While educationists debate the concept of student-centred learning, development projects on Australian university campuses increasingly feature what might be called student-led design.
Chris Watkins, a principal at HASSELL, describes it in a slightly different way: “Design for students, with students.”
Watkins headed the team that designed “Hub Central”, the $42 million University of Adelaide learning hub which opened in October 2011.
While the architectural team were designing a wide range of different, flexible spaces for students to use within the hub, the students worked with them. The university estimates there were more than 9,000 hours of student involvement in the design and overall function of the hub.
In post-occupancy surveys, student approval ratings for the hub are running at over 80 per cent.
Hub Central is a shining example of a new kind of learning space being built in a number of universities -a kind of space far removed from the traditional design of lecture theatres and tutorial rooms that dominates many campuses.
A range of factors are responsible for the increased focus on involving students in the design of working spaces.
Advances in technology and changes in the way students learn is an important driver. But the biggest factor is probably the competition for students, particularly international students, as universities grapple with funding restrictions.
“We want to provide the best on-campus experience for students in Australia,” said University of Adelaide deputy vice chancellor Paul Duldig when Hub Central opened. “That means meeting the requirements of students today – and that’s vastly different from campus life 20 years ago or even five years ago.”
The focus on responding to student needs can also be seen in the Giblin Eunson Library at the University of Melbourne. That project involved the transformation of three levels within an existing building to create a combined library and learning hub for the Faculty of Business and Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
Essentially, the university wanted a library and learning space where students would congregate because they want to, not because they have to. The brief called for a range of spaces that allowed students, teachers and researchers to work in ways that best suit them.
A suite of different learning options were created, from single study booths to larger, open spaces for collaboration and lounge areas. The library was situated away from natural daylight, saving the best views for students in the study spaces.
Both projects respond to the “anytime, anywhere” concept of experiential learning.
The design for the library reflects the professional, almost corporate, feel the University of Melbourne wanted. To some extent, it mirrors the modern workplace design with which many of the business students will become familiar in the corporate world.
This contrasts with the more casual Hub Central which has become what Duldig calls “the natural focus for the university’s student communal life.”
This is perhaps a key reason for the success of Hub Central – it provides a wide range of spaces that allow students to mingle and socialise as well as learn. The student lounges with moveable furniture are just as popular as the project rooms and project booths, and many students are happy to use them for private learning.
In what might be a comment on the standard of student housing, some students have taken advantage of the hub’s 24/7 operating hours to punctuate long bouts of study with a few hours of sleep.
Duldig’s statement that “campus life is more than just getting a degree” has clearly been embraced by the students.