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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Paul’s Postings' Category

Summer 2014 learning space improvements

By Paul Burt, on 3 October 2014

Early in 2014 I started collaborating with a project team, comprising of UCL Estates and Facilities staff and external consultants, with the aim of improving four of UCL’s most outdated learning spaces. My role was to give specialist educational design input and throughout the process I tried to ensure the principal function of the spaces, learning and teaching, did not get compromised.

Roberts 309

This 61-seater raked lecture theatre had not been significantly upgraded since probably the 1960’s. Issues particularly noted in this space included the claustrophobically narrow, and not universally accessible, entrance doors and the fact that the lecturer had little choice but to stand and obscure the material they were presenting.

Before photos [click on any photo to enlarge]:



Highlights of the enhancements made

  • One doorway blocked up to create area for teaching station
  • Other doorway made double-width to increase accessibility of room
  • Wheelchair accessible seating positions with moveable study desks
  • Full coverage assistive listening induction loop for use by hearing aid wearers
  • Mains and USB power sockets added to the front two rows of seating
  • Projected image dimensions increased from 2000mm wide to 2750mm
  • Large 3000mm wide column-mounted writing boards deinstalled and reinstalled
  • Improved sight-lines achieved by staggering the seat positions on alternate rows
  • LectureCast system installed
  • Ceiling mounted microphones added to act as fallback pickup for LectureCast (lecture capture)

After photos:



Roberts 508

Another raked lecture theatre, capacity 86, which was also a time capsule on the history of lecture theatres.

Before photos:



In fact during the renovations a long hidden counter-weighted chalkboard system was uncovered:


Highlights of the enhancements made

  • New teaching station and facilities added off-centre
  • Larger projection and writing surfaces added side-by-side
  • Wheelchair accessible seating positions with moveable study desks
  • Full coverage assistive listening induction loop for use by hearing aid wearers
  • Mains and USB power sockets added to the front two rows of seating
  • Improved sight-lines achieved by staggering the seat positions on alternate rows
  • Ceiling mounted microphones added to act as fallback pickup for LectureCast (lecture capture)

After photo:


25 Gordon Street computer room 105

This computer room was uninspiring and a difficult space in which to teach effectively.

Before photo:


The main problems were that it was difficult for students to get past those already seated and the length of the room meant the lecturer and the presentation were too distant for students seated at the opposite end.


The design decision was made to move the teaching focus of the room to the side and repeat the projection screen three times along the length of the room so that student sight lines are greatly improved.

A novel table design was produced that is very space efficient whilst managing to feel spacious to users.

After photo:


Highlights of the enhancements made

  • Circulation and ability to move around room improved
  • Room capacity increased from 33 student computer positions to 45
  • High quality voice reinforcement system so the lecturer can be comfortably heard throughout the space
  • Three large boards which can be used for projection or writing on with a conventional whiteboard pen
  • One of the three projectors has ‘eBeam’ technology which enables use of a special electronic pen, write on one board and it will simultaneously appear on all three
  • Under-utilised network equipment room demolished and replaced with smaller cupboard in corner of room
  • Sleek ‘all-in-one’ computers on fully adjustable desk-mounted arms
  • Two electronically height-adjustable table positions created for wheelchair users
  • Full coverage assistive listening induction loop for use by hearing aid wearers
  • Individual mains sockets added at each seating position for mobile device charging (USB devices can be charged directly off the all-in-one computer)

After photos:



1-19 Torrington Place room B17

This flat-floored lecture theatre had over the years performed a number of different roles including, about ten years ago, being equipped as a virtual reality theatre for built environment visualisation by Bartlett students. The technology for this application was now obsolete and as a general learning and teaching space it was far from ideal as it was depressingly dark with no writing surface and the projected image, despite being a huge screen, was too small for the long viewing distance.

Before photos:



During photo:


Highlights of the enhancements made

  • Seating capacity increased from 74 to 92
  • Wheelchair accessible seating positions with moveable study desks
  • Full coverage assistive listening induction loop for use by hearing aid wearers
  • Mains and USB power sockets added to the front two rows of seating
  • Projected image dimensions increased from 2000mm wide to 3400mm wide (now within scope of recommended viewing distances achieved by shortening of the room through creation of a new equipment store and a complex ceiling profile)
  • Large 3500mm wide column-mounted writing boards added (recycled from 25 Gordon Street computer room 105)
  • Improved sight-lines achieved by staggering the seat positions on alternate rows
  • Ceiling mounted microphones added to act as fallback pickup for LectureCast (lecture capture)

After photos:





A note on power sockets

It may at first seem strange that we have opted to fit power sockets to only the front two rows of seating benches in the lecture theatres but there was in fact a sound rationale behind this based on these considerations:

  • Previous surveys have told us that students would like power sockets for charging laptops and other mobile devices whilst in lectures.
  • Fitting power sockets to seating positions is a relatively expensive endeavour as in most spaces it involved cutting a channel into the concrete floor.
  • Year-on-year the battery technology in mobile devices is improving, now it is becoming common for laptops to now have all day batteries – potentially spending significant funds on sockets outlets everywhere could look foolish in a few years.
  • Fitting power sockets to every seating position also does not sit will with UCL’s green ambitions.

So the idea of fitting sockets outlets to only the front two rows was born. By way of an incidental benefit there is the hope that this may help educationally as it will encourage students to sit near the front!


In many other lecture theatres power sockets are installed beneath the desks. For these refurbishments a low profile desktop-mounted socket was specified as:

  • their presence is more obvious to users
  • they are low enough in profile so that books and notepads can still be places on the desk without issues
  • compared with ‘cubby-box’ mounted sockets there is much less chance of a drink spillage causing problems

Initial feedback from students and staff

This week has been the first use of these refurbished rooms and I have taken the opportunity to be present at the start of a number of the sessions using these spaces. Whilst there have inevitably been some snags with the facilities all of the scheduled teaching has been able to go ahead and the reaction from students and staff has been unanimously positive. On two occasions lecturers who taught in the same space last year have said that they thought they had walked into the wrong room as the transformation has been so extreme.

Reflections on the refurbishments

The design phase of these refurbishments was incredibly tight and what became evident part way through the programme was that the design of the presentation and writing facilities in the rooms needed to dictate many other aspects of the room design. This was particularly evident in 1-19 Torrington Place room B17 where the ceiling profile had to be considerably reworked to permit achieving the required display sizes.

Another victim of the squeezed design phase was that the seating arrangements are near enough direct replacements for what was previously there. A development seen at other universities is what has been christened ‘turn&learn’ seating where seats on alternate rows are able rotate in order to make segments of peer discussion a possibility in the context of a lecture. Another development that is proving popular at a few other UK universities is a design where five or six person benches are constructed around shared table surface.


This solution lends itself to integrating problem-based learning activities into a lecture session. Our tight timescales and the architecture of the 2014 refurbishment rooms didn’t lead to opportunities to pilot these kinds of design but the hope is that future refurbishment programmes may offer more scope for innovation.

I would like to thank the hard work of colleagues involved in these projects which has resulted in these remarkable transformations.

A backwards look at the evolution of the classroom

By Paul Burt, on 20 January 2014

I started planning this blog post with the intention of writing about our current strategy for classroom Audio Visual (AV) equipment and teaching facilities. However it soon became clear to me that any discussion about the current state of play for classroom equipment is so intertwined with the recent history of the equipment that it would be helpful to first share some thoughts and observations on what we have gained, and possibly lost, in the name of progress in recent decades.
The equipment installed in UCL classrooms, and in classrooms throughout the country, has seen a marked evolution over the past twenty years mainly as a result of the development of the LCD/DLP data projector in the latter half of the 1990’s. Although video projectors had been around for about twenty years prior to that date they had been prohibitively expensive three-lens behemoths that needed regular re-calibration and were typically too heavy to be moved around. For these reasons video/data projectors only really started to appear in the classroom with advent of LCD/DLP projector technology and the resultant shrinking of both the size and cost of the units.
Data projectors either quickly replaced or at least called into question a number of other technologies that were previously commonplace in the classroom:
  • 35mm slide projectors – these went pretty quickly from most classrooms which was probably somewhat premature as this technology offered an image quality that is only just being achieved by today’s best data projectors. However from a support perspective they were prone to jamming and mechanical failures. It is also a fair observation that for many subjects the convenience offered by the data projector was worth the compromise in image quality. The slide projector’s days became numbered as a result of the data projector’s ability to display images when used in conjunction with a PC or laptop
  • Televisions – often mounted on a trolley and combined with a VHS video recorder, these units were a convenience upgrade from 8mm or 16mm cine film projectors. However in the classroom the television always suffered from a number of drawbacks including the fact that the CRT screen was incredibly heavy (resulting in giant trolley bases) and gave a screen size only adequate for smaller learning spaces. Now video content played back from a dedicated video disc player or from a computer can be displayed via the data projector to the whole class in good quality (even in full HD in some of our classrooms).
  • Overhead projectors – from the perspective of AV teams across the country this was the one technology that refused to die when told to. Prior to the data projector the overhead projector (OHP) was the primary way a lecturer could present pre-prepared materials in the classroom. Typed or printed material, including diagrams and images, could be photocopied onto transparency material that was then projected. Areas of the materials could be highlighted by masking off portions of the light source with a piece of card and annotation could be easily added to the slides with pens of any colour. Blank transparency roll could be used as a writing surface that would be progressed throughout the session and then rewound if recapping or a question on earlier material was raised. The technology was inherently simple and thus relatively reliable (most units even held a spare bulb that could switched into play via a lever). In comparison the saved PowerPoint presentation could be seen as a constrictive and non-agile teaching tool. The requirement for either a computer already in the room (a much more recent milestone for most institutions, UCL included) or for the lecturer to own/carry a laptop and know how to perform the apparent black magic of matching resolutions and setting the display to mirror often proved such a barrier that staff would protest at the removal of OHPs (some still linger in the corners of our classrooms). The natural successor to the OHP is the document camera/visualiser linked to the data projector. On first impressions this technology should fulfil most of the purposes people had for OHPs and offer further benefits such as being able to zoom in on objects and for the display to be captured in a lecture recording. However the usefulness of visualisers has also been overplayed in some institutions where they were also looked upon as the solution for the live display of writing which is where the physical design of the visualiser can let things down a little. I’ll expand on this subject, and the importance of the display of live writing, in a subsequent posting.
One general observation that results from the progress that has been achieved by convergence of all classroom presentation technologies onto the data projector is that now it is critical that this one piece of equipment is working. Luckily the failure of data projector lamps is somewhat more predictable than previous projector technologies meaning that good maintenance should prevent interruption to classes and in the near future there is the promise of ‘lampless’ projectors (with non-replacable LED/laser light sources).
As I say at the start of this post, my intention in looking backwards is to ensure we don’t lose sight of some of the good points, along with the many bad points, of what is now the obsolete.

Amsterdam University Library learning spaces visit 28th January 2013

By Paul Burt, on 4 February 2013

Whist arranging our visit to the ISE exhibition in Amsterdam I thought it would be good to maximise the value of the trip by seeing if there were any interesting learning spaces within institutions in the region. A bit of web searching revealed images of the striking redevelopment of the University of Amsterdam’s main library. A few emails and weeks later we were fortunate to be receiving a tour and in-depth discussion with the University’s Head of User Services, Robin van Schijndel.
The library is situated in the heart of Amsterdam and is actually made up of a number of neighbouring buildings which range in dates from the 16th century (we were shown a cellar room where there was a large reproduction of Dutch Masters painting which was clearly a view from the same room) to the 1970’s. The interiors that had caught my attention on the web were now three years old but still looked immaculate. I suspect this is as a result of admirable cultural differences (there is next to no litter on the streets of Amsterdam) as much as it is the result of good choice of materials.
The most distinctive space that was part of that phase of refurbishment is the book collection room.
view of book collection room at Amsterdam University library
Like many space-constrained libraries much of the available stock is stored off-site and be accessed by student and staff by searching the online catalogue and requesting items. How this process works and the way a user collects their requested items is made clear for new students and staff by clean signage above the relevant issue stations.
The workstation where users check if their books are available
Once a user is notified by email that their items are available then they collect them from a numbered box.
What could have been conceived of a fairly drab collection room has been made into the symbolic heart of the building complete with the glow of red fluorescents (others have noted the other symbolic meaning of red lights in the city). Originally the architect had planned for individual cabinets with hinged doors but budget constraints meant a more economic solution was needed and the red plastic crates (usually factory parts bins) decided upon. The end result is probably all the stronger for this decision.
Throughout the rest of the building there were numerous study areas that were all very busy with very quiet and very studious students.
One of the most recent library developments is the recently created a group/social learning space. There is a range of furniture in this space from high-backed benches that afford a degree of privacy to open desks and benches.
high-backed seating at Amsterdam University
Amsterdam University Library social learning space
The rules for students in this space are indicated by signage (designed by a student).
Some of the meaning required a bit of explanation for me (apparently – yes to talking, yes to mobile devices, no to fast food and ensure drinks have lids) but slightly more cool than most library signage.