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HEA Flexible Learning Symposium – 22nd of March ’18

29 June 2018 Posted in: Articles By: Richard Chantler

 The topic of learning spaces is under researched, with the study of learning spaces not historically attracting a great deal of attention from scholars or researchers and consideration of space in HE most often takes place in the context of planning and architecture. There is now increasing interest in the importance of space and the subject is being acknowledged more, both by Professional Services and academics. Student interest in learning spaces tends to surface when there are significant perceived problems. The Flexible Learning Symposium run by the HEA looked at the theory and implementation of changing venues’ layouts in order to encourage learning and engagement.

At this symposium, there were also discussions on the sense of portraying, promoting and distinguishing campuses and the learning spaces within them in order to attach student and staff emotion and a sense of belonging – creating a ‘sticky campus.’ It is argued that building this sense of belonging encourages learning, a sense of community and helps attainment.

The requirement to study the subject of space has also led to research into how the needs of students has changed recently, with ‘Generation Y’ learners (millennials) expecting and behaving differently to ‘Generation X’ students.

Generation Y qualities and needs:                 

  • Aspirational and career focused
  • Low boredom threshold and results oriented
  • Financially and technologically savvy
  • Prefer instant use of technology in the classroom
  • Want multiple learning styles
  • Respond well to learning from those in the field (professionals)
  • Need convenience in learning and expect short bursts of traditional learning
  • Require mixed learning and social learning is critical
  • Google scholar is preferred research source

With learning spaces being such a premium in HE institutions, there is a requirement for them to be multipurpose. Research has shown that creating effective transactional spaces and flexible spaces is also beneficial to staff (and the University), allowing serendipitous meetings to take place.

Abertay University, the University of South Wales and Brunel University, amongst others, which created flexible learning spaces for teaching and self-directed learning, identified consultation with Estates and Facilities as essential – despite the multiple meetings often covering a broad range of topics and involvement from AD staff only being required for small elements. Discussions ranged from the lighting, AV equipment and colour scheme to furniture shape, size and potential classroom layouts, but were often small segments of large meetings which detailed everything in regards to the build project – such as construction, drainage, contractor use, etc.

The majority of universities who chose to adopt flexible learning spaces opted for plectrum tables to allow rooms to be used creatively, with some choosing chairs with coasters. (Pictured below): 

It was noted that sufficient (often extra) resource from Estates and Facilities is required to support the greater demands for porterage in order to facilitate the setting up and resetting of furniture. The institutions which implemented flexible learning spaces reported room capacities either being reduced or remaining the same, depending on which layouts were adopted, however feedback thus far has justified the changes and further rooms have been identified to become flexible spaces.

One ethnographic study, carried out by the University of South Wales, was particularly interesting – looking at the movement of staff and students in a classroom, which had been furnished with movable tables and chairs with coasters, throughout the course of an academic year. It was noted that the academics initially presented in the fashion that they were used to and did not change the furniture layout, however over time they roamed to a greater extent, allowed the tables and chairs to be moved around and were able to interact with the lesser engaged students more. The students’ behaviour in the classrooms changed also, with them moving around to have discussions about what was being presented and moving the tables should there be activities which required working on in groups. 

The universities which made changes to larger-sized flat venues did so using tiered furniture to ensure that sight lines were maintained with students (such as the University of Kent).

Feedback received from the students has been extremely positive, with 45% stating that ‘teaching in the new classrooms was more engaging/interactive’ and 33% stating that it was ‘sometimes.’ Of the academics who taught in these spaces, 50% said that they now ‘thought about running sessions in a different way, engaging in more interactive approaches.’

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