Case Study: Social Learning Spaces in Further Education

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Social learning spaces are environments that encourage collaboration and support both informal and formal learning. Often considered to be a new taxonomy of space, social learning spaces have been established for nearly two decades in higher and further education, and studies have shown them to help improve the student experience and assist with student attraction and retention. Below are some extracts from the case study, the full report is available here. 

Key Learning Points

The following key learning points were identified as fundamental to the design of successful social learning spaces:

  • Social learning spaces are important wellbeing in addition to learning opportuitties outwith the classroom
  • In principle, these institutions employ a suite of spaces that are flexible, multi-functional and sufficient to their capacity
  • Social Learning environments should be generous in space and lighting to give visitors a sense of wellbeing. Large atria in a central spaces is a regular example of good place design and can encourage a strong sense of social wellbeing.
  • Furniture and the spaces themselves must be flexible to a mixture of uses including those not readily predictable at the design stage. This challenge can be met through a mixture of generously spaced areas.
  • Catering facilities are usually the most prominent of these spaces, how they are designed and distributed should reflect the needs and aspirations of the building.

Basic Principles

The last decade has seen a rapid development of social learning spaces in the Further Education Sector, stimulated by extensive refurbishment and building programs throughout the UK and beyond.

In ‘Better Libraries and Learning Spaces,’ the following key principles are recommended:

  • Design flexible or multi-functional spaces that can be reconfigured daily/weekly/monthly to suit a number of functions ensuring the space is fully utilised.
  • Creation of choice with a variety of spaces to suit different learning styles and needs.
  • Provision of sufficient volume of space to ensure that learners are comfortable.
  • Removal of barriers between the formal and informal spaces.
  • Inclusion of collaborative and social space.

The projects shown in this document embrace these principles and exemplify

wooden panels spring out of the floor to create fancy benches at Inverness College University of the Highlands and Islands landscape encourages learning activities to ‘spill’ out of the building
Inverness College University of the Highlands and Islands outdoor landscaping

Space and Light

Generosity of space and light is an often overlooked but important aspect of promoting a sense of wellbeing and providing a positive student experience. Each of the examples features large volumes of space or atria with generous space and light which creates an important central space linking to other areas and helping to orientate students and visitors. However, beyond this, they perhaps have an even higher value in promoting a sense of community and potentially encouraging a degree of cross-disciplinary curiosity and discourse.

Inbetween space on a mezzanine atrium overlooking the ground floor reception of Ayrshire College Kilmarnock Campus
Light trickles into the spaces overlooking the atrium at Ayrshire College Kilmarnock Campus

In Ayrshire College, above, the atrium space was conceived by the client as a shopping mall. A familiar and easily understood place where students could develop their enterprise skills via the various commercial outlets such as the beauty salon or restaurant, connect with employers, perform or simply meet and gather.

“The College mission – to prepare students for the world of work – is exemplified in the large, open volume that is central to the building’s identity and function. This welcoming, accessible space is where engagement with the public and the business community takes place. It is a vibrant collaborative environment, where students enjoy direct interaction with employers and local people, developing their communication skills through a practice-based learning curriculum.”

Ryan Sylvester, Architect – Keppie

Flexibility

While space, light, and other invisible factors are vital to these successful environments, furniture is the tangible human-scaled element that people most often respond to.

so a Adaptable lecture theatre and stage in the atrium in Ayrshire College Kilmarnock Campus
Adaptable lecture theatre and stage in the atrium in Ayrshire College Kilmarnock Campus

The ability to change and adapt the environment enriches the learner’s experience by providing a changing landscape that they can adjust and customise while ensuring the optimum use of space and avoiding spatial redundancy.

Conclusions

The example projects all enthusiastically embrace the notion of social learning space and contain many examples of good practice in their conception, design and layout. Each project has been conceived to a degree as a unified and holistic learning environment taking advantage of deep circulation spaces, courtyards and outdoor spaces opening a rich variety of spatial opportunities to students. Atria and other large-volume areas provide a valuable sense of light and space that promotes wellbeing. While acting on a more practical level as a centre-place that physically and visually connects people, places and things, helping to orientate students and supporting the idea of community.
Vital social spaces such as cafes and refectories are designed as both learning and social space and are located in proximity to these centre-places. Throughout all of these spaces, flexibility or adaptability is a critical feature, whether this relates to furniture that can be moved or adapted to suit different groups sizes or activities or whether it is the space itself.

Wooden social and study spaces at City of Glasgow College
Wooden social and study spaces at City of Glasgow College

Further Information

About A&DS Case Studies

Our case studies series shows the benefits of good design in Scotland’s built environment. We highlight the processes behind our built environment as well as the finished result, to grow our collective understanding of good design practice. More of our case studies are available here. We want to grow this resource as much as we can. So if you have a question or comment about our Case Studies series, email us at info@ads.org.uk.

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