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The Big Idea | How technology is shaping education estates

When thinking about education, and universities specifically, the stereotypical image that pops into most heads is hundreds of students seated in a lecture hall with all of their attention, or some of it anyway, on one lecturer at the front.

Technology has transformed our lives and education is no exception. There are currently around 393 colleges and universities in the UK, and the university estates take up around 236m sq ft of land.

Almost every student has a laptop, many universities are offering online courses, job roles are being created that have never existed before and therefore learning spaces are being altered to adapt to that.

The question is, how is technology shaping education estates and will they need as much space as they currently have.

UCAS map of universities and colleges in the UK

A map from UCAS showing the locations of universities and colleges in the UK

From an architect’s perspective

Rupert GoddardRupert Goddard leads both the residential and education sector in the North of England at Sheppard Robson. His portfolio encompasses schools, higher and further education facilities and student accommodation.

Rupert explains: “The trend is moving away from everyone sitting in a little box with a nice neat sign on their front door and moving to spaces more about collaboration,” highlighting that Salford University is working on what they call ‘Industry Collaboration Zones’. The zones are designed to link their research to what the industry is looking for and Salford sees those spaces as technology rich environments that are set up to be collaborative.

According to Association of University Directors of Estates’ 2017 estates management report, capital expenditure in UK university estates reached £3bn a year for the first time, with funds being spent on refurbishing old buildings and also on building newer, more carbon efficient premises to decrease running costs long-term.

As well as using technology to make buildings more efficient, Rupert points out that “Universities have woken up to the need to be engaged with industry and solve problems in the real world. Lots of those problems are solved by data and technology which has transformed the teaching and learning environments. In the way that co-working spaces are transforming the commercial estates from big dull offices, to collaborative areas where you can take your laptop wherever you want and work with people in a very easy way.”

“Those trends are exactly the same within higher education and are driven by the same need, to be more creative, to work with people rather than sitting on your own and being separate. The industry feels that campuses are still going to be important, primarily because people still have that need to interact.”

Manchester Metropolitan Brooks Building

Manchester Metropolitan University, Brooks Building. The key design themes for the building are openness, informality and the dissolving of barriers between the community and higher education

Rupert predicts that “the future is going to be much more of a spectrum of different ways to access learning. Some of which would have very high online components, and there are new universities offering fully online courses, but there’s still a place for the traditional campus. Perhaps the campus will become a little bit more compact, a bit more focused on real quality environments.”

Sheppard Robson is currently working on a scheme for Newcastle University which has a 750 seats lecture theatre which can be divided into a 250 and a 500. “There’s still a desire for those larger spaces, it’s just that they tend to be course specific,” explains Rupert.

Whilst universities are still providing those traditional spaces, there’s been a rise of ‘collaborative lecture theatres’ which rather than having rows of seats, they tend to have groups 4 or 5 around tables where lecturers can set a task and students can work together, often with their laptops. That highlights an issue which is access to power, and it’s one of the biggest issues in education architecture according to Rupert.

University Of Leeds Collaborative Lecture Theatre

An example of a collaborative lecture at University Of Leeds

Online vs traditional

Lecture capture is another way in which technology is being implemented. Despite traditional spaces still being valued, there’s a trend of lectures being recorded as a way for students to attend.

Furthermore, there’s an increasing number of universities offering purely online courses. Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is an online learning destination and massive online open course provider, offering courses from universities and institutions to learners globally.

A massive open online course, or a MOOC, is a course with unlimited participation and has open access via the web. As well as filmed lectures and readings, many MOOCs provide interactive courses with communication access to other students on the course, as well as lecturers.


MIT is one of many universities offering online courses

This isn’t just to appeal to the students that can’t be bothered getting out of bed for a 9am lecture, it provides opportunities to those who wouldn’t have been able to access university previously. For example, with the uncertainty of Brexit and studying in the UK becoming a potentially more difficult process than ever before for overseas students, it could give students the option of still being able to access the same lecturers online as they would if they were there in person.

Jeremy Hinds, director of the Savills planning north team, adds that “one of the biggest difficulties that big universities such as Oxbridge, LSE and MIT, have is reach out. They will have over-subscribed numbers to attend their courses and they have no real way they can accommodate that number of students that want to participate. Therefore, they’re ditching the overall concept and overtly delivering online, internet-based, participatory education facilities. There’s no need for any student across the globe to attend physically.”

Hinds believes that there will be significant segregation in the university sector due to the tech-based revolution: “what we’re now beginning to see is that the lead universities in the UK are either doing this international, multimodal model of transmitting information – like Oxbridge and MIT are doing, or they’re a university that can’t compete with them, so they are beginning to concentrate on working with employers providing prospectively guaranteed high-level employment opportunities for the students in a structured environment.”

This raises the questions of how future students and prospective employers will value the 2 experiences and how that will change the physical estates of universities. Are the locations of the universities better for something else?

Software responding to free space

In what seems a response to this, the UK arm of construction company, Kajima, has developed a cloud-based software platform, BookingPlus+, to help building owners, such as schools, colleges and universities, more efficiently manage their facilities through hiring them out to third parties to generate revenue.

On average, the software generates around £40,000 annually for the institutions with some generating as much as £350,000, helping them to cope with ever tightening budgets.

Chris Smith, head of Kajima Community, highlights: “We have seen uptake for our service more than double in the last year and our belief is that schools need to adapt to maximise the profitability of their premises, which we expect to see happening more and more in the coming years.”

If technology is reducing the space that universities need then surely we will see more opportunities like BookingPlus+ emerge, that enable institutions to reinvest and continuously adapt to the environment that the technology revolution is moulding.

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