Due to the nature of the work Education Space Consultancy carries out I get to visit a lot of Universities and Colleges from around the UK and am always interested to take a look at the different types of spaces they offer their students. No one institution is the same, with each offering a different assortment of spaces each with their own unique features.
One type of student focussed space that has become more and more popular over recent years within University and College estates, is Informal Learning Space. To briefly define what “informal learning space” is, I am going to use a section taken from the very interesting report on informal learning spaces, put together by by Sheffield Hallam University; informal learning space are”non-discipline specific spaces frequented by both staff and students for self directed learning activities and can be within and outside library spaces.” A study exploring learners’ informal learning space behaviors, attitudes, and preferences
I see these spaces as the type of learning environment that fills the void between quiet library spaces and busy refectory spaces, as they provide the type of space that both students and staff can drop in and use to discuss ideas, practice presentations, carry out group work etc. They are a more relaxed environment than a refectory setting, typically with soft furnishings plus the concept behind the learning environment created by these spaces are very much focussed on providing learning space unlike that of refectory space. Rather than creating formal learning space, staff and students are free to talk and are often permitted to eat and drink within these spaces, plus as already mentioned the use of soft furnishings often help to create a more relaxed environment than that of a formal learning space.
Why provide these spaces? More and more evidence (such as National Research Council book How People Learn and the The Seven Principles of Good Practices in Undergraduate Education) indicates that a student’s learning is effected by the environment that they are in and an ideal learning environment can be different from one student to the next, as well as by the type of learning they wish to carry out. Informal Learning Space provides this option of creating these different types of learning spaces, that can be designed towards catering for the different student learning needs which aren’t satisfied by the traditional formal learning spaces (i.e. library spaces and IT Rooms) or the non-formal spaces (i.e. refectory).
By creating these new and student focussed informal learning spaces, institutions are aiming to encourage students to stay on campus and continue learning outside of their timetabled activities, rather than go elsewhere. This all helps to provide the student with a better experience as well as hopefully promote the effectiveness of their learning.
What I see as the real beauty of these space is that they can take advantage of what I refer to as an Estates “dead space” and therefore you are not loosing anything by creating these spaces, other than the investment it takes to create them. I refer to “dead space” as the space within circulation areas that is not used for any formal activities and can be used without obstructing the circulation/fire escape routes. This space, by its nature, will typically be small and in areas of high footfall which is perfect for informal learning space as these types of space work well as areas where a small groups of students can drop in before/after their timetabled activities (typically lectures take place in areas of high footfall).
Much of this space will already typically be filled with the odd chair/table or be being used for storage – but is this really the best use of this space? Instead, this space can be transformed into informal learning spaces providing the students with a new type of space that encourages them to continue learning on campus – surely a much better use!
The type of informal learning space that an institution creates should vary depending on the student needs and wants, as well as the location of the space in question.
Each institutions students will be different and therefore the best way to find out what their learning needs are is by asking them. With the use of technology this can now be done relatively quickly and easily, so it is well worth doing to ensure the informal learning space you create is actually what the students want. Plus by engaging with the potential users the end result is much more likely to be appreciated that not, if it reflects the feedback you have been given. The Sheffield Hallam University informal learning spaces report picks out some key elements to consider that were important to their students; destination, identity, conversations, community, retreat, timely, human factors, resources and refreshment.
The location of the potential learning space will also be a key element behind the type of informal learning space you create. For example if this space is to be relocated near to teaching spaces that focuses on group teaching with group sizes of 5-6 students, it may be best to focus on creating an informal learning space that can offer a similar type and size informal environment. This will help to ensure the informal learning space reflects the needs of the student footfall that passes it, again this would certainly be worth discussing with those students that frequently pass this area.
With the right amount of student feedback and thought, institutions can transform their dead space into valued informal learning spaces that benefit the students learning experience. By making use of these spaces, you stand very little to loose and a lot to gain therefore surely they are worth considering?
I hope you have enjoyed this article and found it useful, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts informal learning space and whether you have created these type of spaces at your institution. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below, any experience, suggestions, ideas or questions you share help to continue the discussions and explore this subject in further detail – I always reply to all comments, so fire away!
All the best