Learning environments set to ape office design trends

’It’s often been said that what’s happening in learning environment design is what happened in office design 20 years ago.’ Fiona Duggan, founder of consultancy FID, which specialises in educational design, is referring to developing trends including open-plan space and breakout areas that, while well-known in an office context, are causing some excitement in education design.

Duggan is to speak at the Design and Management of Learning Environments/ Changing Minds conference, to be held at the Royal College of Physicians in London on 17 June, which will address trends and attitudes in the designs of learning spaces across all levels of education, from schools to further education colleges and higher education establishments.

Andrew Harrison, Director of Learning and Research at strategy and design consultancy DEGW, will be one of the moderators at the conference. He agrees that learning design is following in the footsteps of office design, particularly in the ’controversial’ area of open-plan layouts, which he says academics, fond of cellular office layouts, get up in arms about. Harrison says, ’Now you look at open-plan offices such as the BBC and Google, and wonder how they ever worked in the old way.’

Both Duggan and Harrison highlight another trend (which is far from exclusive to educational design) which is a growing need to do more with less. Referring specifically to the higher education sector, Duggan says, ’Student/tutor ratios are going up, and tutors are having to look after more students, as well as doing more with less budget and less space.’ Harrison picks up on this trend, pointing out that unless you have the budget to build new space, you have to reuse the space you already have, using corridors as breakout learning spaces, for example.

Professor Stephen Heppell, Professor of New Media Environments at Bournemouth University, who is also speaking at the conference, says the trend of ’agility’ is also becoming prevalent in school environments. He adds, ’In pure architectural terms, people are using height and depth a lot more – there are mezzanines and sunken amphitheatres for children, for example.’

Duggan says the novelty of technology is ’becoming increasingly backgrounded’, adding, ’It is taken for granted now that you can move between physical and virtual environments. Most people across courses are now using blended learning [learning across platforms].’

She says another trend is the growth in user engagement. Harrison and Heppell agree, and all three say there is little conflict between the aspirations of students and those of professors. Harrison says, ’The only area in which it is slightly problematic is in the time that design projects take to complete – students will rarely see the outcome of projects they have been engaged in’. Harrison has worked with the University of Lincoln on the Learning Landscapes in Higher Education project, which he says ’is trying to develop a shared language between academics and those in charge of estates’.

All three hail the development of user engagement in learning environment design, with Heppell saying, ’We appear to be in the middle of a bottom-up revolution, which is replacing the top-down evolution.’

Exemplar projects

  • University of Warwick learning grid – developed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, cited by Fiona Duggan of FID as a good example of student engagement in design
  • University of Lincoln – DEGW’s Andrew Harrison thinks this is a good example of academic and real estate design drivers co-existing
  • St John’s Catholic Comprehensive School – in Kent is referenced by Professor Stephen Heppell of Bournemouth University as an exemplar school design project

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