrant spaces. She says: “With high demand and fierce competition from providers, student accommodation is benefiting from significant investment and better quality, longer-lasting and more stylish contract furnishings, which are also designed to create a sense of worth.  

“Studio apartments and bedrooms are being furnished in plain ‘unisex’ colours to allow students to personalise them more easily, making them feel more homely, and an increased emphasis on wellbeing is evident.”

Peter Smith believes that the student housing market has definitely evolved over the years, and that compact halls of residence, dingy kitchens and shared bathrooms seem like a distant memory as today’s students expect more from their accommodation. He says: “We have seen a rise in the amount of luxury student living being offered by institutions with flat screens, seamless Corian work surfaces, designer furnishings and even bespoke apps designed to monitor laundry. 

“However, it is the communal areas which can really define luxury student accommodation. Developers are enticing students with facilities such as gyms, movie rooms, libraries and lounges complete with home cinemas and stimulated video fires.” 

Solent University

Roger Emery, Head of Learning Technologies at Solent University talks about their new £30m teaching and learning building, which was opened in September 2016:

“Where once there were just classrooms and lecture theatres with rows of seats, the University now has the fantastic Spark building with a stunning 60-metre central atrium with a dramatic elevated pod. There are a variety of casual meeting spaces, some enclosed, some open, with flexible furniture to suit every students working need. Spread over five stories, the building boasts 40 teaching spaces – 35 classrooms and five lecture rooms – providing a combined teaching capacity of 1,500 at any one time.

“Designed with equality of access in mind, The Spark has height-adjustable tables in each classroom and a range of seating and table options. This, combined with lecture capture, which allows student to playback recording at their own space, provides for a full range of learning requirements.

 “We are looking to break learners out of a traditional ‘receiver of knowledge’ mentality and get them engaged through active questioning and thinking, it’s the only teaching building in the sector with such a large proportion of ‘agile’ furniture – designed to promote creativity, independent thinking, and individual ways of learning. All the tables and chairs are on wheels and can easily be reconfigured for group work and other collaborative learning, or pushed away completely to the side to provide a large, open-floor space.”

University of Derby

Mark Travers, Operations Director DSRL and Head of Commercial Services at University of Derby talks about how they have developed the accommodation that is offered to students: “Our main focus for the halls environment is to create a living space, but we also do our best to create collaborative learning and socialising spaces too. 

“Over the past six years there has been more demand for improved IT infrastructure, with students bringing 3–4 devices each, therefore we have had to work with our IT supplier to increase the Wi-Fi capacity and speed to enable students to continue to learn at their convenience.  

“There has also been an increase in demand for larger kitchens with social integrated spaces as opposed to common rooms, for collaborative learning. We have incorporated work benches, chalk boards and soft furnishings to try to make the environment a more relaxed, collaborative learning space. 

“We will be refurbishing all halls of residence in the coming years. In the meantime, we are holding focus groups with students to find out what they’d like in order to inform our decisions.” 

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