Learning environments

When most investigation and communication is mediated through screens do we still need specialised spaces for learning? Or is contact and collaboration the key to successful education and research? What do work places and learning places have in common?

Learning Environments: Future-Proofing our Education Spaces, a one day event organised by the team behind Workplace Trends, explored these and many other issues last week at the new campus of Central St Martins in the Granary complex at Kings Cross.

The rather conventional lecture theatre was packed to capacity (well over 100 people attended), with architects and designers strongly represented alongside estates and facilities people from more than 30 universities and colleges.

The theme that speakers returned to again and again was the response of those commissioning and running buildings to what was called the ‘new pedagogy’.  Steve Howe, director of estates for the University of the Arts (which comprises six colleges including Central Saint Martins) described the new Learning Zone, located alongside a more traditional library, as providing for “social learning and activity-based work within an ambience that facilitates collaboration and creation”.

Central St Martins is interesting because as well as access to online resources and print material students need layout space and equipment for photography and model making. The space has to cater for concentrated, individual work alongside collaboration. The students seem to like it: “There’s space and quiet. Feels like home but with equipment. You can feed off others’ creativity and work ethic. Good for group work.”

Key to the success of such spaces appears to be a fairly relaxed management regime. The idea is to encourage a culture of student ownership, to create a facility that is “welcoming and informal in character, with few rules in place.” Mark Kelly of architects Hassell talked of “self-organising” and “user-managed” spaces.

See the article by Rachel Shaw on social learning in Learning Spaces e-journal issue 2.1

According to Kelly, the shift from a “conceptual age” to a “sharing age” coupled with mobile technology and ubiquitous networks is leading to a merging of space types  -the workplace, collaboration hubs, learning environments.

Universities are subject to the same pressures to use space efficiently as other organisations, perhaps more so. Howe said that the utilisation of traditional lecture spaces (such as the room we were sitting in) is not great. The college is looking at other spaces which can be used for both student activities and teaching.

Lecture theatre

Image courtesy of Jamtree

This point was picked up later by Wendy Sammels of Jamtree who said that new types of lecture theatre allow more collaboration between students and with lecturers (see image above). Such spaces are increasingly being used outside formally programmed sessions, increasing utilisation.

Eleanor Magennis from the University of Strathclyde shared her research into effective learning spaces. One particularly interesting development has been the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (Scale-Up – the acronym has changed over time) initiative from Dr Robert Beichner,  a physics professor at North Carolina State University.

He has changed how students study STEM subjects  at more than 100 institutions. The Scale-Up approach uses digital technology combined with innovative teaching centred on hands-on activities and roundtable discussions. There’s a good video at http://scaleup.ncsu.edu/

If we truly are in a sharing age then learning will be an essential part of all activity and spaces will need to facilitate it. Commercial and other organisations can learn a lot from what is happening in education right now.