Social and Informal Learning Spaces: new report

12 July 2022      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

Window sill or lecture theatre? AUDE & Sodexo’s new report points to the growing need to understand and manage social and informal learning spaces in our universities

Today, AUDE publishes the latest in a suite of reports on different aspects of space management at our universities – ‘Social and Informal Learning Spaces: survey report’ – produced in partnership with Sodexo, the global catering and facilities management service provider. The report is based on surveys with AUDE members and more than 1000 students whose insights were commissioned via YouthSight. Social and informal learning spaces are an increasingly important part of life on campus for our students and are far from the traditional lecture theatre in nature.

As our research made clear, as long as there is somewhere to sit, and wi-fi and coffee are to hand, any corner of the campus can be colonised by students, either singly or in groups - even window sills on connecting corridors. Changing student expectations means learning is increasingly a social and collaborative activity. AUDE members recognise the value of S&ILs and know that they need to plan this type of space into capital development projects so that they form part of our learning environment strategy.

Yet these spaces are challenging for university estates teams to manage. Estates teams can be left seeing the popularity of such spaces but left wondering ‘What is the KPI?’ There is little consistency of measurement (such as utilisation data) and no room-booking system to support measurement of spaces that are widely differing, meaning universities don’t necessarily understand either the value (to staff and students) or the cost to the institution of operating these spaces in comparison to more formally arranged areas of campus. Informal spaces, flexible in use and often fitted out with moveable furniture, bring their own operational challenges.

Covid created one impetus for estates teams to look with fresh eyes at every corner of the physical estate in the push to create socially-distant learning spaces. But social and informal learning spaces (S&ILS) have seen significant growth on campuses worldwide for well over a decade, a shift driven by the availability of wi-fi in every corner of campus. 

“AUDE partnered with Sodexo to undertake an academic literature review of work in this field to feed into today’s report”, said Charlotte Livingston Lewis (Co-Chair of AUDE’s Space Management Group and Head of Strategic Programmes & Governance at the University of Warwick), “as well as to gather the insights of AUDE members and students, whose perspectives are informative. Students need spaces on campus that support specific tasks and their personal preferences, and will be guided by proximity to food/drink, lighting levels, noise, temperature and the opportunity to be either relatively alone or with others. For students commuting onto campus S&ILS provide a place for social interaction as well as learning, and a vital place to ‘belong’ between lectures. The three top requirements for these spaces in the students’ view, are ‘a secure, safe environment, ‘a quiet space’ and ‘sufficient seating’. The supporting infrastructure – cleanliness, access to toilets, extended opening hours, individual workspace and more – adds up to a package of significant value to our students.”

“For estates teams these spaces offer new challenges,” said Scott Lloyd (Head of Space Management and Design at the University of Warwick and Co-Chair of AUDE’s Space Management Group). “It is clear that experience within other kinds of environment – retail and commercial, office, schools – is feeding into student expectations, and Higher Education needs to be able to draw on wider industry expertise in designing our spaces. S&ILS have distinct needs and we need clear operational strategies for maximising the benefit of these flexible spaces on maintenance, cleaning, security and the physical robustness of the fixtures we choose. We need to be able to quickly reconfigure these spaces for alternative uses. As we edge ever closer to 24-hour campuses there is real weight on this type of space to deliver great user experience any time.”

Simon Knight, Managing Director, Sodexo Universities said: “Campus life must be resilient and built around a deep understanding of new consumer expectations.  The seven recommendations within the report provide guidance for AUDE members to improve S&ILS as part of their university’s estate strategies and operational plans. A flexible, asset-driven model brings a new focus on the student experience and supports learning outcomes.”

As Jane White (AUDE Executive Director) explained: “The work AUDE is doing in focusing on different elements of space management all links back to the idea of overall estate efficiency. What do we measure? And what does that tell us about how to manage our estate? S&ILS as a category has an upfront problem in our inconsistency around how we even classify these spaces – if we don’t know what they are how can we consistently compare and learn? This survey report is a great place to start a new focus on an increasingly important type of university space, with excellent input from the student perspective to steer us.”

Watch the Social and Informal Learning Spaces webinar held on the 25th November, in this session Sodexo discussed the background and evolution of S&ILS, their research findings from over 1000 undergraduates and AUDE members on their perceptions on the most important attributes of S&ILS, and they detailed their recommendations to the AUDE community for future effective management of S&ILS.

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