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

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.

Photo: HOK.

“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.

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