Learning spaces …interrupted

Just a few short weeks ago we were exploring ideas on how we would change some of our learning spaces into more versatile spaces that would allow more student led collaborations and still work well for didactic teaching methods.

We planned to visit two Universities in the southwest region, namely University of the West of England (UWE) and University of Gloucestershire as they both had undertaken projects on transforming their learning spaces too.

We wanted to gain insight into the pedagogical areas/ concerns that were key drivers in the project as well as what other changes they needed to make to maximise the use of the spaces, basically learn from their hindsight before we embarked on our own project.

We visited UWE first and had the chance of viewing spaces on two of their campuses, namely Glenside and Frenchay. Both had completely different feel in the spaces and quite rightly they were set up for different delivery approaches.

We started off at Glenside campus; which in a lot of respect is like our RAU campus, steeped in history and mishmash of old and new. The main building was a Bristol mental asylum back in 1844 and over the years it has been a war hospital and now an educational setting. The campus has health and applied sciences degrees only being taught there which is evident with the different types of simulation suites dotted around the campus.  

We were shown a few rooms and the ideas that led to the design or choice of furniture. The pictures below show their first ever learning space that they redesigned to be a more collaborative teaching space. It was novel at the time and the approach was not driven by pedagogy as such at the initial stage. They had a vendor and showed them the space and the design brief was open- “What can be done with the space that will maximise the floor space and not have tables and chairs in a row?”

Here are our very own Head of ITS Alun Dawes and Learning Technologist Chantal Schipper watching a presentation delivered by the health and applied science faculty Digital Learning Manager Tom Buckley.

Being the first space to be converted, adoption was mixed and took a bit of time. Training was provided to staff on how best to use the space and even a chart on how to use the rooms was used to spark ideas for the users when they booked the rooms beyond the initial training sessions. This is still in use today.

Frenchay was our next stop on the tour. It is the biggest campus and we saw spaces in three faculties: health and applied sciences, business and law and mathematics. We got Senior Learning Technologist Glenn Duckworth who drove the project for the business and law spaces to present how they started and how the learning spaces went through different iterations; each offering a learning curve that would feed into the next. The pictures below are the TEAL rooms (Technology Enhanced Active Learning).

These designs were driven by pedagogic needs around student led learning, enhanced learning through collaboration and flexibility of teaching. Lot of consultations were done with the academics in order to titrate these needs. The final output were these TEAL rooms that have 6-seat bays which have about 6 in a room with extra seating at the front. The set up uses Kramer to allow staff and students to wireless project their content to the class via the screens in the room. Power supply for student devices were integrated into the tables and are well sought after by the students.

The bay- layout allows for fluid sessions as the academic can move around and engage with groups easily. These are now well used, very popular and frequently booked for teaching by staff. Due to the uptake they are now looking to increase the number of TEAL rooms on the campus. Feedback from students is that they like the rooms because it means any research-based task can be done in the same space as there is power, connectivity and the available screens to share content with their peers easily for discussions.

We then looked at quiet study rooms which have similar design concept in the library that are used by students for small group work. They had room booking displays so users can clearly see when they can use the space.

The rooms in the Mathematics department had similar arrangement but simpler solution with regards to how the PCs, screens were set up in the bays. What was transformative was the informal learning space outside the classes that transports one’s mind to want to learn. The spaces were set in a cool, contemporary and informal design. Using booths, tables and benches with some breakout spaces that were set up for hydration and taking breaks. This meant students could be there and do some pre-session learning before their classes and even thereafter, as they had most of what they would need in one place. I didn’t get a clean shot because it was heavily used and lots of students were about.

We ended the day with our Catalyst project  presentation delivered by Chantal to the learning technology team at HAS.

Our next plans were to visit the University of Gloucestershire; we had everything coordinated; who to meet, which campus to visit and so on, then COVID19 hit the UK and all the lockdown measures were swiftly implemented.

We didn’t let this veer us off course. Our contacts at the university were so kind to host an online meeting to give us the insights of their project, how it all started and how it has transformed the spaces and usage across three campuses.

The meeting was chaired by the Strategic Academic Project Manager Dr Nic Earle. The key set of objectives for them were to provide spaces that would give opportunities for more enhanced learning, provide flexible technologies and decentralise the rooms. These were some of the images from that meeting.

From the images and discussions, we saw that each space had its unique set of design features that was suited for the space and how it would be used optimally. The changes are visibly dramatic as well as the change in how they are being used today.

What we took away from all this

Having this opportunity to see what has been done by other HEIs, showed we had a lot in common with regards to the design objectives

1.We all wanted to have learning spaces that would allow for fast transition from broadcast style set up into group discussion or student led work.

2. We all want flexible technologies that would allow for the academics to be able to push content around the rooms and be able to move fluidly to engage with the students on a deeper level

3.We wanted the learning to be deeper, active and engaging.

4.We all wanted spaces that would not hinder the learning process but rather encourage it in any way possible

What came out of this that we will consider, moving forward are

1.Power supply for student devices need to be integrated significantly in the rooms. This would allow the students ample time to commit to tasks and not be distracted by moving away to charge devices. Trunking around the room has been the most successful way of getting power into these rooms with minimal cost

2.Ventilation and lighting are critical to the ambience of the room and promote well being. Poor lighting could cause visual distress if there are reflections on projector screens or make the visual not clear if the lights are too bright. The advice we got was to use dimmers.

3.Flexible furniture are always sought after in consultation with staff but are seldom used in different configurations of the classrooms, using bays were preferred in the long run.

4.A lot of training for staff is required for the AV equipment and how they can use that in different teaching scenarios.

With the impact of COVID-19, no one is sure of how the learning environment and indeed the learning itself will be in the future.

So watch this space as we will continue on our learning spaces project  and pivot our direction of travel to whatever the future holds; we will see the end of COVID-19 and thank you to our University of the West of England and University of Gloucestershire contacts for all their input.

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