Large learning spaces - planning Sir Robert McAlpine

10 June 2021      Russell Day, Education Sector Head

Post-Covid-19, the strategy and planning of universities will take on a new urgency for all HESPA members, as we adjust to the new realities of the post-pandemic world. This panel discussion, hosted by Sir Robert McAlpine’s Education Sector Head Russell Day, focused on this issue and proved to be a popular draw at April’s AUDE Annual Conference, aptly named ‘Coronacoaster’.

With six expert speakers, the session was one that may prove worthy of further research and collaboration, when it comes to innovating in new and old education spaces – watch this space! To read a summary of the topics discussed, visit the Sir Robert McAlpine website.

Here, Russell Day reflects on the presentation and posed some further thought-provoking questions.

Dr Jos Boys, Senior Lecturer in Environments for Learning, UCL, said the future will be hybrid lecture theatres where live and virtual users interact, so why will large learning spaces be needed at all?

Does the range of spaces on our campuses enable these interactions through physical and online delivery in equal measure?

It’s clear we’re moving towards HE ‘mediafication’, where lecturers are no longer the ‘sage on the stage’ but take on Ted Talk characteristics.

What might this mean to the future of our campus facilities and how we equip them?

Emma-Louise Hannigan, Associate/ Education Lead Ireland, HLM Architects, pointed out that large learning spaces haven’t changed in 1,500 years, and there’s little evidence that they’re good learning environments.

Could collaborative peer-to-peer learning environments be accommodated within digital platforms and/or could they be retro-fitted into repurposed or ‘upcycled’ spaces to encourage teacher student and peer-to-peer collaboration?

Lucy Plumridge, Associate Director, HLM Architects, said that the move to online resources though inevitable, is far from a reality. With over 50% of students reporting that lockdown has impacted their mental health, it’s clear that there is still a strong need for spaces that encourage social interaction, collaboration and discussion.

With established typologies such as double-tier, shallow rake lecture theatres are proving effective, and encouraging students to work and interact together, might we see a sharpened focus on these types of group learning spaces?

For Rupert Goddard, Partner, Sheppard Robson, remarked that while Covid-19 has accelerated online learning, the large learning space is far from ‘dead’: He cited the Frederick Douglass Centre at Newcastle University with its highly flexible lecture theatre and outdoor spaces, which encourages interaction. He also highlighted the danger of lecturers needing to enhance their online skills, as they will inevitably struggle connect with the ‘Tik Tok generation’.

How might spaces support and encourage the highest quality of online presentation and engagement?

Ian Taylor, Managing Partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, felt that transition spaces in any large learning space, such as the lobby, can be a very valuable interaction space with many uses. External spaces also have great potential. His memorable conclusion was: ‘Think out of the box and think outside’.

How might we make better use of transition spaces and external learning potential across our campuses?

Stafford Critchlow, Director, WilkinsonEyre, described how the flexibility and value of the large and agile areas between the learning spaces at Exeter Forum. We must also consider flexible lecture spaces with adaptable staging, as they allow us to explore ‘learning as performance’. 

Expanding on learning as a performance, and the ‘mediafication’ of education, how might the sector learn from TV and film production currently experiencing a boom in the UK?

As Jos Boys concluded, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to sweep away the inertia that has stymied change. It has created an online ‘connected’ environment and a real opportunity to reshape the future.

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