Future Learning Spaces

By Michael Edmonds 31/03/2014

Last week I attended a two day conference on New Generation Learning Space Design. It was absolutely fascinating hearing from academics, managers, facilities staff and architects about what is currently being done with regards to learning spaces in tertiary institutions. I was also surprised to see that a number of institutions have staff whose job it is to create such learning spaces, for example, the University of Sydney have a Director of eLearning and Learning Space and Queensland University of Technology have a Director of eLearning Environments and Technology Services.

During the conference a number of common themes emerged, including:


1)   Learning goes beyond the classroom

Associate Professor Rob Ellis, Director of eLearning and Learning Space at the University of Sydney described how learning goes beyond the formal space of the classroom. His presentation outlined how learning could be divided into three equal components – formal learning on campus, informal learning on campus and informal learning off campus. (Note a subsequent speaker also pointed out that distance learning could also involve formal learning off campus as well). These three modes of learning need to function together coherently and as seamlessly a possible – a speaker later in the conference talked about a personal learning plan being central to this structure.

In order for students to successfully engage in informal learning on campus there must be spaces available that meet their needs – spaces that are comfortable to work (and socialise) in. This can include access to wireless and powerpoints for their devices, kitchen facilities, and even the ability to lie down and take a nap. Students equate comfort with institutional respect – they need to feel appreciated by the organisation rather than treated as a commodity. Several attendees referred to such spaces as the student equivalent of airline lounges such as the Qantas lounge or Koru club.

Informal learning on and off campus also needs to be supported with e-learning, through platforms such as Moodle and applications such as e-portfolios, Facebook and Youtube, for example.


2)   The modern student

Many students own more than one mobile device (mobile phone/iPad/Tablet/laptop). Such devices provide students the opportunity to learn when and where they like, if resources such as recorded lectures, online notes, references and quizzes are available. Younger students often prefer to learn collaboratively and in a comfortable environment, and many universities are trying to accommodate this by setting up areas with kitchen facilities and a range of furniture including chairs, desks, tables, cushions and beanbags in order to allow students to customise their informal learning on campus. Choice is important to most students.

By providing for the needs and comfort of students the idea is to create a “sticky”/”Velcro” campus where students will linger longer and engage socially as well as academically.


3)   The learning space/technology/pedagogy nexus

Optimum learning will be achieved where the learning spaces, technologies and teaching pedagogies work in synergy with each other. Academic staff needs to be involved in the design of new learning spaces, and supported when they are first used. Some universities have installed phones in new rooms with a direct line to ICT for assistance with new technologies – one (Queensland University of Technology) even has cameras in each rooms so their technology staff can see what is happening on the screen of each room so they can better help tutors with any technical issues over the phone.

Effective design of new spaces is best achieved by involving a wide range of interested staff – academics, library, timetabling, e-Learning etc.


4)      What do New Generation Learning Spaces (NGLS) look like?

Features of the NGLS’s shown at the conference and on a tour of the recently upgraded University of Technology in Sydney include:

  • Transparent walls between the classroom and hallway
  • Large rooms with multiple monitors around the wall. Monitors can either show what the tutor is talking about, or allow the students to do group together using the screens separate from other groups
  • Some institutions favour movable interactive screens.
  • Technology available to allow tutor (and students) to transmit what is on the screen of their device to a large screen in class
  • One institution is using foldaway podiums.
  • Screens outside rooms show what classes are booked in there and when. A central booking system online also allows students to book rooms for meetings and study.


5)   “Open plan offices” or “free range” office space?

The suggestion to move to an open plan office space draws universal resistance from academic staff as it conjures images of a “battery chicken” arrangement of desks. It is also typically seen as an institutional attempt to save space. Mark Freeman, an Associate from architectural firm Gray Puksand, used the term “free range” office space to describe an innovative approach to office space – rather than clinical and uniform arrangements of desks, he described the movement away from individual office spaces as an opportunity to introduce variety into the shared office environment through a mixture of desks, tables, couches, storage systems and meeting rooms which can cater for the different needs of staff. Just as students equate comfort with institutional respect, so will staff.


A New Generation Learning Space Design conference has been held annually in Australia for the past 4 years. While it is somewhat expensive to attend, my experience is that it is definitely worth it for anyone involved in significant building upgrades at tertiary institutions.