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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


The spaces of envy

By Steve Rowett, on 11 March 2013

Paul, Vicki and myself had the privilege of welcoming Graham Walton from Loughborough University to UCL following a reciprocal visit last week.

Our two campuses could not be more different.

UCL is landlocked in Bloomsbury, heart of the University of London, in one of the most intense concentrations of college buildings in Europe. Every virtue and vice of the capital is on the doorstep. Loughborough is a low-rise, spacious campus with excellent sports facilities and acres of playing fields.  And a long walk to the town centre.

Yet there was much common ground to enjoy on our tours, not least seeing the ways in which students made spaces their own, confounding our attempts to ‘keep the furniture here’ or ‘make this room silent there’. Lots of thinking about the organic, evolving use of spaces, and plenty of just watching what was happening.

Tours of UCL usually take in three of my favourite spaces on campus.

The UCLU Wolfson Study is a student owned space where anarchy – of the most thoughtful kind – ensures the kind of collective respect of the space and others around, even when they are strangers. The fact that students voted to turn a bar into an alcohol-free study area seems to mark this room as a hard-won achievement; a victory for the student voice that is guarded with a sense of pride.

The second is the BASc (Bachelor of Arts and Sciences) common room, a new type of space at UCL for a new type of programme – and probably a new type of student. These are free-range students, allowed to graze on a diet from across the academic spectrum, and they are experts in negotiation and driving consensus in all that they do. The ever-changing layout of the funky furniture, accessories brought in from home, decorated fish tank with its feeding rota, the self-organising committee posters are the markers they leave in their territory.

The third of my favourites – for today – is the pilot room in the Cruciform Hub. It’s actually very modest in what it does, but its purpose is to try things out, make mistakes and learn from them. And mistakes were certainly made; the benches and seats don’t work well together (unless you have particularly long arms), the exposed group working monitor doesn’t get used due to lack of privacy, and so on. But so much more was got right, and simple observations help us know what to do better when the real Cruciform Hub work starts later this year.

Graham noted that we’d seen about 10 different learning environments in our 90 minutes on the campus, which I reckon is about 5 or 6 more than we had – or at least knew we had – a couple of years ago.  I wish I could take the credit for having written all 10 down in some planning document three years ago, but I didn’t so I can’t. Instead, our students inhabit, colonise, adjust and redefine our spaces to make them their own, and tell us a little more about learning each time they do so.

By the way, if you are a UCL person, feel free to go and look at the Wolfson Study or the Cruciform Hub pilot room.  But as for the BASc common room, you’ll have to make do with just peering in the windows along Malet Place – your card is unlikely to open the door. But see what you think, and if you experience a touch of ‘common room envy’, you won’t be the first.


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