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Three visits, three takeaways

The following post was written by James Norman, a senior lecturer in Civil Engineering and a BILT Fellow. 

Over the last three weeks we have visited three different universities who have recently (last ten years) built new teaching-focussed buildings. First, we visited the University of Northampton, who recently opened their brand new Waterside campus, bringing all they do into one location. We then visited Oxford Brookes’ John Henry Brookes building, which is a £100m new build on the Gypsy Lane campus, which was opened roughly six years ago. Finally, we visited the ‘Spark’ at Solent, which was opened in 2015. From these three visits I have taken away three key observations.

  1. The Atrium

The first is that all three buildings include large atrium spaces. These spaces, rather than being sterile and boring, feel alive. Filled with creative furniture and buzzing with people, they mirror in my mind the large chancel of a cathedral as people bustle in or out before a concert or the turbine hall at the Tate modern as people congregate, intrigued by what they are about to see, or debate what they have just seen. I always find these spaces inspiring; the huge headroom creating space to dream or imagine. And whilst we can’t magically create these spaces in our existing buildings, I trust and hope that we will aspire to them in future buildings.

  1. The Acoustics

The second take home for me is the sound of the spaces. This may seem strange, but there is something about the acoustic quality of these spaces. They feel warm and buzzing- not like walking into a bar where you need to shout to be heard, but neither like standing in an old library where you are self-conscious of every footfall and breath as people turn and stare at this noisy new intruder disrupting their thoughts. In these spaces the acoustic feel right. I am sure there are technical phrases for this but as a non-acoustician (and in my former life as a Structural Engineer working with -or against- acousticians I have often been skeptical of what they do) all I can say is that they sound right. Neither to loud, or too quiet, but just right. Of course, people associate acoustics and acoustic design with new buildings, and yet many of the acoustic devices that are used can just as easily be retrofitted to existing buildings as they can installed to new buildings. It is not the fabric of the building that makes the acoustics so good. I should know- I designed much of the exposed concrete at the John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes, which left untreated would have led to awful acoustics. Instead, it is the strategic placement of noise absorbing finishes that make the difference, and these can be added to any building.

  1. The Furniture

Third, and finally, it is the furniture. It is only coming to these new (and reused) buildings that the importance of the furniture comes to life. The conversation is not just about the design of lecture theatres or types of chairs, square tables or plectrum, fixed furniture or movable. There are just so many options and we have seen a wide variety of different furniture approaches being implemented in these three buildings, though admittedly not all successfully. But this attitude of playfulness and experimentation is refreshing. One of the great things about furniture is if it doesn’t work you can try something different. So much of our furniture is rectangular tables (on wheels if you are lucky) but there are so many different options. And you don’t need to build a new campus or building to put new furniture (or repurposed furniture from a different space) to be playful and thought-provoking about how we use space to enhance student learning.

So, over the last three weeks, we have seen three new buildings and taken away three lessons on what you can achieve in both new and (more importantly) existing space.

(L-R: University of Northampton Waterside Campus; John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes; The Spark at Solent)

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth, Neil Davey, Christian Spielmann and James Norman visited Northampton University and Oxford Brookes – see this blog for more details of the trip.

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth and James Norman visited Solent to visit Professor Tansy Jessop who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol with BILT.  

 

 

 

 

 

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An introduction from Tansy Jessop, our Visiting Professor

Tansy

Here I am in my Christmas jumper, looking slightly silly #dachshundthroughthesnow, and telling you a bit about myself. First things first, I do have a twelve year old black and tan sausage dog whose origins are close to Bristol. So call my stint at BILT a bit of a return on behalf of my hound! I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to be a Visiting Professor at BILT for the year. My undergraduate years were spent at the University of Cape Town, not dissimilar in size and feel to Bristol but a campus university rather than a city one. From my four years in the fraught 1980s at UCT, I remember feeling both adrift and excited; mystified, enthralled and slightly confused at the relevance of T S Eliot and Catullus. My studies seemed slightly irrelevant in a context of tear gas and angry fists thrust in the air.  As I look back I now know I was experiencing what many students feel but cannot name in relation to their studies. Sarah Mann has written the best work on student alienation and as I read it, I know for myself that this is the root of much of student disengagement in higher education. Particularly for first generation students.  

My interest in alienation and in engaging students is a huge spur to my work in learning and teaching. In leading the ‘Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment’ (TESTA) research and change process for nearly ten years, and working with students and staff in many UK universities, I have encountered alienation in many guises. The defining feature of alienation is an absence of meaning or connection with something expected to bring meaning.  In the context of assessment, it is students disgruntled with the treadmill of repetitive assessments; overloaded with content; finding that their curiosity is not ignited by assessment; that they have little in the way of pedagogic relationship with their tutors in feedback, for example.  Students often experience their modular curriculum as fragmented and knowledge on one unit seems unrelated to another one. TESTA exposes some of the structural flaws in compartmentalised modular curricula. It calls to a much more programmatic and joined up approach to teaching and learning. 

But alienation is not all bad. It is part of what higher education is about as students wrestle with multiple perspectives and try to pick their way through different ways of understanding their disciplines. The soupy sea of ambivalence that higher education invites students to swim in is bound to be a bit unsettling. However, there are wonderful pedagogic ways of lighting beacons along the way for students. Through TESTA, I have seen academics embrace new ways of doing formative assessment, engaging students in challenging, playful and exciting learning which prepares them for summative tasks. I have seen academics stand back and see the whole programme for the first time. This new way of seeing is often a catalyst for programme teams drawing back from content-heavy, facts first approaches, and inviting them to partner with their students in slow learning. The ‘slow professor’ approach to teaching, learning and assessment is all about creating spaces for students to engage, integrate and apply their learning.  I hope over the coming months to share some of these ideas and engage various programmes in the TESTA process. I am really looking forward to getting to know the community at the University of Bristol, with or without my dog.  Definitely without my Christmas jumper.  

 

Berg, M. and Seeber, B. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 

Mann, S. 2001.  Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education. 26 (1).