Friday, 15 March 2013

Learning spaces and student experience

Coffee Shop Learning Spaces. (c) Goodmami
Used under CC BY-SA 2.0   



Librarians, university and college estates professionals, academic staff and architects gathered at the National Assembly Senedd Building on Monday 11 March in order to discuss creating effective learning spaces. The discussion was varied, interesting and thought-provoking and benefited from the multi-professional delegate and speaker list. Flexibility, adaptability, agility, “factoring in” the basics (lighting, temperature, colour, sound etc), as well incorporating spaces for social and informal learning were key themes.


The University of Newport Learning Spaces Pedagogic Research Group hosted this one-day conference drawing a wide range of colleagues mainly from architectural practice,  the university and college sector. The university is actively investigating learning space design and utilization  included work undertaken by Martin Edwards on the Newport Campus Learning Centre previously reported by CILIP in Wales . SIP Funding is helping to extend the work being undertaken in Newport.

Richard Mazuch (IBI Nightingale) took us back to basics with sense sensitive design. The basics of light levels, colour, vistas, sound, touch, temperature and atmosphere -  all have proven impacts on learning through physiological, psychological, emotional and physical means.  Using research based on school and health care settings (but with much wider relevance) we know, for instance:
·         that good levels of natural lighting in school classrooms can increase productivity by 18-20%
·         build-up of CO2 in classrooms lacking ventilation negatively impacts learning and attentiveness
·         dimming lighting in intensive care wards results in staff moving around more quietly and noise levels being reduced significantly to the benefit of patient outcomes

Richard demonstrated that it is possible to design these factors into new builds and many refurbishments. However, there are  simple things that can be done to effectively and cheaply enhance the learning environment.

  • Poor natural light levels? Invest in natural light bulbs which are now widely available and relatively inexpensive. 
  • Introduce appropriate colour, either through paint, or through colour projecting devices. The latter could be used to subtly change the environment throughout the day. Investigate colour psychology to find out more! 
  • Olfactory planning - often forgotten! We can improve the smell profile of our spaces. Citrus oils will enliven the environment and increase productivity. 
  • Sound – extensively used in retail, but not often considered in libraries. Should we be benefitting from the Mozart effect? Do we reap benefits from adjacent bird song or the gentle noise of the wind in trees?

Throughout Richard’s presentation we were entertained with phrases such as “articulate the environment” and “choreograph temperature and colour”. These are great reminders that we can add much to our learning spaces through pro-actively controlling and managing the sensory aspects of our environments. In doing so we will reap significant rewards and benefits.

From my time as an FE and HE librarian from the 1990s, I am fully familiar with the mantras of flexible design, zoning and purpose-relevant design for creating effective learning spaces. These seem to be as relevant today as they were then.
In case studies from Bournemouth (Glenn Turner, IBI Nightingale), Birmingham (Toni Kelly) and Newport Universities (Martin Edwards , Stephen Godber and Molly Owens) we received wisdom hard-earned from practical experience. From my time as an FE and HE librarian from the 1990s, I am fully familiar with the mantras of flexible design, zoning and purpose-relevant design for creating effective learning spaces. These seem to be as relevant today as they were then. 

Equip spaces with movable furniture for flexibility and agility;  provide spaces for group working, silent study, and working with technology. However, where this has moved on is through the increasing preference of a “cafe culture” for learning, and the technological freedoms enabled through WiFi. Students now appear to prefer to work in coffee shop type environments - areas providing a variety of seating and table types, lighting levels, sound and activity levels. With WiFi and highly portable devices we see a “Martini Culture” – anytime, anyplace, anywhere.  Our spaces should accommodate these changes in preference, but also continue to provide a variety of learning environments. Learners are not all the same. Indeed, at different times the same learner may wish to use the spectrum of available learning spaces.

With WiFi and highly portable devices we see a “Martini Culture” – anytime, anyplace, anywhere.  Our spaces should accommodate these changes in preference, but also continue to provide a variety of learning environments.
Bournemouth discovered that there is no single model for social learning space. What works well for undergraduates may be less appropriate for postgraduates. Similarly, what works in one space might not work in another. If the coffee shop model doesn’t work, might the business lounge model be more appropriate?  Do we forget to adequately design the small social learning spaces, like those found in lobby areas for lecture theatres, corridors or otherwise under-utilized shared spaces? Does uncertainty and poor client-briefing to architects lead to expensive over-design of spaces? For instance will large spaces ever need to be split with expensive movable partition walls. Will staffing and time ever be available to reconfigure such partitioned spaces?

At Birmingham it was felt that students embraced  independent and active learning, and that faculty were changing their programmes to reflect and boost these changes. However, learning spaces need to change too! Toni discussed establishing pilot active learning classrooms, usually focusing on spaces that had been historically under-utilised, or were clearly no longer fit for purpose. A lecture theatre once refurbished could still accommodate high numbers of students, and could be used in a traditional lecture scenario. However, by incorporating some swivel seating the theatre style could readily be used to encourage group discussion, and thus a more active classroom. We were also reminded to delve a little more deeply into the reality of room utilization statistics, and to supplement these with anecdotal or qualitative evidence. A 25-seat room might not be used because it is the wrong size, or set up in an inappropriate way. It might be under-used because it is too cold, has no natural lighting, poor ventilation, or is in a disfavoured area of campus.

Newport City Centre Campus.
The Newport City Centre Campus has provided a shiny new build, a beacon of a building, but has also placed the Learning Centre in a vast Atrium Space. Martin’s research engaged with students and identified areas for improvement including improved silent and group study spaces, IT provision and environmental factors. Do we really understand how patrons use our spaces and what their expectations of them are? Martin will extend this study by drawing on learning from public space design to see if further improvements can be made.  Stephen provided a fascinating perspective as an Estates Manager, balancing extensive backlogs in estate refurbishment, but also demonstrating very real awareness of student and faculty needs.
The perspective of an creative studies academic was provided by Molly, illustrating with striking examples of how uninspiring classroom spaces can disable creativity and productivity. By introducing a learning space with flexible furniture,  predominantly based around group seating and with the injection of colour, Molly has created a space that students and staff like to be in. Such configuration isn’t always appropriate and so Molly has embraced  the “outside classroom” – booking alternative facilities, organising talks from external experts, outside visits, and by using social media. In combination these changes to the learning environment  have reaped significant benefits for Molly and her students.

Dr Bela Arora, host for the day, provided a succinct and comprehensive summary. Bela closed by urging delegates to return to their institutions and initiate conversations hopefully leading to the creation of better learning spaces and therefore improved student experience. To do this organisations should encourage and respond to joined up, richer conversations, effectively utilizing and responding to different professional perspectives of policy, pedagogic practice / evidenced based practice, estates and design professionals.


This was an excellent, thought-provoking day. It was reassuring in that even small, relatively inexpensive changes, can  make significant differences. All delegates, I felt, could take away inspiration and quickly implement  them back in their settings. The day benefited from the mix of librarians, academics, architects and estates managers, and it was reassuring to note the huge sense of common purpose and shared experience within the room. By factoring in sense sensitive design, acknowledging changing learning styles favouring collaborative and social learning, providing spaces that foster creativity and contentment, and in taking into account technological developments, we can design, build or re-engineer spaces that will not only work for learners, but will benefit our staff, and serve as a draw for future students.

Ironically, the event itself suffered from a poor learning environment. But this goes to prove that learning does occur despite the environment! Delegates were crammed into the Senedd’s Media Suite, confronted by a flickering TV monitor, seated on unforgiving hard furniture, in a room that was constantly too cold. But our enthusiasm and attention were not defeated or dampened.

With sincere thanks to the speakers, Bela and her colleagues for an excellent event.


Since this event Dr Bela Arora has established the Innovative Learning Spaces group on LinkedIn. You may also care to follow Bela on Twitter @Bela_aror

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