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Cumbria Learning Gateway - Open Plan

This Open Plan Case Study originates from the 2007 JISC-commissioned study into the Design and Management of Technology-Rich Learning and Teaching Spaces in Further and Higher Education in the UK by Les Watson, Hugh Anderson (Principal, haa design) and Katherine Strachan (Architect, haa design).


Case Study tags: learning spaces, open plan, learning gateway, university of cumbria, new build, north-west englandhigher education

Opened 2005


Respondent Margaret Weaver, Head of Learning and Information Services


This Case Study was undertaken in early 2007, at which point the institution was known as St. Martin's College - now part of the University of Cumbria, formed in August 2007.


In the questionnaire response this facility reported minor problems with some aspects of the space but highlighted the new space booking system as a more serious problem.


The Learning Gateway is just over 2000 square metres and split over three floors. Although this is not large it does include open flexible learning study space, social learning space with wireless IT access through laptops, a 140 seat lecture theatre, and a range of rooms for group study and teaching - known as Flexi-rooms. A variety of seating areas are available in the space from formal to informal. The building is bright and airy with a central atrium. Good use has been made of furniture; for example pods with banquette seating to break up the space forming a number of separate environments. Colour has also been used to set a range of moods within the space.


In terms of heating and ventilation the Learning Gateway is built on a green formula; passive ventilation relying on a system of automatically opening and closing windows. The system works satisfactorily but is still in need of some fine-tuning. For example the lecture theatre in the building is air-conditioned and is sometimes too cold. The Building Management System that controls the Learning Gateway is in Lancaster and the building is in Carlisle so there does tend to be a lag in adjusting to temperature changes.


The booking of space was raised as an important issue in the questionnaire response. Initially the University had a policy of defining space as generic, dedicated or specialised (e.g. subject specific laboratories in teaching buildings). This system has been revised recently and there are now only two kinds of space defined: generic or specialised. The adoption of a new system for room bookings and pressure from the institution for all space to be on this system is now putting some pressure on the use of space in the building. Such changes at institutional level impact significantly on a facility like the Learning Gateway that is focused on promoting change. Such a facility needs to be available as much as possible for 'serendipitous use' by students if it is to make the best impact on individual and institutional behaviours. As a compromise and to be sure that there would be some 'serendipitous use' of the space half of the Flexi-rooms are on the timetabling system and half are managed by LIS staff. The open spaces in the Learning Gateway remain open access and are not bookable. The Flexi-rooms within the building that are bookable cannot be booked by students. As the University Estates strategy rolls out there is increased pressure on space (as the strategy has to provide for a refreshed curriculum, additional staff and subjects). In addition as University status approaches the Vice Chancellor and his team are relocating from Lancaster to Carlisle putting even greater pressure on space from August 2007. In response, rooms in the Learning Gateway are now being adapted to take larger classes (of 60 rather than the current 30) by making use of moveable partitions.


In addition to its role as a centre for student learning the opening of the building has stimulated a whole new strand of activity from conferences - but students continue to take overall priority. Even when used for conferences the Learning Gateway remains open to students and they also play a part in conferences held.


The creation of the Learning Gateway was stimulated by a Higher Education Academy "Change Academy" programme. The impact of the Learning Gateway is such that it will inform further building at the University.

The Learning Gateway is a deeply cultural change agent for the University of Cumbria and is linked to the "academic identity" of the institution. The issues over space pressure and booking, comments Margaret Weaver, are a symptom of the tensions created by cultural change and a natural reaction in the institution to resist this change.


It is clearly important that a space like the Learning Gateway is subject to evaluation, however the University Estates Department seems likely to use the Higher Education Funding Council space evaluation methodology which, whilst it does measure levels of use, is highly inappropriate for this type of space; the kind which exists to bring about educational change.