U21 Forum on Design of Learning Experiences Expands Perspectives for All

October 13, 2009

October 13, 2009 — Learning in the 21st century is less about the classroom and more about the experience. But how do you design physical and virtual spaces that convey the experience?

Last week, the University of Virginia hosted the Universitas 21 Learning Environments Design Forum. Representatives from the consortium gathered to learn about ways U.Va. creates informal learning spaces and to explore design opportunities for the Carr's Hill Arts Grounds. The School of Architecture hosted the forum.

Universitas 21 – or U21 – is the international network of 21 leading research-intensive universities in 13 countries. U.Va. President John T. Casteen III currently serves as its chairman.

The first U21 design forum was held in 2007 at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and the second at the University of Hong Kong. U.Va. architecture professor Peter Waldman, who had attended both, invited the group to the University and expanded the exploration to include student workshops. U.Va. architecture students joined counterparts from Hong Kong and Melbourne for an extensive design charette that ran parallel to the U21 staff members' workshop.

Architecture School dean Kim Tanzer praised the experience as an opportunity for the students, U21 members and the University community to learn and explore. The Carr's Hill Arts Grounds is the home to the School of Architecture, the Department of Drama, studio art in Ruffin Hall, art history in Fayerweather Hall, the U.Va. Art Museum and the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library. The Cavalier Marching Band, part of the McIntire Department of Music, will soon join the community when its new rehearsal hall is added.

"The Carr's Hill Arts Grounds is not quite a collective space yet," Tanzer said. "The U21 forum is an opportunity to help shape that space."

She said the Arts Grounds is similar to Thomas Jefferson's design for the Lawn, but on a different scale. "The same principles of interaction apply to both," she said.

Bill Ashby, U.Va. assistant vice president of student affairs and associate dean of students, participated in the forum. "The opportunity to work with colleagues from around the globe is particularly inspiring," he said. "It stimulated our thinking here about the direction we choose to go in the future."

Peter Jamieson, a policy adviser to the provost at the University of Melbourne and the U21 Learning Environments Design Forum workshop leader, said he was delighted to come to U.Va. "because of the historical significance of this campus. What better place to come to think through the issues."

To guide the process at U.Va., participants met for three plenary sessions focusing on today's educational aspirations of creating trans-disciplinary and global educational and research experiences; the creative link between art and science; and the relationship of physical and virtual environments.

James Hilton, U.Va.'s vice president and chief information officer, led a panel discussion devoted to the intersection of information and space.

"How does technology transform the way we do business and how does that affect space?" he asked the panel.

The common link is the design of experience, said Elliot Felix, of DEGW, an international design consulting group that has created learning experiences for educational institutions as well as corporate giants such as Google.

Senior academic facility planner Richard Minturn shared ways in which U.Va. has created spaces for informal collaboration -- for example, a coffee shop in Wilsdorf Hall, a successful "place of encounter" for scientists who spend most of their days in closed-off labs, and a bridge from Wilsdorf to the Chemistry Building, which links the School of Engineering and Applied Science with chemistry, a discipline in the College of Arts & Sciences.

An "innovation garage" in the IT Engineering Building, now under construction, will further link disparate areas of the University with services such as a virtual reality lab. The new Claude Moore Medical Education Building will promote active and team learning through robotic simulation rooms where students will be introduced to emergency, obstetric and operating room experiences.

Engineering professor Stephanie Moore, director of engineering instructional design and head of the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program, which offers distance learning for students in their last two years of study, shared plans for cutting-edge approaches to virtually integrating the students into U.Va.

One example is a "Second Life"-type 3D reproduction of the Rotunda, six pavilions and Thornton Hall and a virtual path that students will travel as they explore laboratory experiences in a virtual world. Students will also be able to interact with virtual recreations of physical labs.

"We're creating a distributed learning network that goes beyond the online students. We are thinking about how our faculty and students here can use these virtual resources," Moore said.

Peter Byers, who heads a committee to bring together physical and virtual spaces at University of Birmingham in the U.K., said the session provided new ideas for his part of the U21 design workshop: restructuring space in the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library in the context of today's virtual accessibility to information.

"Of course, we are not constrained by budget so we can think outside the box," Byers said.

Twelve University of Melbourne architecture students and two University of Hong Kong landscape architecture students joined U.Va. students in exploring the Carr's Hill Arts Grounds.

Working under the collaborative direction of Waldman and two University of Melbourne professors, they began to share information and perspectives even before they left their respective home bases through video conferencing and posting of materials on a shared server.

Melboune student Annike Field said the social networking experiences were important to setting the groundwork for the project and for working together. They created a social networking site to link the group to keep in contact, she said.

Working together provided all a chance to gain knowledge of how the approaches to learning about design differ at each institution. The Melbourne students all commented on the more hands-on approach at U.Va., where creating and exploring three-dimensional models is an integral part of the process.

Melbourne professor Claire Newton said there are "unexpected positives. The students have been opened up to new ways of working – sharing approaches and concepts."

On the last day, students and U21 representatives came together to share broad views about their experiences and view the student proposals. One participant said, "It confirms my belief that none of us have all the answers. Each brings their own experience into the process."

A report of the forum explorations will be compiled and posted on the U21 Web site [link to www.universitas21.com/learningspaces.html).). U.Va.'s Office of the Architect gathered information at the final workshop sessions to help with planning for the Carr's Hill Arts Grounds.

The process for the students will continue through the semester as they expand their exploration working and collaborating from their home institutions. "We will keep in touch by video-conferencing, perhaps attending one another's final reviews," U.Va.'s Waldman said. The result of the student participation in the forum will be a book.

Also, an exhibition of their work will be on view in Campbell Hall in December.

At U.Va. the experience already has generated talk of other opportunities to continue the study of Carr's Hill through interdisciplinary research, Waldman added.

Next year the U21 group will gather at University College Dublin to help brainstorm a large campus planning project directed by Cliona de Bhaldraithe Marsh. "It's been great to see how enlightened Jefferson's thinking was at the time – having the faculty and students living together," Marsh said.

Like U.Va., University College Dublin is grappling with issues of "how to honor tradition and move with the times," she said.

— By Jane Ford