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Cardiff University consortium wins new grant for exploring social learning spaces on university campuses

19 January 2024

Exhibition Hall of graduate showing of undergraduate art and media

Dr Hiral Patel shares in winning a Universities Design Forum Grant alongside Cardiff University colleague Dr Katherine Quinn (Social Sciences) and industry expert Fiona Duggan (FID Space) for their impressive collaborative research proposal on improving the student experience through better design of social learning spaces on campus.

The next stage of the research project, "Campus Spaces and Places: Impact on Student Outcomes' moves forward as an imaginative new stream of investigations initiated and funded by the University Design Forum, AUDE and Willmott Dixon.

Learning is a social process. Providing open-access, informal environments to support this process is becoming an increasingly important element of the campus experience – especially in an increasingly remote and isolated zeitgeist where student interactions can be less tangible and immersive. These environments offer a range of settings where individuals and groups can come together to participate in diverse learning activities, seek support and solace amongst their peers, and enjoy relaxation and connection.

The research group will explore what types of social learning spaces enhance students' learning experiences, the factors influencing the design of social learning spaces, and their management and use. The team will develop a typology of social learning spaces to identify different spaces needed, and include a process guide for designing and managing spaces.

Dr Hiral Patel shared, "We are delighted to be awarded this project where we will focus on social learn spaces in university campuses. These are the spaces outside classrooms and lecture theatres, spaces in corridors, spaces in libraries, and any such spaces that are part of the collective learning process." Her previous project with the University Design Forum charted research gaps that need to be addressed to create better learning environments.

Cora Kwiatkowski, research project lead for UDF, and Head of Universities for Stride Treglown, said ‘I am delighted that this important research will help understand estates teams and designers what effect spaces have on students’ engagement and sense of belonging so we can create the best environment for students’ success.’

Data gathering will occur in online settings as well as live in situ engagement, reusing/revisiting ethnographic data across four empirical research sites. Researchers will challenge how those spaces were used, taking into account the shifting utilisation of spaces across the academic year. The team intends to tackle these questions through a qualitative research methodology, drawing strongly on ethnographic sensibilities of developing an in-depth understanding of the contemporary context in which the students learn and work.

"Our multi-disciplinary research team aims to develop a conceptual framework of social learn space typologies as well as practical guidance on designing and managing those spaces." Dr Patel affirmed. "We hope this project will contribute towards a nuanced discussion of such 'in-between' spaces on campus, which are vital for a thriving learning community."

The consortium of UDF, AUDE and Willmott Dixon believes this research initiative can enable a step-change in the campus experience that universities provide for students (and staff) in the midst of climate-emergency, cost-of-living crisis and the deeper existential challenges facing the higher education sector.

The long-term impact of the study will be to enable further research and discourse on the value of social learning spaces for creating a vibrant academic environment, both sowing excellence in the academic environment and also facilitating diverse, inclusive and supportive learning environments that Cardiff University and the wider higher education sector hope for all their students to experience.

Jane Harrison-White, AUDE Executive Director, said: 'We are delighted to have received such a strong proposal from the Cardiff team and look forward to continued partnership with UDF and Willmott Dixon to help us improve our understanding of student needs on campus. In a year where we continue to focus so much of our effort on net zero carbon, and where we have risked being knocked off course by RAAC, it is important to remember that creating great spaces that help us attract and retain both students and staff is fundamental to success as estates teams."

This team convinced the steering group especially through their practical approach, full understanding and enhancing of the research question, timeline (12 months) and budget. The research output will be the "SLS Guide – the Design & Management of Social Learning Spaces for University Campuses".

Dr Hiral Patel is no stranger to projects that seek to grow thriving communities and positive interactions with the built environment. She is a lecturer in Architecture at the Welsh School of Architecture and Director of Engagement, overseeing projects such as Shape My Street and Shape My School, an annual programme delivered in partnership with Cardiff Council where local schoolchildren design their ideal community neighbourhoods to build their architectural thinking, design skills and meet curriculum goals, amongst wide-ranging community outreach endeavours.

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