UNSW staff say yes to learning spaces of the future

A Learning Environments pilot program is giving academic staff the opportunity to teach in UNSW’s learning spaces of the future. 

The Pilot Active Learning Spaces (PALS) initiative invites staff members with an interest in collaborative and blended learning to volunteer to teach their classes in two new spaces in the Mathews Building, commencing in Semester 1 2016. 

More than 20 participants from a variety of UNSW Faculties and Divisions attended an information session earlier this month to discuss their interest in teaching in more adaptable spaces. As well as sharing stories of previous teaching experiences, participants engaged in a brainstorming session to create a wish list of the sorts of services and facilities that would support the development and rollout of a dynamic learning spaces strategy across UNSW.

“This is us piloting how we engage the right people in the design and development of our learning environments. What we learn from it will inform how we develop these environments in future. Support to staff and students and evaluation of the pilot are core elements” says Sue Beardman, Director of Learning Environments at UNSW. 

The pilot spaces in the Mathews building support a more flexible approach to learning and teaching. Both have capacity for 42 students who can be split into seven learning ‘pods’; each pod has configurable furniture as well as a range of AV equipment to enable the fast transfer of information between students and staff. Initial demand has resulted in a third space being made available with capacity for 84. 

According to Associate Dean of Education Associate Professor Cath Ellis, these spaces have the potential to produce exciting outcomes, helping staff and students adapt to new learning and teaching methodologies that better reflect changing approaches to educational pedagogy.

“Our academic staff are fantastic teachers – they’re very good at giving fantastic lectures, running tutorials and seminars, but that job is changing,” she says. 

“I think we need to be thinking in innovative and imaginative ways about how we can continue to facilitate learning in a generation that has more information in their pocket than any other generation in history.”

As a result of the PALS information session, 14 staff members from five Faculties have volunteered to trial the new spaces in Semester 1 2016, and also committed to share their successes and challenges in delivering course curriculum in a new generation space. 

“The most exciting thing about this project is the educational and academic development support we’re getting, particularly in curriculum design, to make the best use of these spaces, but also the evaluation of how we use these spaces – what’s worked, and what hasn’t worked,” Associate Professor Ellis says. 

“I think that’s a really crucial thing – if people are going to get access to these spaces, they need to be able to commit to the evaluative work that they’re doing and sharing their knowledge as well.” 

The pilot initiative is part of the broader Learning Spaces Project, a University-wide project that will inform the development of learning environments design standards and support services. The first results of the pilot project will be available in July 2016.