On Friday I met Toni Kelly at the University of Birmingham. Toni is Head of Learning Spaces Development and was eager to show me around the new student space they have designed bridging the space between two university buildings. It’s called ‘the link’ and is an impressive testament to the confidence of Birmingham in the future and its commitment to providing high quality spaces for students.
When I was a student 20 or more years ago, a common room had to be as grotty as possible. Ripped sofas, benches covered in graffiti, discarded student newspapers, spilled coffee in polystrene cups and the permanent fog of cigarette smoke in the air. These were places to enact a certain identity as a student (cool, politically aware, a bit gritty and dangerous, definitely NOT middle class (although almost all of us of course were)), and you’d never dream of doing any academic work there, that’s what the library was for. 2o years on and students are being given places to socialise and work at the same time; a clear indication of how leisure and work have been blending over the decades.
As we looked around the new space, Toni began explaining the meticulous detail and planning which had gone into the space. This may have been a cash investment, but the investment in intellectual effort more than matched this as Toni expanded a vision which connected with the macro aims of what the university wanted to provide for its students and yet also was connected into the very smallest detail of what type of benching to provide. The space is built around the metaphor of an allotment or small holding, complete with ‘garden shed’ type spaces lined with plastic grass providing semi private booths for students to sit and chat in. Some PCs are being supplied by the university, but there are also guest leads to plug into the flat panels and plenty of power available for students bringing their laptops. Toni explained that over 95% of the students have laptops but many of them don’t bring them to university for reasons of security, lack of place to charge them and weight. But any university having to provide enough terminals to cover a large student population has a massive rolling investment on its hands, and long term we could see that many universities would assume students bring their own devices to the campus and concentrate investment on infrastructure (eg high quality wifi access) instead.
The space is called ‘The Link’ because it literally links two buildings together, but the metaphor works on other levels. Other links are with the past as the university took benches out of the Aston Webb Building and had them locally refurbished (complete with pencil rail) for this space, providing a link with the past.
The Link is just one of the current Learning Spaces Projects which Toni is overseeing and two important things struck me about this work. Firstly the commitment on the part of the university to create a specific learning spaces team and take the business of designing new spaces seriously. There is an admission here that investment in paint, new carpet and furniture to spruce up ageing rooms is not enough, there has to be a commitment to design in its broadest sense, that is re-conceptualising what you want a space for and then totally rethinking the way that space is resourced and what physical assets you put in there. Secondly the role of technology is important in The Link, but at the point of design it was the physical furniture and layout which took the most getting right. We are designing new spaces to take account of the fact that ubiquitous computing is becoming reality, but we still need to decide where those laptops go, whereabouts we perch when we are using them, and how we keep them charged so they don’t die on us during a crucial part of a workflow.