Changing Learning Spaces in Higher Education

Tony Brady
Data collected by AUDE shows that in the period 2015/16 UK universities invested more than £2.5bn of capital expenditure for the second year running. Whilst slightly down on the same period last year, this continued investment in the UK higher education sector has seen it grow steadily over the past 10 years.

Despite this continued investment, the higher education sector is reaching a pivotal point. Historically UK Universities have had a reputation for being risk averse and only making small changes to their structures and services. New technologies and space were typically generated at the level of small scale projects that either ceased when funding ran out or when the educational enthusiast who championed their cause left. Despite financial constraints, risk aversion, and short-termism many are now acting to improve their services through educational strategies, technology and physical space changes. They are doing this for a variety of reasons from changes in educational beliefs and the desire to offer distinctiveness in an ever-competitive global market to the desire to become more efficient and to keep up with changes in technology.


Technology is a driver for change. The world today is very different to the one in which the current education model was developed. It is now a much more integrated, digital world that can be accessed via multiple mobile devices giving rise to a much wider range of opportunities to universities beyond the lecture hall, seminar room or laboratory including online, hybrid and collaborative learning models. Universities have become more able to offer interactions between physical, virtual, face-to-face and online learning spaces. This has led to the use of concepts such as learning landscape or learning ecologies as it is sometimes referred to.

Despite financial constraints, risk aversion, and short-termism many are now acting to improve their services through educational strategies...

'The Learning Landscape is the total context for students’ learning experiences and the diverse landscape of learning setting available today – from specialised to multi-purpose, from formal to informal, and from physical to virtual. The goal of the Learning Landscape approach is to acknowledge this richness and maximize encounters among people, places just as a vibrant environment does.' (Dugdale 2009).

Physical Spaces

Today research has shown that traditional categories of space are becoming increasingly redundant as activities blend, the boundaries between disciplines blur, space is becoming less specialised and university operating hours are moving towards 24/7. A new typology of higher education buildings is developing.

The next generation of higher education buildings are being designed around patterns of human interaction and aim to offer a more interactive and technology rich teaching environment rather than needs of specific departments, disciplines or technologies. Research has shown that instead of students learning en masse in large lecture halls they are now going through course materials outside the classroom using video or audio lectures. This trend has led to the rise of the social learning space with students demanding “hub buildings”, which comprise informal learning spaces. It characterised by commercial office environments typically incorporating a large foyer atrium using minimalist modern materials or highly decorated with a feature piece of sculpture. The entrances are generally designed as a ‘one-stop’ shop incorporating core services, informal learning spaces, and cafes for students to work individually or in groups in a relaxed setting. The terminology used to describe these spaces varies from hubs, to zones to streets.

The table below shows the shift from the campus based planning model to the new learning landscape model.

Campus-based planning model

Learning Landscape planning model

Based on space standards and norms, needs analyses and space occupancy rates

Based on holistic strategies, underpinned by action research of learning and teaching activities

Management-centered planning and design process

Engages with users to co-develop learning spaces through pilots, supported by ongoing evaluation and process improvement

Relies on standard classroom types, with associated furniture fittings

Develops appropriate range of learning spaces across active/passive, formal/informal and taught/self-directed

Separate virtual from physical provision

Enables integrated virtual and physical learning through a variety of hybrid modes

Single function usage

Offers flexibility of learning activities from formal and taught to non-formal and self-directed

Differences in Conventional and Learning Landscape Planning Models

Initially driven by library and student support staff and technologists, innovative learning has seen a shift to interactive informal and social learning, challenging the conventional learning model of the lecture theatre, seminar room and specialist laboratory teaching. New technologies are interacting with physical space to suggest different types of blended and hybrid relationships.

University campus planning and management teams are finding that conventional methods of space planning are no longer fit for purpose but the sector has yet to develop a suitable tool to accurately map its requirements. Yet physical space is a relatively large capital and running cost for universities and its more effective planning and occupancy can save income that could be invested in other essential services. Recent years have therefore seen an increased expansion and professionalisation of the learning space field through special design and briefing consultants to help universities develop and evaluate new learning spaces. Faithful+Gould continues to work with over 90 universities across the UK providing advice, guidance and support on effective design and space planning to ensure efficient use of space and the adoption of the latest learning technologies.

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