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Learning about student spaces at the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons

By Benjamin G M Meunier, on 27 March 2015

As the Provost announced today in myUCL, the New Student Centre project is coming along and enabling work will begin this summer.

University of Manchester building

As part of the ongoing design work for the new building, Nicholas Hare Architects arranged a visit to Manchester. Paul Ayris and I joined the design team and colleagues from UCL Estates, ISD and the office of the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs).

The highlight of the day was the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons, with its fantastic varied types of learning space. On paper, it is a very similar proposition to the UCL New Student Centre:

  • 1,000 study spaces dedicated to University of Manchester students, with a range of social learning and quiet study
  • No books, but around 350 computers
  • Managed by the Library on behalf of the University
  • A cafe provides catering through extended hours (to 23.00) during busy times of year
  • Open 24 hours, 363 days a year

Seating area

Computer workroom
They used student artwork as the frosting on glass panes and doors, which was a really neat way of showing off the creativity of the student community as a feature of the building. There were some, not many, examples of artwork which also linked to the University of Manchester’s research, including one themed around the discovery of graphene. I was especially impressed by the way every element in the building had been thoughtfully integrated into the design, right down to the recycling bins built into large cabinets by the staircases…

Recycling bins

Digital signage provided clear and relevant information for users, including adverts for sessions dedicated to fixing personal devices run from their IT Helpdesk. They also had interactive screens, where users could scroll through news items, find out where seats were available in the building and book study rooms: those looked really useful.

It was helpful to see what they have done and hear from the staff there. Our tour guide on the day, the Library Team Supervisor, was excellent and it is clear that the staff in the building are passionate and knowledgeable about the services which they provide. The University of Manchester Library was awarded Customer Service Excellence status, which we are aiming to gain for UCL Library Services as a goal for the current Strategy.

Service desk

Their challenges around lack of space, particularly for staff facilities, echo ours, as we share the constraints of being based in a busy city centre. It was also helpful to hear that at Manchester they would rather have fewer coffee tables and more desk-height learning spaces, which UCL students have also noted in some surveys. I also found it interesting that the number of users who can find available seats is somewhat lower than the number of spaces on paper. The reason for this is that students take possession of booths or group rooms in smaller numbers than there are seats available, and discourage others from entering. Encouraging students to share is something which staff there are working on… They put out extra learning spaces and tables during exam period, to increase capacity.

Aerial view of study area
All in all, the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons is a fabulous building, which fully deserves its plethora of awards, including the Guardian University Awards 2014. One of our big challenges is how we can make the UCL Student Centre even more attractive, with more learning spaces in exam season! To find out more about the New Student Centre, you can visit the dedicated project webpage, or just ask me or Scott Foulon.

Students studying

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