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University of Cumbria - Learning Gateway

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.


Background & Context


Type of project:


New build on existing site


Start and End dates:


March 2005-December 2005 (build)
Jan-April 2006 (kit-out)
Opened 5th April 2006


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


St Martin's is a Higher Education College, accredited by Lancaster University, based in Lancashire, Cumbria and London. It has recently achieved taught degree awarding powers and is planning a new University for Cumbria as proposed by Sir Martin Harris.


The College's emerging academic strategy, envisioned in St Martin's Corporate Plan 2004-9, aspires to move from a traditional delivery mode to more flexible forms of learning and teaching in order to attract, retain and sustain a diverse student body. This strategy recognises that formal teaching space may not necessarily be the best way to support student achievement, or to support a variety of student learning styles. In response to this challenge, the Learning Gateway (LG) at the Carlisle campus (Fusehill Street) was conceived, designed and built as a catalyst for change, to further implement the College's flexible and distributed learning goals in Cumbria and more widely. In addition, the embedding of technology was seen to be pivotal to the project thereby promoting its adoption by staff which might then support a change in their teaching and learning practice. Promoting independent learning and transferable skills, using collaborative learning principles was central to the concept.


Consequently the Learning Gateway is very different from other College physical spaces. It offers an exciting opportunity to draw together a completely new community of learners with diverse support needs. The LG also supports learners, tutors and support professionals in ways that foster independent learning. A set of pedagogial principles underpins its design. It is based on the assumption that 'the relationship between the physical environment and the student experience is vital and that the latter can be enhanced if it is designed in right from the start.' The building opened on April 3rd 2006.


The vision for the Learning Gateway is based on the College's Corporate Plan, its Learning and Teaching Strategy and a set of pedagogical principles that put learners and learning first. These recognise that learning is complex; it does not take place in a vacuum and that space combined with technology and appropriate support can provide the optimum conditions for active learning.


In 2005, the College won a place on the Higher Education Academy/Leadership Foundation Change Academy programme. The challenge - to produce an action plan to further implement flexible and distributed learning across the College. Together with the Learning Gateway project, these initiatives provided the synergies needed to begin to effect emergent, cultural change. It was recognised that only by fully engaging College staff in the changes, would a long term impact be achieved, transforming the learning culture at St Martin's.


The Learning Gateway is space to learn in. It is much more than a building - it is an experimental learning environment. It is both a physical learning space and a metaphor for a new learning paradigm-connecting current and future learners - across the campuses of St Martin's. It combines physical and virtual space that is owned jointly by students, tutors and supporters.


It is therefore unlike any other teaching space traditionally provided by the College; it provides complete flexibility so that the space can be adapted spontaneously to support a variety of learning needs. In the sector, a number of institutions are re-examining their learning spaces. However, the Learning Gateway demonstrates how learner needs can be built into the design from the outset to form a flexible and innovative learning environment, working in partnership with other design and support professionals, academic staff and students.


It offers space for active and social learning; its furnishings, services and facilities are portable, easily accessed and use visual clues to suggest, rather than impose, how they might be used. For example, the furnishings have been purposively chosen to support conversation, collaboration and easy movement between modes of learning. Colour has been carefully applied to guide learners across the spectrum of reflective learning, to include conversational and peer approaches. There are few rules in the Learning Gateway and students are encouraged to be in control of their own learning experience. So far students have welcomed the responsibility to care for their own space.

New terminology has been devised to describe the various zones in the learning spaces - required to sell the space as different and also to accurately describe what the space is for. The space therefore espouses a constructivist mode of learning, with the learner at the centre. The learner is not passive in this process. Learners and tutors are learning together supported by the space's flexibility and the technology that affords differentiated interactions.

A new team of staff and a new job role - Learning Facilitator - has been created to support the activities of learners and tutors.


The Learning Gateway provides a safe and supportive place for students to engage in learning and study - independently and more formally as part of their course. A number of 'learning scenarios' have been developed to envision how it might be used and these, in turn, have been adapted into the Learning Guides available to users.

Students can drop-in and use the flexirooms during advertised opening hours or book ahead if they wish. The building is open until 9pm in term time and is open at weekends. The Learning Gateway is attracting students to the campus and use is increasing during non peak times even though most teaching currently ends at 6pm. A wi-fi laptop loan service is provided so students can use any areas in the LG, interacting with others as they desire.


The design of the building is such that each of the three floors appeals to a variety of learning styles and learner/tutor formations:

  • The space assists students to actively construct new knowledge as they interact with their environment and encourages student-student communication as well as teacher-student communication. Of the ten flexi rooms, six are bookable by students who use these for group work, practising presentations, role play, drama and discussion. The College has a blended learning model, with a mixture of distance and face to face learning.
  • The open community spaces support student learning in different ways. Students use the space as a meeting space for relaxing with friends, using a laptop, eating and drinking, conversation, working on an assignment etc.
  • A number of external events have been held, conferences, training sessions, open days, learning and teaching symposia.
  • North West Academic Libraries (NoWAL) held their first conference called Designing Space for Learning in Sept 06.
  • The space is very positive and lends itself to a variety of uses. Delegates at the conferences can circulate, socialise and very quickly move between parallel sessions, refreshments and the lecture theatre.
  • It has been designed to be attractive and aesthetic to motivate learners. The colours on the floors are co-ordinated to have visual impact and create a mood that promotes social groupings for example hot colours on the ground floor and cooler colours as you move up the building. Students use the top floor for quiet study.
  • The 140 seat lecture theatre provides formal teaching space. Its location alongside the informal spaces is offering new alternatives for tutors to 'break out' into other parts of the building and then re-group easily. The interactive technology is described below. This connected behaviour facilitates more interactivity between tutors and learners and allows tutors to try out new methods of teaching and learning. It also means that participants in a course can be teacher as well as learner.
  • The space is adaptable to a diversity of learning styles (solo work, working in groups and using ICT). We are noticing that students are making informed choices about their learning situations and adapting the physical environment accordingly, for example moving the furniture, carrying out a variety of structured and non-structured learning activities.
  • Quiet study areas are provided in the form of single 'pods' on the top floor in recognition that for some, a solitary space is required.
  • Students may be attending a more formal teaching session organised by tutors, using a flexi-room or they might be organising their own activities with peers.
  • The LG is also supporting the implementation of the 'new academic team' concept. The Centre for the Development of Learning and Teaching and the new Learning Technology Development Unit have been relocated to the Learning Gateway in order to provide critical underpinning of the College's Learning and Teaching Strategy and be on hand to support staff wishing to adapt their teaching practice. This multi-professional approach has been afforded by the space in both practical and strategic terms.


Funding Sources


HEFCE: PCR3 (build) and PCR4 TandL strand (kit-out)


Cost of Project


Build: £2.9 million plus charges £3.2 million in total.

Kit-out £800,000:

Ground floor - 814 square metres
First floor - 817 square metres
Second floor - 640 square metres

TOTAL: 2271 square metres


The above figures include all areas eg. plant room, toilets, stairwells and lecture theatre. The lecture theatre has tiered seating spanning ground floor to 1st floor. The total plan area for this space is 140 square metres.




Video conferencing


The Lecture Theatre has video conferencing built-in in order to make it as seamless as possible to bring external audiences or speakers into the space. There are also two portable video conference units that can be used in the flexirooms; apart from the expected communication usage (to other College locations, other institutions and between rooms), they have also been used for some other interesting applications such as observing body language. The LG official opening took place in the Lecture Theatre and also 'virtually' by VC link to Lakes College on the west coast of Cumbria. VC is used extensively by the College for meetings at various locations, however the LG system is extending this to learning and teaching activities. For example as part of the Faculty of Health and Social Care's widening participation programme, they ran a taster session for FE/HE students at Lakes College and simultaneously from the Learning Gateway, centred on study skills for HE. Therefore we believe that the portable video conferencing facilities support shared experiences of learning. Students are also experimenting with the VC unit to communicate with tutors, between rooms and between each other.


Wireless network


The College's first wireless network is in the LG serving as a test bed for the institution. This has allowed more flexible thinking as to how and where computers are used. A laptop follows a user around the building, rather than the user having to log onto and off different machines depending on where they are working. The use of laptops and wireless technologies also means that we didn't have to have dedicated IT labs. By bringing a number of laptops into a room it can become an IT teaching room; once that session is over, the room can be used for other work.


Polling system


A Polling system is installed in the Lecture Theatre to provide instant feedback and additional interactivity. The delegates at the NoWAL Conference in September 2006, took part in a vote as part of the two keynote speeches, being asked about trends in libraries, the use of technology and perceptions of students. It has also been used in a recent staff awayday to highlight the demographics of learning in Cumbria.


Digital signage


A system of Campus Information Points (CIP) has been introduced. These allow digital images to be captured and streamed to all the CIPs across the College. Five screens are in the LG and these are used to convey information to users about events, room availability, message of the day etc.


The majority of the learning space within the building is self-bookable (open to all staff and students). The digital signage provides a real-time display of room availability, as well as opening-up opportunities for displaying other information, tips and ideas. It is linked to the wider campus information system of signage that allows promotion of the LG to other campuses. The transferability of the LG concept is a major area of development in the College.




These spaces blend technology and furniture to provide flexible learning spaces. For example, wireless keyboards and mice mean that users no longer have to stand at the front of the class to operate the 'teaching wall' computer. Any laptop can become the teaching wall PC, making it quick and easy to move from small group/individual work to displaying it to an audience. Interactive boards provide the opportunity for enhanced 'flipchart' style sessions, but with the added advantage of being able to save and digitally distribute the final result. The Lecture Theatre also features a stylus driven touch-screen version of the interactive board, allowing this technology to also be used with larger audiences.


Laptop loans


As the building is wireless enabling laptop use anywhere in the building a flexible lap top loan service has been set up. (The staff offices contain the only fixed PCs in the LG). There are 90 laptops for loan (soon to become 120). Students can borrow a laptop for 3 hours, and/or return it for re-charge. Tutors can also borrow banks of 30 laptops for use with a group. The Talis Library Management System is used for lending thus integrating print loan and IT loan facilities into the LG. Learning Facilitators can move freely to where learners require help - not being fixed to a service desk means that interactions are more informal and supportive.


Adding Value


  • The technology allows students to become familiar with specialist software that they may not have been able to access previously, e.g. smartboards for teacher training students before they enter schools on placements.
  • Students can get support on using the VLE (Blackboard) and whilst using the VLE to learn.
  • Students are able to work throughout the building and move and adapt as the learning scenarios evolve.
  • Members of staff enjoy working in the Gateway as opposed to their own offices which encourages the mixing of students and staff in one space and breaks down potential communication barriers.
  • Students can take a more active role in traditional learning scenarios with the use of technology like wireless mice and keyboards.
  • The portable VC equipment allows students in different groups to communicate between rooms and interact in different ways.
  • The flexible furniture combines with the technology and enables students to make the space their own, for example the clearing of space for drama or reflexology while watching videos or powerpoint that lead the exercises.
  • Its wireless flexibility supports one-to-one and one-to-many modes and interactions, and spontaneous ideas.
  • Students appreciate being able to work in their own way; the technology affords both privacy and also differentiation.
  • It integrates both the social and emotional side of learning because its mobility appeals to a wide variety of learning styles.
  • The technology allows tutors and learners to interact to create novel situations, that motivates and supports student success.
  • The learner is more in control (not all learners feel comfortable with this).
  • We tried to blend technologies, wherever possible, to allow better value and a greater sense of 'whole' to the building. For example, the wireless technology allows the user to work in an open space; then take the same laptop into a flexiroom and dock it onto equipment cabinet; they can then work on a topic using the interactive board; the results can then be saved, instantly uploaded onto Blackboard and further discussions can take place via the forums.
  • Using new technologies users can often produce richer, interactive, reusable and longer-lasting materials and resources than those produced by or for traditional technologies.



What Makes The Space Successful?


  • There is institutional support for the Learning Gateway and a recognition that it can (and is) driving the step change wanted in learning and teaching at the College and in the new University for Cumbria. It is redefining the student experience and is a flagship for the institution's changed status in the context of St Martin's becoming a new University.
  • It has been integrated into the College's new Learning and Teaching Strategy.
  • Its flexibility means that the space can be used for a diverse range of activities that are learner centred and mission related.
  • Laptop use St Martin's College
  • The correct combination of flexible IT and flexible furnishings that put the learner first mean that students have ownership of a place to learn that is inviting.
  • Excellent customer care and learner support - the Learning Facilitation team are on hand for guidance, support and training, helping less confident students try something new.
  • Its integration into the College infrastructure via the Change Academy project means it has relevance as a concept to other campuses outside Carlisle. For example the LG approach has resulted in adaptation of space on other sites and is informing a new build project at Lancaster and the University of Cumbria centres.
  • It is the first space in Cumbria, if not nationally, to have this particular approach to space and further enabling flexible and distributed learning.
  • Its inclusivity has attracted interest from a wide range of stakeholders wishing to use it or learn from it.
  • The freedom of use for students and lack of rules mean it is encouraging rather than prohibiting.
  • It is a light, airy welcoming atmosphere very different from traditional learning spaces supporting all learning styles through its flexibility.
  • The availability of resources on demand allows students to come into the Gateway after formal teaching sessions to work together with the resources they require at the point of need.
  • Support from staff and peers allows students to gain the help they need immediately, enabling them to complete tasks and learn new skills quickly and easily.
  • There is an evaluation and dissemination strategy running parallel to the LGs implementation and ongoing development.
  • External stakeholders are invited in to the space and they are experiencing a vibrant learning environment that is encouraging new engagements with the institution.
  • The flexibility of the Gateway means that it is in-demand for a wide range of activities. One unexpected demand is for Conference use that can take over large parts of the LG. This has to be balanced against the effect on the student experience.


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


The Learning Gateway is based on the assumption that the relationship between the physical environment and the student experience is vital and that the latter can be enhanced if it is designed in right from the start.


The Architect, Raymond Whitaker states:


'To have such a statement within an architectural brief is unusual and to the architect both daunting and exciting at the same time for it acknowledges that a building is not merely a passive box within which activities take place but a structure that can actively affect how the occupants interact. In fact the brief for the Learning Gateway was unusual in many ways for it did not specify the number or size of rooms but instead spoke of interactivity, flexibility, innovation and institutional pride.


The finished building has a simple and transparent logic. At the south end are the main entrance, toilet facilities and primary circulation with the wrap around glazing and the three storey high column acting as a beacon and marker for the facility. At the north end is the lecture theatre, acoustically treated for unaided speech, fitted with IT and AV technology and containing over 140 seats. The theatre acts as a solid bookend to the building and acknowledges the presence of neighbouring residences.


Between these two elements are the open plan learning spaces looking out to the campus on the east with a series of individual seminar rooms on the west. The nature of the spaces changes from formal to informal as you rise through the building. On the ground floor there is soft seating and curved meeting pods, while on the 1st floor snaking team desking encourages small group working and on the 2nd floor semi circular study carousels are designed for individual study.


This layering is also emphasized in the colour scheme with the ground floor picked out in earthy terracotta colours, the 1st floor in the greens of the hills and vegetation and the top floor in the more ethereal blues of the air and sky.

At the heart of the learning spaces is the most dramatic element of the building, a soaring four storey atrium. This demonstrates the transparent open nature of the Learning Gateway and encourages interaction between its users. With large glazed facades and glass partitions and balustrades visibility is a recurring theme in the building.

But the atrium also serves practical purposes as well allowing natural light to penetrate into the heart of the building and acting as a natural ventilation chimney drawing fresh air up through the floors and avoiding the wasteful cost of mechanical extract.


The Learning Gateway is a bold statement that looks forward to new ways of learning but does not dictate rigidly how it is to be used. It is now up to students and staff to make the building their own and only then will the physical setting enhance their learning experience as the original brief required.' Architects Plus, Carlisle


The flexibility of the space is yielding new insights into how students learn and tutors teach. It is bringing together an entirely new group of learners, potential learners, community groups and tutors to create a vibrant learning community, Its rigorous evaluation is a priority for the College and this in itself presents challenges requiring deep engagement and innovative approaches.


Innovations In Use


  • The integration of such an innovative service within the existing Learning and Information Services and College structures has been challenging assumptions/practices.
  • Tutors, learners and supporters have equal status.
  • Students can book and use the majority of the flexirooms themselves; allowing them access to latest technologies and facilities.
  • Learning Facilitators proactively advise and assist users in the best use of the space and technology to help the user attain their desired outcomes.
  • The building is being driven by the users, the complete openness and flexibility offers an unusual freedom for students and staff to do whatever they want e.g. drop paper helicopters from a first floor balcony, set up treasure (information) hunts.
  • The styling of the different spaces guides people on how each can be used without dictating how it should be used.
  • The mix of formal and informal seating offers a range of different work spaces without needing to book a room or equipment in advance.
  • The large amount of glass in the building enables visibility between groups and is opening up the 'classroom experience'.
  • The space is hosting the development and working practices of multi-professional teams.
  • Treat each user as an individual and support them in the specific ways that each requires, treating staff and students equally.



Top Tips


  1. Think about the vision and essence of the building before engaging an architect. This must relate to the strategic objectives of the institution and have top level support.
  2. Appoint an architect and project manager that really understands the project and what it is trying to achieve; don't be frightened to challenge the established wisdom that was once the province of Estates.
  3. Have a multi-professional approach; get the early support of your ICT department and academic community.
  4. Research the sector and look outside the sector for innovative approaches that fit in with the values and objectives of the project. Draw on expertise of JISC and EDUCAUSE.
  5. Keep the users of the build at the centre of your designs and processes; involve stakeholders throughout including students. Set up evaluation methods early on.
  6. Remember that the building will last for a lot longer than the technology that you are planning; future-proof the project by building an infrastructure that can support a range of options.
  7. Be bold; if the project is experimental - say so. Be sure to integrate evaluation into the project plan.
  8. Disseminate the benefits of the project and think about how best to engage your user community.
  9. Build in time for slippage in a clearly defined project plan.
  10. Think about the support for users at a very early stage.
  11. Plan security for media and IT equipment and include costs.
  12. Use language and terminology that describes the intended use of the building - not necessarily how it might have been used in the past.
  13. Keep rigorous records of decisions taken, audit trails and procurement.
  14. Consider contingency plans for technology teething problems, have alternatives available.
  15. Manage expectations: just because it is a new space it doesn't mean it can solve all problems for all people.
  16. Promote the environment heavily and welcome everyone in.
  17. Build trust in the users so they will feel empowered to use the whole range of equipment and ask for support when required.


Lessons Learned


  • Ideally staff working on the project team should be seconded to it for a proportion of their time (if resources allow)
  • Check and double check specifications even if contracted to a third party
  • Allow sufficient time for testing and kit out after the building has been handed over
  • Manage the expectations of stakeholders throughout
  • Recruit staff earlier than you think to allow training and orientation
  • Large laptop trolleys have been too heavy to move around the building regularly, this has caused difficulties during low staffing periods. By having small laptop trolleys for moving the equipment we can shift the equipment round more easily and even ask academic staff to move their laptops themselves
  • It would have been useful to have included hot drinks facilities and additional plumbing so existing facilities could be extended in the future (discarded from the design for economy of scale as there is a cafeteria facility next door)
  • Greater variations in room sizes would have enabled small groups of students to use private spaces without needing to book a larger space (moveable walls were discussed but found to be too expensive)
  • More of an induction in the facilities at the start of their courses/in welcome week was needed. (we are addressing this)
  • Additional power sockets for personal laptops (non-wireless) or other equipment to be plugged into safely without cables trailing the floor. (Students are able to configure their laptops to wi-fi if they have a compatible wireless network card).


Post Occupancy: Changes Made As A Result Of Feedback


We are looking into the possibility of a portable polling system, so that users can try voting with smaller groups, and be more confident to then try polling in a Lecture Theatre environment.

Printers in the resource pods are being lowered to enhance accessibility.

Additional details have been added to the room booking system to allow users to make more measured decisions about the spaces they book.

Additional training sessions for students and staff have been provided on the equipment available.


Blinds to be added to certain rooms experiencing high levels of glare on the smartboard screens (all the flexirooms are glass).

The number of laptops is being increased due to very high demand (coming soon).


Contact Details


Margaret Weaver, Head of LIS MLWeaver@ucsm.ac.uk
Paul Holland, Head of Customer Services PHolland@ucsm.ac.uk


Case study written: early 2007.