In my former life as a teacher, I did not think much about learning spaces, as long as I had chairs and tables that could be moved around for group work I was quite happy. Yet I was not totally surprised when at a presentation, by furniture design company Orangebox, it was pointed out that the quality of a learning space, including the light, can have an impact on a student’s successful academic outcome.
I was attending the launch of the report entitled ‘ Sticky Campus and the dynamics of smart learning publication’. According to a 2017 US Chamber of Commerce Foundation Centre for Education and workplace report, 96% of chief academic officers believed they were effectively preparing students for work – whereas only 11% of business leaders agreed with them. The aim of this report was to explore what this means, particularly from the perspective of the design of space in the workplace and in education.
We start by hearing about the iGen generation born between 1995- 2012 that is now described as ‘flooding’ the workplace. iGens are growing up more slowly than previous generations. They are cautious; having anxious parents who drove them everywhere and did not let them roam freely. So instead they have been immersed in the indoor world of internet and gaming, which in turn may have made them more prone to mental health issues. However, there is some good news: research shows that iGens are moderate in their alcohol consumption, they appear to be more sensible, are diverse and inclusive by default, have a strong sense of justice and are more politically active; as evidenced by the climate change protests and The ‘Greta effect’ for instance.
The thought struck me as well that in terms of their learning it could be argued that they are the generation that seems to have taken over more control in some respects. They don’t appear to need permission to access knowledge from a higher expert or authority, they learn to play a complex piano tune fluently by accessing youtube over and over again; they do their homework, collaborating with their classmates on messenger and listen just as much to each other as to any teacher.
Indeed the idea of a less hierarchical structure and a flatter networked mode as a mindset is central to this idea of space and has already been happening in universities and workplaces for a while now. Orange box cites well-known examples of a networking model where organisations design spaces for a fluid workforce working with a free flow of information. Whereas Universities invest a huge amount on their spaces and estates, particularly libraries. Obviously one of the factors behind this is the growth of the idea of the student as consumer. International students, for example, can pay up to three times more in fees than a home student. So 24/7 opening hours or even opening on Christmas day are a response to consumers’ needs. Libraries are now no longer quiet hushed spaces but are open and social (often filled with takeaway pizza boxes too). This stance is also leaking beyond the library into other university spaces and probably not everyone is totally happy about this. Indeed Orange box suggests tactfully that a university should work closely with their staff to develop initiatives to support different types of flexible working spaces.
We are often told that there are no more jobs for life and that increasingly there will be portfolio careers where reskilling and retraining will be a constant factor. The report argues that many degrees on offer now are seen as no longer suitable. So in the last few years, there has been a rise of partnerships between companies and universities; examples such as the Dyson institute for engineering and Here East, in East London’s former Olympic Park, where business sit alongside and potentially collaborate with universities such as UCL. I was wondering if this is an entirely new concept as in the past many of the former polytechnics STEM courses were validated by professional bodies. Nonetheless, this is blurring the worlds of work and learning, where ideas are meant to develop quickly through cross-fertilization. I also thought that it was interesting that the idea of constant change is something that iGens themselves appear to embrace. Aspirations like travel and adventure are replacing buying homes and having children as success markers. This keenness for change, the report tells us, is to such an extreme that it is proving to be a challenge for employers:
‘While we understand that a job for life is no longer a thing, organizations are finding the rapid turnover of young employees alarming’ (The sticky Campus and the new dynamics of Smartlearning p.91)
I assume part of the answer to this problem is where the sticky bit comes in. I had previously heard about sticky campuses and indeed the newly designed libraries in education are part of this approach:
‘The sticky campus is a place where students would want to spend time even when they have no formal teaching sessions to attend. It embraces everything that is truly student-centric so that students fully live amongst their learning’ (Jisc 2018)
In the same vein businesses that make their structure fluid and flexible are predicted to be more successful the ‘sticker’ they become. They do so by holding onto the talent by again blurring that line between the professional and personal. Consequently, Orangebox argues that making the actual spatial design reflect this is important:
‘ An environment that’s rich in hospitality design cues and innately softer and more approachable will go a long way in attracting talent’ (The sticky Campus and the new dynamics of Smartlearning p.24)
That does sound like a great work environment and who could argue with the benefits of that? Though I do wonder about the balance of the ‘stickiness’ of the workplace; From an ideological perspective how much do we really want our workplace reality to blur into our personal one? And in these uncertain times of employability, would this be only for the few who are lucky to find employers who will do so much to nurture and retain them while the majority of people will barely scrape by in the gig economy….? Interesting what thinking about furniture can bring up.