What is it?
Kingston University has a rolling project to refurbish a series of classrooms for use as pilot teaching rooms. The project is now in its fourth phase and, on a budget of c.£500k per annum, has refurbished between four and six classrooms every year since 2014. The rooms are spread across the campus and vary in capacity.
This is an ongoing project to pilot the latest thinking in teaching room design. The pilots help ensure that all refurbishment projects are informed by up-to-date and effective pedagogy.
Key themes featuring in the designs include:
- Supporting skills development to improve student employability
- Supporting collaborative learning
- Supporting flipped teaching
- Supporting widening participation including attracting more females into STEM subjects
The pilot developments are backed up by extensive programmes of induction and continuing professional development on active, collaborative pedagogies within the context of the university's Inclusive Curriculum Framework.
Key to successful use of the space is getting the right type of learning activity in each space. In order to help with this, those responsible for timetabling have looked carefully at how the spaces are classified in the booking system.
The university formed a Learning Spaces Advisory Group (LSAG) so that academic colleagues can provide a pedagogic steer to which designers respond by providing design ideas for consideration by the LSAG. The group has only two formal meetings per year but meets virtually whenever necessary.
The LSAG represents a creative collaboration between students, academics, IT/AV services, timetabling, estates and external design teams. The group is chaired by the pro vice-chancellor (learning and teaching) and the fact that it is academically led is fundamental to its success.
The university puts a lot of emphasis on making sure the student voice is heard and representatives from the Union of Kingston Students meet with the deputy director of estates every month.
The university also recognises the value of collaboration across the sector. Decision-making has been informed by surveying the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) community and visiting a range of learning spaces in other institutions.
There is a tight window for development during the main summer vacation period (from the end of May to the end of August) so careful planning is required.
In the past some stakeholders were brought into projects too late in the day for their input to be really useful. Now, with advice from LSAG, the university can be confident it consults the right people at the right time.
The consultant architect for the Teaching Room Pilot Project Phase 4 (2017-2018) was impressed to receive a thorough brief outlining what the university wanted and including lessons learned from previous pilot projects.
The design ethos is that the spaces should be stimulating and provocative whilst avoiding 'gimmicky' decoration or furniture. The university has opted for a neutral colour palette and is increasingly looking towards use of natural materials and circadian lighting.
The university has had to accept that it is designing each space for a particular set of purposes and 'total flexibility' is not possible. For example, some of the group working spaces are not suitable for exams.
Designing for flipped learning and collaboration usually means the refurbished space will have a lower maximum capacity than the previous classroom. The university has found that making educated assumptions about actual occupancy when timetabling has allowed them to manage this and support the new pedagogy.
One of the more unusual spaces is the 'Lab in a lorry'. Kingston has invested in two mobile laboratories to undertake outreach activities with schools, colleges and community groups such as girl guides. The lorries are used to provide STEM taster sessions on topics including nutrition, forensic science and health and exercise.
The university also has an Outreach Centre hosting a diverse range of people from the Women’s Institute to primary school children. The activities undertaken here are wide-ranging for example molecular biology and flight testing of model planes. This means that storage and ease of changing the room set up are important features of the design.
- Landscape rather than portrait orientation for teaching wall
- Avoid long narrow rooms where possible
- Entry points at back of teaching space preferred by staff and students
- Ensure a good base level of lighting and climatic comfort
- Use intuitive technology which doesn’t dominate
- Plenty of writable surfaces
- Storage away from student seats is not really used (eg white boards which doubled as storage units with chargers.)
- Ceilings should be high enough not to feel oppressive
- Table shape is important: plectrum tables have had mixed reviews (particularly the very large ones) and tessellated tables generally work better.
- Use a standard lectern design regardless of room size
- Increased investment in chairs is worthwhile in terms of benefit to learning
- Think about incorporating more natural materials and circadian lighting
- Take account of additional heat gain from computers
The university's design philosophy is to have intuitive technology that is not intrusive. Understandably they have found that teaching staff require initial support in familiarising themselves with the technologies and also understanding their potential for use in teaching.
Induction sessions are run before the start of term. The university has found that timing is key and that it is important that the sessions are led and facilitated by academics.
Each teaching space has a camera and a phone so staff can call for help and IT/AV can fix the issue remotely and or offer guidance.
Technologies in use
- The Outreach Centre features a device for floor projection. An example of its use is projecting the periodic table onto the floor as a basis for an interactive game about elements for primary school science
- SOLSTICE software to facilitate collaborative discussions by enabling wireless casting from any electronic device has been piloted. Initial trials, in a room of 90 capacity with circular tables, ran into teething troubles due to insufficient testing but nonetheless inspired further roll-out the following year
- For the pilot rooms refurbished in 2018 the university is introducing some PCs integrated into desks which can be folded away when not in use for a clutter free / flexible surface enabling rapid change from individual to group working
- Other technologies in use include: lecture capture system (eg recording, processing and distribution), electronic voting system (EVS), visualisers, wifi apps, interactive surfaces and writing technologies
Evaluation is built into the project governance structure. The LSAG meets twice a year in November and April. The November meeting reviews lessons learned from previous summer’s pilot teaching rooms and confirms the following year’s pilot rooms. The April meeting agrees final layouts/ designs for the pilot rooms.
Feedback from students has been very positive and shows that both flipped teaching approaches and the new spaces are preferred to the traditional didactic pedagogy and layout.
Negative feedback from staff almost invariably comes from those who have not attended the training sessions. The university has had some problems with poor attendance at training and has realised that the need to get the timing right is key.
One room was re-designed and reconfigured as a result of feedback from students and staff. The room had been designed in grouped table layout with a centrally located lectern ‘in-the-round’. This was negatively received and the lectern was returned to the front of the room.
The university is seeing an upturn in recruitment and feels that the changes to pedagogy, reflected in the new learning spaces are playing a part in this. Projects such as the outreach space will take time to show impact but the university is convinced that the results will be positive.
The estates directorate monitors social media channels to pick up on student comments about learning spaces in order to learn lessons. They have also set up a special hashtag for feedback.
Change management and transition
Projects undertaken prior to the creation of the LSAG tended to replicate traditional didactic teaching space layouts. Now, by bringing the right people together to guide the process, they are delivering the kind of teaching spaces that truly support new ways of learning and teaching.
It is important to ensure the use of the pilots spaces is properly managed. The pilot rooms are open to booking by all departments and this is managed through a central timetabling system.
Ensuring the pilot rooms are used to best effect means matching the right kind of learning activities with the right space. It has sometimes been challenging to reflect this in the booking system, eg one room has a capacity of 36 if using fixed PCs but 50 if doing other forms of group work, so the university has put considerable thought into coding and classification on the booking system.
Communicating the rationale behind the pilot spaces and giving people sufficient preparation time to adapt their teaching practice is essential. This also applies when scaling up the successful pilots as the university found when it converted 60 didactic spaces to collaborative learning layouts over one summer.
Although the project is about delivering small-scale pilots, and not all will be equally successful, it plays an important role in relation to student engagement and motivation.
For more on each of the topics mentioned in this case study see the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit.