Learning Environments Conference Round-Up

Last month (June 2017) saw the return of our now annual Design and Management of Learning Environments Conference. Some 100 professionals from the Higher Education sector (estates directors, architects, designers) gathered at our canal-side venue, Kings Place in London.

Kings Place is a unique venue – a mixed use building in the heart of the Kings Cross development. As well as meeting rooms, the building is a highly regarded performance venue, with space for the visual arts, a cafe, bar and restaurant. Looking up to the seven levels above ground floor there are also commercial office spaces (one occupier being The Guardian newspaper). Each floor is designed so that companies can bring together as many people as they can on one level, with the aim of promoting staff interaction and providing a more creative environment.

The conference had a great mix of speakers: Chaired by the current AUDE President, Mike Clarke, we enjoyed presentations from the coal-face of the estates directors and in-house change managers through to consultant designers and architects.

Having organised both the Workplace Trends and Learning Environments events for more than a decade, the overriding takeaway from the day for me was how much the design and management of the two sectors are now converging, and how much they can each learn from the other’s experience.

For example, the education estates physically have very blurred boundaries. On many campuses today it’s unclear where the line is between an academic institution and its surrounding community. The same may be said for some coworking spaces today, and perhaps more so in the future for corporates.

As part of this seamless wifi coverage is expected by all students (who on average bring seven devices with them to university!) and of course BYOD workers.

Both the workplace and education sector struggle with the need for space that is flexible. Workplace designers will have probably seen Google’s Garage, where all the furniture has wheels and are familiar with the concept of funky work booths which have multiple uses. Nicholas Burwell’s opening presentation showed several designs of lecture theatre that could also be configured for wider use, and his and later presentations demonstrated how HE space is increasingly being designed for flexibility.

Olivia Fox and Morris Pamplin from City University talked about their programme for Blended Learning, described as “the thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences”. Many of the lessons learnt here could be applied to remote working, and vice versa. You can see a pdf of their presentation here.

The Change Management programme at King’s College’s Bush House proved something of an eye-opener for many delegates. Change Management programmes are commonplace in the workplace sector, but the concept is relatively new for education. But it’s a perfect fit – with so many academics struggling with the concept of a move to open plan – why wouldn’t an estates department embark on a full change management programme?

There were many more sessions containing golden nuggets of thought-provoking information during the day, but I will leave you with the one which surprised me most. Closing the day Martin Anderson from Connection, whose presentation was titled ‘Talent Retention and Wellbeing in Higher Education’, touched on Biophilic Design. Biophilia is defined as the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature. So biophilic design incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the built environment. We have covered this to large extent in the Workplace Trends events, in particular with our invited speakers Bill Browning and more recently Oliver Heath. But standing to the side of the room, it might have appeared unchartered territory for some in education. Perhaps in designing for students, the calm and focus that nature can facilitate may not be seen as a high priority.

But it could be a game-changer. In some small way, this was illustrated by my own two teenage sons. This year at home we finally managed to finish adding a large quantity of potted plants to the decked patio area in the garden. (Biophilia is more than just plants but bare with me). The youngsters had hitherto not been great fans of spending time there, but suddenly more often than not, one of more of them and their friends are to be found there. They still clutch one of their seven devices of course, but they definitely enjoy the surroundings.

The Design & Management of Learning Environments conference will return in 2018. In the meantime check our next Workplace Trends Conference: The Changing Nature of Work, 18 October at the British Library.

Maggie Procopi
London, 18 July 2017

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