A new school of thought

Monday 06 Feb 2012

The rise of digital learning forces education design to get creative

This week it emerged that the Government of Kerala has instigated a futuristic new programme where high school and higher secondary school students will be able to study in a building-free environment, accessing all necessary teaching materials via a virtual classroom. This is not the first time a programme of this nature has been made available; in fact, it is becoming more commonplace, begging the question: How long until the school building becomes obsolete?

In 2009, Shelly Blake-Plock penned a blog post that went viral and has seen a renewed spate of interest as the changing face of education has gained pace. Blake-Plock’s post was entitled ‘21 things that will become obsolete in education by 2020’, and listed everything from paperbacks (‘Books were nice. In ten years' time, all reading will be via digital means’) to organisation of education services by grade (‘Education over the next ten years will become more individualised, leaving the bulk of grade-based learning in the past’).

Some of the author’s premonitions are already noticeably closer to reality, for example that desks will disappear from the generic classroom layout and more active learning spaces inserted into this void. This practice is becoming ever more apparent in modern schools such as 3XN’s Orestad College in Copenhagen and the Michael Faraday Community School in London by Alsop Sparch.

Number twelve on Blake-Plock’s list was the disappearance of so-called ‘Centralised Institutions’, with the traditional school building supposedly replaced by ‘homebases of learning’. The author determined that ‘Buildings will get smaller and greener, student and teacher schedules will change to allow less people on campus at any one time, and more teachers and student will be going out into their communities to engage in experiential learning’.

This is arguably the most dramatic point in the post. For centuries the school building has been a guiding factor in every child’s life with more waking hours spent at a desk in a generic classroom environment than at home with their families or engaging in passive learning through play. However, a recent shift in our dependency on cutting-edge technology has seen a move away from the classic learning environment and a shift towards virtual learning.

Spend a matter of minutes Google-searching the future of school buildings and you will stumble across hordes of bloggers and critics predicting the demise of the traditional education facility and the awakening of a new typology of school base. These analyses are often in parallel with examinations of the changing role of the teacher as a blended model of digital learning and tutor guidance emerges. So teachers are not becoming obsolete, they are simply evolving. Is the same true of school buildings?

A perfect example of this is the 2011 WAN AWARDS Education Sector Unbuilt winner, Tidemill Primary School by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects. The school was awarded £5m in government funding as a result of community facilities that were folded into the designs.

Dominique Oliver, project architect on the successful scheme, told WAN: “Tidemill Academy has become a central focus in the local area and is clear about its role and responsibility for building community cohesion and social capital. The sharing of facilities between the Deptford Lounge and Tidemill Academy maximises the resources available to both the school and the wider community. The shared facilities housed in the Lounge include an interconnecting suite of hall and assembly spaces: a rooftop ball court with changing facilities; a children’s library; and design technology and music rooms.

“The Lounge will also provide independent access to the school refectory and kitchen, making them available for hire by members of the local community. The Deptford Lounge also houses a district library – and much more: a resource centre for start-up businesses; an access point for Council services; a café – and even public toilets. The ambitious nature of this co-location of capital projects won the scheme an additional £5m from the DCSF’s co-location fund.”

Education facilities are becoming increasingly open to the public and architects forced to rethink their attitudes to what a school should be as government funding dries up and teachers turn to more experimental and technological methods of educating their students. Traditional blackboards are being replaced by interactive whiteboards and iPads used to engage children with teaching material and prepare them for our technology-dependent world. As virtual learning becomes an even bigger threat to the conventional teaching method, architects are going to have to work even harder to get ahead in the education sector.

The 2012 WAN AWARDS Education Sector is now open for entries. Click here for more information or contact James Forryan at james.forryan@wantoday.com

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