Higher Education - The Impact of New Technology on the Design of University Buildings

Tony Brady
New technology, in particular, information technology, poses a significant challenge for the sector. Not only is the pace of change rapid, but it can require significant time and capital investment to refurbish, remodel or construct new buildings.

The higher education sector continues to be highly innovative, but it is also steeped in tradition and encrusted practices, with not all institutions keeping pace with the technological demands of students, who increasingly see themselves as consumers and have higher than ever expectations for the quality of teaching and learning.

New technology has brought about profound change in the design of campuses and university buildings.

Figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) found that whilst capital investment in the sector was £3.8 billion in the period 2015-16, an increase of 14.5 per cent compared with 2014-15, only 18 institutions contributed 50 per cent of the sector’s capital expenditure. In the same period a total of 53 institutions reported a decline in capital expenditure.

New technology has brought about profound change in the design of campuses and university buildings. None more so than libraries, which have moved from being hardcopy depositories and reference points to internet gateways for both digital and physical information. Where once silent solo spaces existed where food and drink were prohibited, these have now been replaced by social learning spaces where food and drink are permitted and where students can undertake either solo or group work.

Teaching and learning spaces have also changed. Historically they have followed the ecclesiastical format with rows of desks facing the front where a lecturer stands using a white or blackboard. The internet has transformed all of that, now lecturers are flipping the classroom and expecting students to have read the course material online before the lecture and to have come ready to ask questions and debate the material. This approach demands a different teaching layout. It requires everyone to be seen and heard by both the lecturer and other students. Furniture therefore needs to be adaptable and flexible enough to be able to face forward and to the group when required.

Some technology is disruptive and creates a threat to the current model of higher education. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) use the latest online technology, and since the first MOOC in 2008 they have been embraced by the elite universities of the world as a unique selling point. The elite universities have been able to invest in their IT infrastructure and scale up conventional online learning and make it available to a much wider audience. This technology threatens the business models of traditional mid-range universities that do not have the ability to ‘scale-up’ and meet the challenge that new technology offers.

Faced with these technological changes it is easy to see why thought leaders and educationalists are concerned for the long-term future of the sector. Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, recently stated that universities, particularly those in the west, should not be complacent at what he calls ‘the dawn of a new technological era.’

Across the East Midlands Faithful+Gould is supporting universities deliver significant capital programmes incorporating the latest cutting-edge technology.

Across the East Midlands Faithful+Gould is supporting universities deliver significant capital investment programmes in their estates incorporating the latest cutting-edge technology. We have recently completed a £18.5m remodel and extension of the University of Nottingham’s George Green Library. This transformational project involved relocating the book depository at the core of the new building and surrounding it by a mix of quiet, silent, group and individual study areas. It also supports the latest technology with provision for fixed PC terminals as well as easy access to power and wireless internet throughout the building.

At Loughborough University we have recently completed a £17m new state-of-the-art STEM Building. A mixture of modern laboratories and teaching spaces, it allows the university to expand its teaching provision in STEM subjects broadening the vital role it plays in supplying skilled graduates to industry in the future. At Nottingham Trent University works have recently started on site on an iconic reception and environmental centre. Designed to showcase campus research and teaching, it will include a 200-seat lecture theatre with retractable seating, staff offices and state-of-the-art teaching and research rooms.

Nottingham Trent University Reception and Environment Centre

Higher education increasingly takes place in an integrated, digital world with networks and resources accessible at any time via mobile devices. Whilst the pace of change may not be as great as previous years the challenge for the sector is to manage change so that it keeps pace with a modern progressive society.

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