Opinion

Learning spaces of tomorrow

February 9, 2012

As universities look to better prepare students for ‘the real world’, should the design of education facilities be learning lessons from workplace design? Woods Bagot Principal Sarah Ball reports on some of the practice’s latest research into education design of the future.

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Are we ready for the real world?

Discussions whirling through industry peers are that the educational spaces of yesterday and today aren’t adequately preparing graduates for the expectations and demands of ‘the real world’.

The physical environment plays an important role in determining the reputation of an educational institution, and the success of the inhabitants that occupy its spaces – the teachers and the students.

Future trends in teaching and learning indicate that student collaboration will continue to thrive and grow, supported by increasingly complex educational technologies and the use of social media. The ‘known’ format of today’s lectures is set to drastically transform and edge towards a format of greater interactivity between students.

So what does this mean spatially? Woods Bagot recently launched ‘Issues For a New Future’ – a commentary on the current issues facing business schools in the 21st century and beyond. Within this series of papers, we touch on this shift in teaching patterns and table some ideas of exactly what it might mean spatially.

Enter ideas of communities and villages. We believe that diverse environments – from cafés to learning spaces, media hubs and private nooks – all contribute to the idea of a campus village. In the same way that a village is simultaneously fragmented (through separate facilities and services) and united (through a sense of community and public space), the business school ‘village’ can be designed to similarly fragment and unite.

By creating a varying terrain of spaces from large to small, noisy to quiet, public to private, and collaborative to individual, the village concept has the capacity to instil a strong campus-based learning experience.

So why does the creation of communities on campus prepare students for the real world? In many ways this approach emulates the business workplace: a series of terrains, presenting alternative work environments according to the activities being undertaken and with whom.

In brief, the future direction of learning on university campuses is similar in many respects to the strategy behind future workplace environments. Learning is moving away from a focus on the teacher to direct more attention to the student. Hence, more emphasis is placed upon students developing generic skills such as working in teams, project management, and problem solving – an attempt to prepare graduates to hit the ground running in the real world. We are also witnessing this trend in our academic spaces for tomorrow: this change in the future direction of learning is quite obviously affecting the academic environment. This theory has been put into practice in Woods Bagot’s design for Deakin University’s new Burwood Highway Frontage Building.

Woods Bagot, Deakin Uni Burwood Highway Frontage Building

Set to be a world-class educational facility, what’s unique about this project is that the spaces are more akin to today’s workplace environments than your traditional academic office spaces. Inside the building, new generation academic workspaces feature strongly. A combination of office and more open-plan work spaces alongside informal and formal meeting spaces enables increased interaction and collaboration. The design provides task, social and rest spaces to promote collegiality and seeks to connect departments, students and the faculty by fostering a sense of community among every individual that uses the building.

Sarah Ball is a Principal of Woods Bagot and is one of the company’s leading education specialists in architecture, interiors and masterplanning, with extensive experience in both Australia and overseas. Recently, Sarah has been instrumental in the design of leading educational projects such as Deakin University Building I in Melbourne – a project shortlisted for the prestigious World Architecture Festival Awards in 2011.

  • Anna February 10th, 2012 10:14 am

    It would be great if this approach was used more widely in architecture schools. The old studio model, where every student had a desk at uni, is much more like what it is like when you actually get out into an office, rather than ridiculous hot-desking, or sitting at home alone in your bedroom going quietly insane.

    I think the physical structure of an office is one of the reasons I personally like working so much more than I liked uni.


  • Peter C. LIppman February 10th, 2012 2:28 pm

    Sarah: At first first glance, the concepts presented are appealing. This is the current practice of the university–creating a variety of places for the learner(s). Many of the university buildings created in the past few years have done this to support the diverse ways that people learn and provide a brand for their specific community/building. While I agree that we have provide differentiated space for all learners, there are a number of questions that should be raised. These include, but are not limited to:

    1) Is this approach working? If yes, what works? if not, why doesn’t it work? Let’s examine places where these concepts have been incorporated to understand where and when they work.

    2) Are you recommending a pattern language to be applied universally? if yes, how does this take into account the variety of communities that have evolved at the university that use different methodologies for acquiring knowledge? Will the varied disciplines need and require the same types of space? Or will they need different types of spaces?

    3) You have somewhat described a variety of informal spaces; however, research has shown the need for formal settings. Are these part of the the communities you are describing?

    4) I am always curious to what is the fascination that our industry has with the corporate setting, when planning learning environments. The culture of these places are rather distinct. The genesis for it might be in the belief that the corporate setting is next and maybe final step of the students’ evolution. Nevertheless, are these the kinds of places that truly foster innovation? In the corporate world, cooperative work means something different than what is intended to occur within the learning environment. The corporate world is really not about distributing knowledge. To create optimal learning environments, designers may need to examine different communities of practice where collaborative work is supported and where individuals are encouraged to create rather than react to the hierarchy of the office structure. Maybe we should be looking to the early learning centres for guidance as we create not only university building but also corporate environments.

    5) As a side note it would have been helpful to show a plan of what is being proposed rather than a rendering of the building to view how these ideas have been incorporated into the physical environment.


  • Sarah Ball February 22nd, 2012 9:19 am

    Hi Peter. Firstly, thank you for your questions and interest in this subject matter. Here in are my responses and hope these answer your questions raised.

    1) Our research and subsequent commentary on the design of business schools has been largely derived from our work in realising design solutions for a number of Business schools; intricately working through the briefing processes and design concepts with business school stakeholders.

    Yet because they have not yet all been built, some are so far untested. Business school stakeholders are encouraging this direction for a number of reasons, but you are right to question “will it work?” We are committed to educational post occupancy evaluation and will pursue this with our clients as a matter of priority. We agree that there is a need to “close the loop”. It is crucial that we follow up our assertions with evidence to demonstrate what does and doesn’t work.

    2) In chatting to my colleague Jo Dane we are of the opinion that University campuses as you suggest, can be very diverse – which thus makes them so interesting. As such we do not generally support a pattern language approach as we believe that every University and Faculty context is unique. We develop the brief and concepts in response to the site conditions and pedagogical imperatives, collaborating with clients to establish a unique response to their unique conditions. Maybe in time a pattern will emerge.

    3)The design of teaching and learning communities incorporates a variety of formal and informal spaces, with formal spaces being timetabled and informal spaces providing open access. The combination, adjacency, location and amenity of formal and informal spaces is frequently the topic of robust discussion, but our position is that students require choices of places for quiet or collaborative activities, and for access to increasingly varying types of technologies. We are challenging conventions of formal settings by presenting solutions for enabling a wider range of pedagogies than traditional formal classrooms generally enable.

    4)This is an interesting point. Are we trying to emulate the corporate environment in an attempt to better prepare students for working life? Maybe, but this is not the whole reason. Another reason is to generate learning spaces that deliberately do not conform to the institutional traditions of the teacher as the ‘expert’ who delivers knowledge to a cohort of passive students. By attempting to break this mould we intend for teachers and students to become more aware of their environment and how they can become partners in the learning process through increased activity. And increased student activity will hopefully lead to greater innovation, experimentation and learning initiatives. In the context of business schools we have naturally been influenced by contemporary ideas around business and work settings, such as Macquarie Bank’s Upper Shelley Street – but not in the cellular or structural sense.

    Academic work places have also been influenced by corporate work environments, which we would argue are places of knowledge distribution. However academic workplaces must be designed empathetically to academic work patterns. This is a burgeoning field of practice which is meeting a great deal of resistance on some levels, yet often being driven by university leaders. What we are hearing from many university leaders is support for ideas around encouraging greater collaboration, cooperation and interaction among academics, for is at odds with the convention of providing individual offices for all academics.

    5)I agree with your comment Peter and normally we would aim to include a plan, however there are still some approvals required and hence we were unable to publish the layout at this time.


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