How does space planning enable better learning outcomes and economic gains?

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As well as a country’s outdoor architecture classrooms, break out spaces, residences and common areas all feed back into a student’s sense of a place and ultimately colour their study abroad experience.

A report last year by the OECD’s Learning Environments Evaluation Programme highlights the hidden power of space and the influence it has over school organisational structures and learning.

“The focus on the physical learning environment has emerged out of a concern as to whether the pedagogies, curriculum, assessment and organisational forms necessary to develop the capacities in students for the 21st century require different built environments and usage,” it says.

It goes on to say that even though schools now have culturally and academically diverse student and community populations, “school effectiveness and improvement studies often neglect context, rely on limited measures of outcomes and ignore the built learning environment”.

Focusing on the detail of physical learning spaces can benefit institutions three-fold by creating positive learning outcomes, long-term economic sustainability and a chance to stand out in the competitive international student recruitment market.

Image is everything

When the British government changed study visa regulations, essentially restricting enrolment opportunities for many education institutions, Stuart Rubenstein, director of Language in Group was one of hundreds of language schools struggling to recruit students from an ever-weakening flow.

“Every school says ‘we’re here to motivate our learners’, but I don’t think you can motivate them with frayed conference room chairs”

“When things started to get difficult around visa changes, we got together and said we can put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening or we could redefine ourselves,” he says. He hired a designer and set out to create decentralised, creative spaces that would stir students to go a step further.

“If you feel you’re in a typical classroom, you feel you have to have a classroom mentality rather than lift yourself one level higher to be inspired,” he comments. “Every school says ‘we’re here to motivate our learners’, but I don’t think you can motivate them with frayed conference room chairs and those tables that you can never really rest a book on.”

The project wasn’t cheap. Rubenstein says he spent around £15,000 on each classroom redesign. With three schools, each with around eight classrooms, the cost was considerable. But since opening the London campus last year the surge in enrolments means his investment is starting to pay off.

“We could have gone out and ordered typical classroom chairs whereas our chairs probably cost double. The way we looked at it was the first £80 is getting a chair, the second £80 is a marketing expense,” he says.

Classrooms at Language in Group also have screens which students link with through iPads, one wall covered white board paint and the two remaining walls in “the kind of wallpaper that is in expensive hotels and restaurants”.

Language in Group has been teaching English for six years and has an established pedagogical method but with the new image, Rubenstein says it has finally found a “winning formula”.

“We’re creating something that gets people talking about us and makes life so much easier for an agent because the less they have to say and the more they can convey just with a picture is so much easier for them,” he says.

“Smaller, more regional universities are trying to compete on a global scale and they all have to offer something unique”

Players in the HE sector are also recognising that they can entice more students to choose their campus by creating unique experiences dictated by the spaces on campus.

“Smaller, more regional universities are trying to compete on a global scale and they all have to offer something unique,” says Maria Nesdale, Senior Associate for the Education and Culture practice at leading UK architect and design firm, Gensler.

Gensler’s education practice has been operating for a number of years but Nesdale says in the last five, their education clients have grown in volume, type and variety.

“The way universities are spending money has changed a lot. They have a view much more of the student as a client.”

Redefining the norm

According to Nesdale, the current trends in education architecture are moving away from the traditional front-facing classrooms to more activity driven spaces; inspiring learning in every area of a school; creating spaces that prepare students for the changing work environment; and integrating technology that enhances collaborative learning.

Another element of traditional campuses that doesn’t seem to coincide with the modern student experience is the behemoth academic library. Gensler recently carried out an investigation into the student usage patterns of seven academic libraries in the US and UK and the results were surprising.

Another element of traditional campuses that doesn’t seem to coincide with the modern student experience is the behemoth academic library

“While digital and social media and ubiquitous access to the internet call into question the need to dedicate space to rows and rows of stacks… students prefer to study alone and seek quiet spaces to study most effectively,” Nesdale relates. The library is by far the favoured place for this activity, the research found.

Additionally Gensler discovered that, while studying, 64% of students used pen and paper over computers, tablets or books. The results reveal that despite the push for innovative technology, some basic elements of learning remain fundamental for students. The role of the library has become more than a place to find books. “It is the physical and symbolic presence as a place where scholarship is supported and respected,” states the Gensler report.

It’s true that students seek out conventional structures that contribute to their overall feeling of being in a learning environment. But Nesdale argues that the best learning designs are the ones that go unnoticed.

“A person needs to walk into a room and a space needs to tell them how it’s going to be used,” she says. “This can be that through colour, lighting and furniture settings.”

“A person needs to walk into a room and a space needs to tell them how it’s going to be used”

“It should be prescriptive,” she adds.

Affecting attitude

Not surprisingly, research shows that behaviour, including vandalism, truancy and attendance improves when learning environments improve. Amjad Khanche, Chief Executive of Sydney-based AIPE has seen first-hand how the school’s new urban campus has directly affected the conduct of its English language, undergraduate and Masters students.

“Usually in the private sector you try to get as many bums in seats as you possibly can, but that’s something we tried to completely walk away from,” he says of the nine-floor campus AIPE opened in central Sydney this summer.

Khanche says the school sacrificed two classrooms on each floor to create break-out areas and more fluid traffic flow, invested in high speed broadband infrastructure and converted a ground level parking garage into a recreational area with basketball and badminton courts.

“It was a hard decision to take 600-700 square metres and not have a classroom there or not have a teaching facility there but it actually keeps all of our other levels occupied,” he says.

He adds that student engagement has improved “dramatically”, with attendance rates up from around 70-72%, to 86-87%.

“People can learn anywhere but they very often learn better in groups and very often informal groups and so half a dozen people with laptops sitting around having coffee is a really good learning environment,” comments Peter Clegg, Senior Partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios in the UK.

“There’s a desire to get people out of curricula-based ivory towers and into more areas where there’s a lot more cross-cultural cross-subject area discussions going on.”

Bringing the outside in

Widening the scope, universities themselves often must integrate into a surrounding environment to further enhance the sense of place it creates for its students.

“Campus universities see themselves at a disadvantage because they’re often separate from the real downtown of life”

“Campus universities see themselves at a disadvantage because they’re often separate from the real downtown of life,” says Clegg. “There’s an interest in the integration of university environments with urban environments.”

With this integration, universities also benefit from economic and social sustainability. Clegg draws on an example of a university using ground floor space for commercial partnerships with banks, bookshops and cafes.

“Quite often we find that ground floor space should bleed in from the street. It’s a good way of funding a development, and it brings urban life right into the heart of campus. It should be public space that is actually part of the city,” he says.

Using the city as an extended classroom also contributes to the student’s unique experience of a place. With locations in the heart of Toronto, Ilan Cohen, executive director of  ILAC, says the Canadian English school chain focuses on leveraging what the city has to offer.

“We don’t have a café in the school by virtue of being downtown,” he says. “Why reinvent the wheel when students can walk outside and have one of the best pedestrian areas and cafes in the city?”

Enterprising objectives

The driving force behind why most international and language students go overseas to study is to be more competitive in the global workforce. It makes sense then that education spaces reflect modern work environments.

At the University of East London, for example, Gensler has implanted a multi modal workspace into a multidisciplinary university setting. “Drawing inspiration from the tech sector, there’s a reception area and discussion space, board rooms, and small phone booths to sit and focus, supported by meeting rooms,” says Nesdale. There is no traditional classroom, rather a space that allows students, teachers and businesses to cultivate new ideas.

At AIPE, corporate presentation models were the inspiration for their lecture halls. QR codes are given to students allowing them to interact and write on multiple screens situated around the room.

Similarly, introducing real world technology into the classroom was why Rubenstein at Language in Group didn’t invest in interactive white boards.

“People don’t need to be good at speaking English in our classrooms. They need to be able to use it when they leave our classrooms. It’s the same with technology. You never use an interactive whiteboard when you leave the classroom so the obvious thing was to incorporate phones and iPads into the lessons.”

Exporting an image

Often education institutions are limited to creating inspiring learning environments in existing spaces, be it rented floors in newly built commercial towers or ivy-clad superstructures erected 100 years ago.

The boom in demand in the international school sector, however, means that operators are scrambling to expand capacity, which allows them to begin with a blank canvas.

However, starting from scratch can prove to be more challenging.

Most international schools are extensions of already established British, American or Australian institutions. Educators then are tasked with recreating their schools’ sense of place in a wholly different cultural context.

Going through a due diligence process before sitting down to design the space is critical, explains Simon Lucas of project management firm EC Harris.

“A lot of people, particularly from the UK, who are moving out to China or wherever are thinking ‘we’ve got this school that’s been operating for 100 years, we know how to run a school, and we’ll just pick this up and replicate it over there’ and that quite often doesn’t work,” he says.

“Forget the design and think about how you operate – what you do, what you want to change,” he advises. “All of those things allow you to then capture that ethos in a new way because you want to take this as an opportunity to do new things. Then we need to look at how the design works and the cultural context in which the design is going to sit.”

Most international school development is taking place in the Middle East and Asia, adding another challenge to designing adequate new learning spaces: climate.

“Working in the tropics, large areas of open spaces aren’t hugely helpful because they’re just impossible to hang around in for very long,” says Stefan Jakobek at HOK architecture firm.

Lucas adds that if you don’t design for a courtyard or something that mimics it in Qatar, for example, “you’re going to have massive overheating in June”.

And in Beijing or Shanghai, he advises schools to have very large interior circulation spaces for when kids can’t go outside because pollution levels are too high.

“You need to think of how you are going to maintain the quality of the environment when you’ve got kids trapped inside up to maybe half the year.”

While the international school market is not wanting for students, a supply of quality teaching staff is not as readily available and .starting with a clean slate means international schools can make choice investments that will contribute to their international appeal.

“The quality of the environment is important for attracting teachers at the higher end of the market. If you try to run an international school on a shoe-string you’ll probably become stuck”

“The quality of the working environment for the teachers is important for attracting teachers at the higher end of the market,” says Jakobek. “If you try to run an international school on a shoe-string you’ll probably become stuck.”

Catering to an international crowd on the post-secondary level also requires a reassessment of resources. Foreign students are becoming more savvy shoppers looking for value for money and long-term outcome. Universities who are listening to their needs offer them higher quality, more spacious accommodation and world-class research facilities.

“When you’re charging a graduate student £15,000 then you need to look after them a bit more,” says Clegg. “It comes down to providing a bit more of a home away from home than you would a domestic undergraduate.”

This is an abbreviated version of a feature that originally appeared in Issue 5 of The PIE Review. To read the full article and more from the magazine click here.

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