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The shape of things to come

Philip Watson | 28 Oct 2014 | Comments

We expect a lot from our education estates. They must be flexible, sustainable and efficient; they must play their part in meeting targets and delivering strategies; they must communicate an institutions’ values and ethos; they must inspire.

When looking at the challenges faced by universities across the UK, the impact of carbon reduction commitments and funding constraints is well documented. But what about the impact of a changing learning landscape? How is digital learning and new technology shaping the physical environment?

There’s no doubt that providing the right types of spaces to enable new ways of learning is becoming the biggest challenge facing estates directors, designers and educators alike.

In terms of course delivery, the balance is clearly shifting towards more student-centred courses supported by online resources. Last year, The Open University saw a 10% rise in student numbers, while the growing demand for massive open online courses (MOOCs) resulted in a 300% increase in supply, including courses offered by Russell Group institutions such as Kings College and Edinburgh University.

In addition, the use of virtual learning environments and social media is becoming common-place within traditional university courses. Lecturers are exploring new ways of delivering their courses, recognizing the need to keep apace with students who demand and respond to innovation.

‘Flipped lectures’ are an example of how this is manifesting; where content – often in video form – is reviewed beforehand and the ‘lecture’ itself becomes an opportunity to debate the issues, maximising interaction between students and tutors. This approach has been driven as much by the demands of the learner as advancements in pedagogic styles.

We hear a lot about the ‘student experience’, with Universities desperately trying to improve their rankings in how students view their facilities, with the ever present goal of increased income from student fees. A new Leesman survey of Higher Education environments showed that almost half of students are dissatisfied with the types of spaces provided for study on their existing University campuses. In particular, the availability of different types of study spaces was rated poorly in terms of effectiveness to support their education.

The effectiveness of communal areas and social learning spaces were also scored low whereas the majority of those surveyed felt that the resources provided were effective. This suggests that access to learning material, digital or otherwise is not enough on its own. The types of spaces provided for learning also play a significant part in student satisfaction. Technology on its own is not the solution – providing a big open plan space with wifi will not address student needs or enhance the learning experience.

But what does all this mean for the physical estate? Students increasingly want a choice of environments to satisfy their learning preferences. Often, this also means improving opportunities for their social interaction too – whether that’s in intimate settings or communal areas. We must not forget that the draw of university is often as much about wanting to be part of the social life it affords as the education it can provide. What we are witnessing is the death of the traditionally used campus: one where people move between individual spaces that are defined only for specific activities; a lecture theatre, a cafeteria and individual study rooms, often with students spending a very small percentage of their time within the campus.

The future campus needs to be a more ‘blended’ estate where spaces afford more than a single function. We need spaces for learning and socialising; furniture which supports different teaching configurations; we need variety and flexibility.

Delivered effectively, this approach can give a reduced overall estate, improving utilisation and giving more useable area per student. Crucially it can also improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning and greatly enhance the student experience.

Accurately predicting the long-term future of learning – or indeed the evolution of technology – is nigh-on impossible. What we do know, however, is that students are more discerning about their education and that digital resources will continue to shape curricula.

I’ve no doubt that we will see a move towards consolidated campuses that are more efficient in their use of space, energy and, ultimately, resources. If we collectively keep our eye on this goal then the demands for future learning are much more likely to be met.