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A view from inside the King's Library at St Pancras
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Eight inspirational learning spaces - from Digifest speaker, Andrew Harrison

Professor Andrew Harrison

The following learning spaces are not necessarily spectacular pieces of architecture destined for awards but what they represent to me are a series of spaces that interest and intrigue me, that point to thinking about learning spaces in a different way – blurring the boundaries between learning, working and living to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Kiva, Institute for Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan

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Kiva Institute for Educational Development
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The Kiva is a learning space that is based on the kivas of the puebloans of the American south west but has been transplanted to a postgraduate education institute in Karachi to create a democratic space to celebrate story telling and discussion.

Technology has deliberately been pushed to the edge of the room and the space design and pedagogy are completely integrated.

University of Melbourne Learning Lab, Melbourne, Australia

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University of Melbourne Learning Lab
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A redundant 100-seat tiered chemistry lecture theatre was converted into a 40-seat collaborative classroom to improve the student experience as both staff and student found the traditional didactic lectures unsatisfactory.

The classroom now supports classes consisting of five groups of eight or 10 groups of four over four levels. Each zone has access to group-use PCs, laptop points, a camera and a large LCD screen that can be driven centrally or by the group. The lab is also equipped for remote observation and video capture to support evaluation of learning and teaching practice and to record examples of successful innovative practice.

With this learning lab a redundant space has been transformed into a flexible, student-centred learning space that supports collaborative group learning and interaction.  The increased area required per student in spaces like this is only possible through the intensification of use/increased utilisation of learning spaces across the university. 

This project shows the possibilities that exist within existing campuses for the transformation of traditional learning spaces into places that support a wider range of learning and teaching approaches and technologies.

Blizard Building, Queen Mary University London

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Blizard Building
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This building houses the Blizard Institute and around 500 researchers and students involved in biomedical research. It includes open plan laboratory and office accommodation, specialist technology spaces, a 400-seat lecture theatre, meeting rooms and a Bioscience Education Centre.

The open plan laboratories are all on a single floor five metres below ground level but with natural light coming in at high levels. The researcher work areas have been taken out of the laboratory spaces and are located on a mezzanine. It features an air curtain that prevents fumes from rising up from the laboratories into the work areas but allows visual and auditory communication between research and work areas.  Hanging above the laboratories are several pods containing meeting rooms and the Bioscience Education Centre.

This building solves a number of problems in a very elegant way. The shared, open plan laboratory spaces allow research teams to change easily over time with the shared specialist equipment being located in a separate area, the write-up space is moved out of the expensive laboratories into the adjacent mezzanine, which encourages interaction between researchers; and the location of the education centre above the main laboratory areas allows the visiting school students to see real science happening as well as engaging with the interactive exhibits.

Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, The Netherlands

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Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft
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This space was created to accommodate the Faculty of Architecture after its previous building had burnt down. Rather than recreating a traditional academic building, the new facility created a shared heart in a lightweight structure between wings of an existing building. 

To maximise the amount of usable space the circulation areas were used to create a range of informal learning and social spaces that also functioned as work and formal lecture spaces if needed.  Less space was assigned to individuals and academics and students shared unassigned work areas.   More space was allocated to support a range of other work activities including meetings, concentrated working, phone calls and informal consultations with students.

The end result is a dynamic space that can easily be reconfigured to support a wide range of learning and work activities. This space is as notable for the change management and evaluation activities that surrounded the implementation of such as an innovative space as it is for the design itself.

Formal evaluations of the workplace took place in 2009 and 2010 (and continue periodically) to evaluate use of the work spaces provided, which has led to a reduction in the number of desks provided and the space being reallocated as additional studio spaces for students.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (, Stanford University, USA

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The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (, Stanford University
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The is simply a place at Stanford University where students and faculty from across the university come to take classes and work on projects to develop innovative, human-centred solutions to real-world problems.  Courses and curriculum are based on design-thinking processes, drawing on methods from engineering and design and combining them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences and insights from the business world.

The space is used to fuel the creative process and it is designed to be easily transformed to support each stage in the design development process, with furniture elements such as mobile screens, foam blocks and reconfigurable walls used to create a dynamic teaching and research environment.

It is the dynamic nature of the space that is its best feature – it can be appropriated and reinvented by project teams, owned, lived in during the immersive discovery and design processes and then cleared away to present and display the final project outcomes.  Nothing is "owned" by a department or team and the space becomes a dynamic marketplace for ideas and solutions.

Information Services Building, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

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Information Services Building University of Otago
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This building was completed in 2001 and includes a range of university functions including the central library, the student learning centre, teaching support, student information services and careers.

The central library is the major occupier of the Information Services Building and this provides more than 2,200 study places for students. While many of the facilities offered are what you would expect in any high quality academic library, the library is unusual in that it provides 27 different types of study location that vary in terms of their visibility/privacy, level of technology provision and size of study group.

Some of the study settings are in very busy central zones that are highly visible and connected into the library and the adjacent student centre and others are tucked away on upper levels and provide quiet spaces for study and reflection.

The space between the library and the adjacent student centre has been roofed over to create a street that contains informal study and social settings in a series of ‘living rooms’, delimited only by areas of carpeting and plants. Rather than a formal front wall, a perforated screen connects these spaces back into the main library area and each day the furniture is reconfigured by students to meet their needs.

The variety of settings and the quality of the interior provides a rich landscape of study settings that allow students to select the setting that meets their needs at the time rather than trying to accommodate everything in standard study carrels or work tables.

The British Library, London

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The British Library
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The British Library in London has large amounts of public space that includes exhibition areas and cafes.  These cafes are important meeting places for the academic community and other library users as well as providing a welcome break from the absolute silence of the reading rooms. 

The circulation spaces in the library have also been used to house a range of informal work settings including chairs with in-built power and small group meeting tables. Combined with free Wi-Fi throughout the building this has transformed the spaces into public workplace and the spaces are heavily used by freelance workers, start-up companies and people who simply wanting a base in central London for a few hours between trains or meetings.

These work areas have their own population that is distinct from the core British Library readers but it is also a hybrid place that provides facilities for readers who also have to make phone calls and skype, meet with colleagues and work on their computers.

The intensification of use of the circulation space is a great example for universities where circulation areas may make up about 30-40% of the total non-residential space on campus.

Aalto Tracks, Aalto University, Helsinki  2010

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Aalto Tracks, Aalto University
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Not all inspirational learning spaces need to be owned by the institution or, indeed, be specifically designed as learning spaces. 

In 2010 students at Aalto University in Helsinki rented a train (‘Aalto on Tracks’) to take a group of around 100 students and faculty to the Shanghai Expo. During the 10-day trip a wide range of events took place in the train’s conference cars including workshops on entrepreneurship and the future of internet banking, lectures on Russian and Chinese culture, a course on Chinese project management practices and a mobile TedX event as well as a range of sports, cultural and social activities. 

This student-led learning experience was repeated the following year when a group of students went by cruise ship from Lisbon to Sao Paulo in Brazil to explore a range of issues including sustainability and development through formal courses with academic credit as well as other workshops, events and visits.

Natural History Museum, London

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Natural History Museum, London
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The Natural History Museum is a great example of how learning, research and leisure can overlap in the same space and how institutional boundaries can successfully be blurred without detracting from the quality of the learning or research experience.

As well as being a major cultural and leisure destination in London the Natural History Museum has education activities and resources aimed at every educational stage from five years of age.  The Darwin Centre has added substantially to the educational experiences at the museum, combining a central bank of laboratories and specimen storage facilities with a spiral path of interactive exhibits exploring various aspects of the natural sciences and the research process.

Two masters courses are run at the museum jointly with Imperial College, 80 PhDs are based at the museum and there are more than 300 researchers and curators working there with access to more than 70 million specimens.  

Join Andrew at Digifest


This is the third in a series of features from our speakers for this year's Digifest. 

Andrew is speaking on day one of Digifest, during our plenary session about the power of digital for change. See full programme.

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