Design trends in university learning environments

So, I’ve been back to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP)! I say back, because this was the venue for the sister event run by our friends at Workplace Trends last October on design trends in the corporate workplace (my post from that conference is here). This event (The Design & Management of Learning Environments – Integrated approaches for influencing value and change), by contrast, was about the design trends of learning environments in tertiary education.

The Royal College of Physicians is undoubtedly an inspiring venue with historical and architectural provenance. It has gravitas and identity and quality; it has natural light and biophilic splendour way ahead of its time. But it dawned on me, as the day unfolded, and we experienced so much brilliantly delivered, thought provoking content on the design of new kinds of learning environments with best practice exemplars from industry leading professionals, that we were experiencing it in the most traditional and unflexible auditorium you could imagine, with a sloped, fixed seated lecture theatre, binding us tightly to a pedagogical model whose demise was being predicted (and welcomed) by all the presenters. Deliciously ironic!

The research data – the key takeaways

Given that this conference was for and about Higher Education (HE) learning environments, it stands to reason that there was quite a bit of research data to be had, and to paraphrase the key take-aways from data shared in the excellent presentations from Gitte Andersen, SIGNAL Group; Lucy Plumridge, HLM Architects; Hannah Wilson, Liverpool John Moores University, and Lauren Bell, Herman Miller:

  • Expectations are higher, demand is higher, resources are more scarce.
  • 40-50% existing HE space is underutilised in terms of capacity in space and time.
  • Much existing HE space is mono use.
  • 25% improvement can be made just by changing habits, re-thinking and re-assigning space, without any major spend.
  • Students, management & academic staff share aspirations for adaptable, flexible, tech-enabled campuses that cater for diversity, active learning and collaboration, and a sense of community and belonging.
  • Data on grade achievement suggests active learning is more effective than didactic approaches to teaching.
  • Industry prioritises workplace readiness, a sense of ownership, and belonging as the key traits it looks for when hiring new graduates.
  • The World Economic Forum has promoted creativity and critical thinking to rank alongside complex problem solving as the top three requisite skills for new graduates – ahead of, but closely followed by, people & collaborative skills.
  • Different student personality types favour different learning styles, which need taking into account in designing learning environments.

The two big topics of the day for me

All the data above is interesting, and worth pursuing, but four big topics came out of my trip for me.

  • first, if you were building something really big, what is the best way to do it – use experts for everything, or do you let the stakeholders be in the driving seat?
  • second, how do you involve stakeholders in the design process?
  • third, the use of active learning (which turned into a great experience for me). and
  • fourth, the current trends in the design of learning environments

Bring in the experts or DIY?

If you have the luxury (serious responsibility) of designing a campus from scratch such as the Imperial College White City project presented by Paul Eaton of Allies and Morrison then yes, you better start from a macro plan and think about infrastructure, transport, and all the logistical imperatives on a very long term basis (100 years+). You have to. You also have to get some significant buy-in because around 40%  of your budget will go on designing and building those infrastructure foundations in such a way as to future proof 3 or 4 iterations of subsequent  new build – refurb – rebuild – refurb – repeat, before anyone will be able to justify reinvesting in the infrastructure you laid down – that’s a massive outlay before any return on investment is even in sight, a massive responsibility and you better make sure you’ve done your homework!

That said, if the research is correct and 25% gains are up for grabs in quick-wins, then in most instances it is surely about bringing the opportunities to the attention of stakeholders, inviting them to take part, building consensus and trust and just getting on with it!?

This was so aptly demonstrated by the University of Brighton exemplar presented by Stan Stanier & Jim Wilson, proving they had so effectively shed themselves of the shackles of expertise and evidence-based data, instead trusting their stakeholders to guide, and in-house design expertise to implement. Fantastic. The University of Surrey exemplar presented by Wendy Sammels of Think Forward perhaps struck more of a middle ground with a more ambitious remit, a bigger budget a brand identity and more of an underpinning in pastoral culture, but nevertheless it similarly bucked what seems a trait in the sector – that its hard to get decisions made and, once made, make things happen. Data gatherers and their data are really important, but perhaps sometimes its worth looking to existing data for guidance and validation rather than having to gather your own, and endure the inevitable costs (delay and £) of doing so?

How do you engage stakeholders in the design process?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Several of those presenting data and other insights reinforced one of the key messages of the day, which is the importance of involving stakeholders in the design process. This is essential if your project is going to surface and address the complex underlying needs, and not be a buildings project for building sake. The fact you apparently need to offer students inducements to complete questionnaires is possibly more symptomatic of the over-use of this limited approach to engagement, but may also emphasise the reality that, whilst students are the major stakeholder, an individual student has a very short term interaction with the institution relative to the lifespan of a building configuration, let alone the institution itself. Eliciting input from stakeholders about what they dislike about the present environment, and what they would like to see in a new environment is a big step, but is that all we mean by engagement in the design process? The session by Fiona Duggan, FiD, was really fresh and informative in shedding light on stakeholder engagement interviews and workshops, but for all the emphasis on the need to involve stakeholders in the design process, I suppose I was left wanting to leave with new insights into how that’s being done. There was a glimpse of such a workshop in the session by Allies and Morrison on their work on the Imperial College White City campus, but only a glimpse.

Active learning: a fringe workshop, but a big future?

The day before the conference I attended the fringe workshop at Herman Millers innovation centre in Aldwych, run by the City University of London team of James Rutherford and Dom Pates, entitled ‘Designing Learning Environments To Encourage Collaboration’. This session couldn’t have been more different to the conference in terms of style – a couple of summary slides wrapped up an otherwise fully participatory workshop where the small group of 12 participants were challenged to explore and define the purpose of a piece of furniture and then work in small groups to design an ideal table for a learning environment, cross present and review – this summary doesn’t do it justice of course, which is the beauty and value of ‘active learning’: Part of the beauty, and most of the benefit, isn’t delivered by a lecturer, it is co-created by the participants. It’s an ecology of learning. You just had to have been there!  Of course, not all academics have the inclination or skills with which to engage their students in more open-ended learning episodes; 50 minute slot timetables aren’t really conducive, and neither are the traditional learning environments – the solution at this conference was to run it at a different venue on a different day – problem solved! Not a solution for most HE institutions though. The tertiary sector is out of sync with primary and secondary educational pedagogy, and out of touch in preparing graduates for the world of work. It needs to catch up fast.

So, what are the trends in learning environment design?

Lauren Bell of Herman Miller presented some specific trends:

  • From large conference rooms to more varied groupwork spaces.
  • From assigned seating to shared work points.
  • From privacy as a luxury to privacy on demand.
  • From required [A to B] circulation space to connective space.
  • From distant breakrooms to central plazas.

The trend then is clearly towards attractive, adaptable spaces that support active learning, foster collaboration and create a sense of ownership and belonging. This means a trend away from sloped, fixed-seating lecture theatres and libraries rammed full of books as the predominant model of knowledge delivery. This trend presents a massive challenge to institutions in terms of real-estate, budget, management strategy, timetabling, pedagogical style and institutional culture.

Of course, you’d still want places designed for their purpose, like the Royal College of Physicians. You’d still want a classic lecture theatre with brilliant acoustics and the highest tech, you just maybe need a better mix of versatile spaces equipped for different kinds of teaching and learning. As Ian Stickland of Charcoalblue cautions, beware the sofa-bed – a solution with the best intentions, but a comprise all round. We don’t want spaces that serve multiple purposes badly, and no purposes well.

As Fiona Duggan says, “nobody knows as much as everyone”, so the only way to solve these problems is to engage and collaborate.

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