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Universities of Sussex and Brighton

InQbate: the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Creativity



Background & Context


Start and End dates


The project money was awarded in March 2005


University of Sussex:


April 2006 - March 2007

The first year was primarily focused on design. Actual building commenced in April 2006 and will be concluded in March 2007.


University of Brighton:


July 2005 - March 2007


Work was able to start almost immediately in July 2005 as the HEFCE funding was combined with existing internal funding to enlarge the project scope. Work is also due to be completed in March 2007.


Case Study tags: learning spaces, refurbishment, university of sussex, university of brighton, south-east englandhigher education


What was the context of the development?


The CETL programme is a HEFCE initiative designed to establish centres of teaching and learning excellence in different areas of learning and for these to then act as exemplars for the dissemination of good practice throughout the HE community. So, for example, at Brighton they also have the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design. Our particular aspiration is around creativity - to increase the creativity of our teaching and our teaching of creativity.


Type of project


Refurbishment project: a total of £3.75 million, structured as initial capital funding, then recurrent funding over 5 years, to develop innovative teaching and learning in creativity within both student populations, and to then disseminate those findings out to the wider HE community.

The reason it was a refurbishment is because it was stipulated in the funding programme.


Both 'Creativity Zones' are refurbishment projects to existing University buildings and have involved complete internal remodelling of walls, windows, ceilings and floors.


Within the Sussex Creativity Zone, we have taken the initial 'concrete box' that we were given, knocked windows in it, created a raised floor and a suspended grid ceiling and installed sliding screens on two walls to create 'box within box' model that conceals technology when not required, provides furniture storage, and enables easy reconfiguration of cabling and networks over time.


Within this, we have applied some of the thinking from the Arts sector to develop a 'white box' design. This is a hybrid, combining the flexibility of the traditional 'black box' theatre model with the airiness and visual impact of the 'white cube' gallery model. Where possible we have used the structural features of the space to act as pivot points for moveable walls, sliding screens and curtain railings, allowing us to take a single space and to subdivide it in several different ways to create a variety of different environments.


A neutral colour scheme throughout, combined with an integrated AV system and individually-adjustable LED lighting, enables the information quality and emotional feel of the space to change with every reconfiguration, creating a range of environments to suit every activity - whether that's loud, physical and social or quiet, individual and contemplative.


Integrating the technology and furniture into the fabric of the space minimises visual and physical 'clutter', maximizing the flexibility of the space and reinforcing the range of its various moods.


It's quite hard to describe because it is quite ambitious. It's not a lecture hall, not a computer lab, not a café, not a workshop, not a cinema - but it can switch between versions of these, and others, to respond easily to changing needs for the learning activity taking place.


The Sussex site is 300 m2. It's difficult to say with the Brighton site as it was combined with internal funding to include remodelling of the engineering design labs, but the area known as the 'creativity zone' is slightly smaller, probably about 200 m2. Although both spaces are linked by a dedicated network connection and complementary in scope, they have taken slightly different design approaches. As well as some front projection, and 3D projection, Brighton has a curved, three-projector acrylic wall for rear projection. Sussex on the other hand, has front project on all areas of the main space, enabling the creation of 360 degree projected panoramas.


What is it?

There are two sites: one at the University of Sussex and another equivalent site at the University of Brighton. This is a joint initiative with Sussex as the lead. Although the overall design aims are aligned, each has taken a slightly different approach in their interpretation.


The project aims to support the development of innovative teaching and learning within the university and to extend our teaching and learning provision.


Although they are a major part of the project, InQbate is much more than just 2 technology-rich teaching spaces.

The overall intention of the project is to provide tutors and students at Sussex and Brighton with the time, the space and the support to design and develop innovative teaching and learning activities and events.


To this end, the project fund has been divided into 4 principal streams: A capital fund to build and fit-out 2 technology-rich learning 'Creativity Zones', a staffing budget to maintain a team of educationalists and technologists to support tutors and learners using these spaces, a 'Creativity Development Fund' (CDF) to support tutors who want to develop innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and a dissemination budget to develop an appropriate model for evaluation of this new learning and an effective strategy for any findings.


Even before either space has been completed, we have already funded 18 CDF projects across a range of disciplines, from medicine to fine art.


What Happens In The Space?


It's a teaching and learning fund and so both spaces are primarily focused on teaching and learning.


Although the project has started within the disciplines of Engineering & Design and Informatics, both zones are reaching out to other subjects and supporting the development of innovative teaching and learning across the curriculum.


We aim to provide tutors who want to improve the creativity of their practice with the time, space and support to develop their teaching and learning skills. As part of the project we not only provide a funding opportunity, but also a team of technology facilitators and learning facilitators to help assist people in the design and development of the teaching. Their experience encourages tutors to reflect on their current teaching practice and explore alternative approaches - along with new technologies. We then provide the space where they can enact this.


Although this is a teaching space, in some ways it's more helpful to think in terms of a performance and exhibition space - or a workshop space. As I say, it's not a computer lab or a café or a lecture hall or a seminar room, but rather it's a bit of all of those. It's an open space that can be sub-divided and the technology reconfigured in a variety of ways to create smaller spaces as required - or different spaces that enable a range of different teaching and learning activities. This might be discovery learning through interactive exhibitions, alternatively it might be collaborative learning through group work - or 'workshop-based' problem based learning through setting the students a real world task and then letting them take the ownership over the development process. The zone has been designed as a flexible space to support a variety of learning activities, allowing it to be used by the full range of disciplines within the curriculum.

Within the Sussex space, there are 16 projectors, which can be set up to create a 360o projected panorama - creating an immersive Imax-type environment. Tables fold down from the walls to create workshop areas, curtains can slide across to subdivide the area to create intimate group working spaces and coloured lights enable us to create ambient mood settings. It's kind of like learning in a theatre environment. We want to use the power of AV and other digital technologies that are used in museums, galleries and theatre spaces to create experiences that stimulate learners into engaging with the learning.


The space is essentially a white box with moveable walls that revolve or slide across, curtains and screens, and lights - and the whole of the ceiling is a grid work so you can hang further lights or projectors or videos or cameras on it. The technology is embedded within the space to maximise impact without creating a distraction.

CCTV cameras around the ceiling can be used to continuously project the various areas of activity around the walls of the space, thereby enabling learners to see what their colleagues are doing even when they don't have the direct line of sight due to the particular configuration of the space. In this way, the room is kept open to learners who are constantly kept aware of, and stimulated by, the activity of their peers. This reflects the 'learning through observation' approach that lies at the heart of the InQbate project.


However, it's not just CCTV images - you can project web pages. Similarly, we can video conference people in, for example as part of an engineering project they may want to talk to an expert from Rolls Royce in which case we can video conference that person into the space so the students can talk to them while they work. Alternatively, they may have learning objects, created by the tutor ahead of the class, playing while they work. We have 16 simultaneous switchable video channels that we can play in any part of the room, so we can create a fairly magical environment. That's why it's a bit like a theatre - the students are immersed in the middle of all this video stuff going on. The learning isn't just contained within a plasma screen at one end of the classroom, they are actually surrounded on all four sides by video projection and plasma screens, by surround sound, and coloured light. All of this works together to allow us to create really engaging environments for them.


What Principles Were Behind The Design?


Pedagogically, we are very much committed to student-centred learning, immersive learning, experiential learning, problem based learning and collaborative learning, so our teaching is more facilative than instructional - it's very much putting the learner in the driving seat. In order to achieve this, you have to support the tutor so that they have the skills and understanding to be able to achieve this. What we hope to do is to use the space and technology to provide the right environment to help tutors create the right environment for effective learning. We will work hard to devolve control to the tutors and hope that they pass that ownership onto the learner.


Conceptually, the original approach was based on the operating theatre model of 'learning through observation' but this can be extended out into constructionism and learning by making... and learning by talking - the whole collaborative side of things. So, for example, within the space there are refreshments facilities encouraging people to stay on at the end of the session and continue the learning discussion within a less formal environment.


As I said, the underlying metaphor for the space design itself is a 'white box' - a combination between the black box model of the theatre and the white cube model of a gallery. This gives us flexibility and good visual impact. We also drew on the idea of a magician's cabinet - with walls that moved in unpredictable ways, changing colours to make it an exciting place that would fascinate people, where it wasn't always the same and every time they came, they would get a different experience to keep their interest, shapeshifting to hold their attention and draw them in.

In terms of green issues we've used LED lighting - and within the ventilation system we've looked at mixing warm air generated by the technological equipment in with fresh air to minimise on heating requirements.


Funding Sources


HEFCE (both Brighton and Sussex), and part self-financed by Brighton


Cost of Project


Capital works:


Each site was allocated approximately £1 million in capital funds to include build work, furniture and technology.

At both sites, approximately £725k of this has been spent on capital work (including furnishings) and £275k on technology.

Although this was a very ambitious, innovative and intricate project, it was imperative that it was kept within budget.




There are 16 projectors, 12 plasma screens, 360 individually controlled LED lights, whose colour can be individually controlled. There are 8 CCTV cameras, 8 fixed webcams and 8 hand held video cameras that can plug into the system. There is an 18:18 DVI matrix and a 32:32 PAL matrix.

These are all integrated in to a single control system from any of the 8 wall-mounted touchscreens around the room, allowing us to switch video content around the room to suit whatever's needed by the learner or the tutor. We've got wireless access, induction loops... we've got wirelessly enabled laptops... surround sound, localised sound... and will be including sensor technology - this will enable us to extend the interactive potential of the space, for example, you might have something where you squeeze on a foam block and the strength with which you squeeze is reflected in the brightness of the lights in the ceiling. This might be used to give feedback on the learner's opinion of another student's presentation.


Adding Value


It's difficult to say as we've only just finished and are just going into the operation and evaluation stages, however we anticipate the technology will principally add value by helping stimulate the learner engagement - secondly, by helping to contextualise the learning within the wider subject area.


We believe the technology will enable us to support more collaborative working - not only within the classroom environment but also with external participants. We think we can use the technology to support increased reflection, both as individuals and as a group.


We're also hoping to use the technology to support increased creativity within the generation of new ideas. We are looking to explore how, by working with artists and performers, we can develop new ways of using the space and technology, and then to demonstrate these to tutors to see whether these can be incorporated in to their teaching and learning.


The final way to support teaching and learning is around the peer review and feedback throughout the learning process. We hope to use the technology to help the students articulate their learning through a range of potential forms of external representation and to encourage feedback from their peers.


We are very much focused on student-centred learning. We're committed to devolving ownership, where possible, from ourselves to the tutors - and then in supporting them to devolve it onwards to the learner. A key part of modelling this is to facilitate them taking control of the space and the contained technology. Within the space the InQbate team works closely with the tutor during the design of the learning experience, working with them to enable them to take ownership of the space and design the right learning environment for the students to engage in exploration, collaboration and learning. In this way, the tutors act almost as 'learning directors', setting the scene for the desired learning experience that the learners then inhabit.


Success Factors


What Makes The Space Successful?

Again this is difficult to say at this point in the project but I think what will make it successful is that it will challenge the expectations and assumptions learners may have about learning spaces and open them up to new experiences - the aesthetic of the Creativity Zone is unlike any other teaching space in the University.


Another important aspect will be that flexibility and support are embedded throughout. Providing technology facilitators, learning facilitators and creative facilitation as part of the service means that we can hand-hold tutors through what is quite a challenging process - as they reflect on their current teaching practice and explore both technology and space in order to look at alternative ways of achieving their learning objectives.


The final element that will set us apart from other teaching and learning spaces will be how we are using AV technologies. Not only are we using more AV resources than most current teaching spaces have access to, but we have also tried to be innovative in how we use them - learning from the arts and theatre sector to not just provide information but to present information in an engaging manner, actively creating immersive spaces, generating experiences that engage people, excite them and draw people in to the learning.


We hope to be able to use the technology and team to engage tutors and learners in exploration and active learning, and then support them in their learning journey.


What Is Innovative About The Design And The Use Of The Space?


What's most innovative is the flexibility. Lots of people have been talking about flexible spaces for a while now, and there is an increasing trend towards flexible furniture and social furniture design. However, we've tried to take it one stage further by making sure that all furniture within the space can be stowed out of visual sight and all technology can be hidden.


The attention to the visual aesthetic and the psychological clutter is also quite unusual. Although it has been designed as a very blank neutral space to enable it to take on different feels through differing lighting and projection, it has an open, contemporary feel that out of the 'institutional' norm for HE teaching spaces.

The flexible partitions and furniture, combined with rich AV resources on a neutral colour scheme means that it can change from a visually and physically blank space to a full space and back very quickly.


I know that several institutions are using slide seating in auditoriums that pulls to the sides, freeing up the space for other uses, but even when stowed like this, it actually still has a very dominating physical presence which changes the feel of the room. I think what we've done is try to ensure that the room would maintain a good strong visual aesthetic in all the various activities that we could envisage.


Another innovative element is the control software. We have developed this in-house from scratch and have designed it to be accessible to all users of the space, generating a sense of agency, autonomy and ownership.

Having 16 simultaneous video channels within a medium sized teaching environment will enable us to create quite an impact and generate immersive projected panoramas and environments.


One final thought, although this is less innovative and more a question of good practice, is the provision of dedicated developmental educational and technological support - it's no good supplying tutors with technology if you don't supply them with the support to use it effectively.


Top Tips


My number one tip would be the importance of getting buy-in to the vision from all stakeholder groups concerned in the project.


Creating a truly innovative learning space, like any innovative design, doesn't just involve educating tutors in how they might teach differently, it also impacts on a range of different administrative and support departments i.e. HR, Estates, ITS, cleaning etc. It's not something you can do just in isolation - you have to get their buy-in, you need to have senior support, and you need to have effective funding in place because you'll probably need them to be innovative in their approach too.


Because designing innovative spaces is such a complex process, it challenges most educational institutions and it requires a little bit more investment in terms of willingness to do things differently - you have to remain flexible in order to address some of the unexpected issues that only surface during the build phase. This needs to be factored into the design process.


The other thing I would stress is the importance of an iterative design process, planning design and development in stages with clear points for reflection and review - is the current design really possible? does the design still support the underlying needs? etc.


It's not always easy to be definite about the eventual design when you are trying to do anything innovative, especially when you are using new technologies. I think you need to make sure that you factor into the project planning, points where you can stop and review progress, potential and how this maps back to need...

A final tip would be to try to get clear visual representations of the design at each stage. One of the biggest obstacles we have faced in building an innovative space is getting people to buy in to something they didn't fully understand. Getting yourself good visual representations, whether that's a physical model, virtual model, layouts or artist's impressions, can make all the difference - people can only really give you the right input if they really understand what you are trying to achieve.


Lessons Learned


As far as lessons learnt, a key one is that any bespoke fitting/development, whether this is furniture, technology or whatever, is very expensive. Alternatives should be considered wherever possible as there are often ways of getting an equivalent result through clever use of off the shelf technologies. The skill lies in balancing the trade off between appropriacy for function and cost of development. I think we probably could have saved money if we had a better knowledge of what was already available. This flags the need for adequate research time at the beginning of the project. If we had the opportunity to repeat the project, I think I would make sure that we had more time for initial pre-design research - not only for user needs but also what else is happening elsewhere, and what new possibilities are offered by emerging building materials and technologies.


As with a lot of projects there was a significant pressure to get into nailing down the design and getting on with the build. If you want to do something truly innovative and different, you need to give yourselves a little bit more time to test things out. Factoring in more review points throughout the design and build process where you can review the way things were going and amend the design if needed - I think that's probably the key thing.

We ended up with quite an iterative process, in that we had a principal contactor do the major work and then we had a separate contractor doing the furniture installation - but this was only because the furniture was in-built and formed quite a significant part of the design (we had in-built bespoke sliding screens and revolving walls) However, on reflection, this gave us time to take stock and I think that would work very well for a lot of projects. It goes back to what I said before about when people, whether that's suppliers or the Estates department or academics, when they can't quite 'get' the specific purpose of different elements within the design. Making sure that there's time to review the design within the crystallizing space once the shell has been completed can allow you to identify potential problems with the existing design and possible solutions. Being able to get in there, stand there and point at them, makes it much easier to refine the furniture and technology infrastructure. It helps to be able to inhabit the emerging space to design the final space.


We've tried to work in a series of 'onion-skins' from the hard shell down through to the physical hand held devices - both from a budgetary and physical design perspective. This means we've developed the walls, then a layer of technology, then some furniture, a layer of technology, second layer of furniture and then finally a layer of subdividings with technological kernels within them - finally, laptops and handheld technologies fit with the users that inhabit these areas.


We've consciously tried to minimise the number of portable devices contained within the space. This is principally to minimise the logistics involved in managing a large number of small devices for large, and variable, groups of students. Instead we have focussed on technology that has been built in to the architecture of the space - nearly all of the technology is fixed to the ceiling grid or embedded within the walls. This is not only easier to manage and maintain over time but also has the benefit that the technology is not overly foregrounded on the learner's perception. The technology doesn't dominate the space - individual devices and systems come into play only whenever necessary to support a particular learning activity.


Post Occupancy: Changes Made As A Result Of Feedback


It's very early on for us, we're only just beginning to start teaching in it and so haven't had much feedback yet. We're in the process of developing the full evaluation model.


From an analysis point of view we'll be documenting the events wherever possible through the use of questionnaires and feedback evaluation. We also have the possibility of including video footage with the CCTV cameras that have been built into the space.


Because we will be working closely with the tutors in the design, we'll be doing semi-structured interviews with them and then feedback forms with the students.


Contact details


Tom Hamilton, Sussex University, t.hamilton@sussex.ac.uk
Richard Morris, Brighton University


Case study written: 2007.