21st century knowledge environments

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21st century blended and hybrid knowledge models have seriously called into question the efficacy of the still pervasive industrial-age office-based and classroom-based model of knowledge transfer. DR KENN FISHER of Woods Bagot shares the improvements 21st century knowledge environments and activity-based work settings can bring.

The evidence-based design approach is based on the medical model of pharmaceutical trials. These ensure that the resultant evidence is sufficient to ensure the safety of the drug under test for use with patients. Also known as translational research, it has been further adapted from health facility planning and design, with qualitative and quantitative studies measuring the rate of healing of patients in different physical environments.
This uses an evaluation rigour also used for drug trials and outcomes, resulting in convincing evidence of the impact of the physical environment on human behaviour, as stated in The Role of the Physical Environment in the Hospital of the 21st Century.
This evidence-based approach is becoming essential as the 21st century has seen the rapid emergence of wireless broadband and mobile communications devices that are inexorably changing the way people communicate, collaborate, create and transfer knowledge. Yet, the vast majority of our knowledge environments were designed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now, new knowledge environments are being reengineered to meet these new and emerging technologies, and learning and work practices. However, these emergent developments have not been thoroughly evaluated to see if they actually work and should be replicated across the system or not.

These 21st century blended and hybrid knowledge models – simultaneous online and face-to-face – have seriously called into question the efficacy of the still pervasive industrial-age, office-based and classroom-based model of knowledge transfer.
At a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Workshop in 2003, William Mitchell noted that we now have a true synchronous/asynchronous and virtual/physical matrix of knowledge opportunities for which our existing knowledge environment infrastructure is not well-suited. As a response to these developments, many innovative knowledge environments are being tested. This includes an increasing focus on so-called ‘third-space’ to support social forms of interaction. We, therefore, need to rethink the nature of a 21st century knowledge environment.
Educause, a non-profit association the mission of which is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, notes that we also need to acknowledge the extraordinarily rapid advances in social networking, such as Twitter, Facebook and so on, which can all be used in knowledge frameworks. Relatively rigid knowledge spaces must adapt to meet the emerging needs of a wide range of workplace pedagogies for a variety of professional disciplines.

Many of these innovative spatial developments in formal knowledge environments are being instigated through initiatives led by information communication and technologies (ICT) departments, particularly in universities, and also now in further education and schools, as stated in Spaces for Learning – a review of learning spaces in further and higher education, a report for the Scottish Funding Council prepared by AMA Alexi Marmot Associates in association with haa design.
In parallel with the reengineering of these formal knowledge spaces is a profusion of informal knowledge commons, knowledge hubs and learning centres to encourage students to spend longer hours on campus with their peers.
These concepts were written into the architectural brief and educational specification for the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS), which opened in 2003. The school has been featured in many design publications to reflect and support what was then a ‘radical’ pedagogical approach. It has no classrooms, so students use knowledge commons and the laboratories are rebranded as ‘knowledge studios’ with both being interconnected.
In evaluating the ASMS, one metric of interest is that 90 percent of its students enter university, an excellent result that supports the original aim of the ASMS, Flinders University’s Faculty of Science and the State Department of Education and Children’s Services. Based on the success of the ASMS, similar schools have emerged, particularly in Victoria, including the John Monash School at Monash University.
In the university sector, the Experience 1 Future Learning Space was introduced to meet the pedagogical and student engagement needs outlined above around the teaching of Engineering at UniSA (University of South Australia). It is noted in First year engineering learning space – enhancing the student experience that evaluation has covered issues such as:

  • the aesthetics of the space and what messages students were receiving (for example, did they feel safe, positive and satisfied?)
  • the function of the studio to determine how the students were using the space and if the infrastructure (for example, computers and appliances) was supporting them in their knowledge and socialising
  • measuring the flexibility of the space, and
  • indirectly, the impact on the student experience and knowledge outcomes.

In the workplace, the concept of activity-based work settings is now emerging. “Activity-based working is designed to have fewer workstations and more communal areas, meeting rooms and quiet rooms. Workstations are unassigned, and employees will be armed with laptop computers and lockers for personal storage,” says Suzanne Young, executive general manager of group corporate services at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
In an evaluation of Macquarie Bank, it was noted by Grant Baldwin, division director at Macquarie Bank, that:

  • over 90 percent of people surveyed post move said they didn’t want to go back to the old way of working
  • 59 percent said they were more effective at work because of the new way of working
  • 98 percent said that they supported the cultural change embodied in the new workplace, and
  • service level performance metrics of the staff in the client contact centre improved on previous productivity benchmarks.

According to the study, research shows that the workplace is responsible for 24 percent of job satisfaction – this affects staff performance by five percent for individuals and (because of the benefits of improved interaction) by 11 percent for teams.

These developments are blurring the boundaries between what has traditionally been seen as the built knowledge environment and the associated information and communications technologies that support those spaces. The rapidly emerging models of technologically enhanced knowledge and learning environments or TEAL – first introduced under that term at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2000 – emphasise the role that acoustics, furniture, lighting (both natural and artificial), mobility, flexibility, air temperature and security play in supporting the new and emerging knowledge technologies designed for those spaces.
These physical elements are also technologies but, increasingly, these are interdependent with the ICT’s and audiovisual knowledge technologies. All of these elements should be under the one heading of ‘knowledge technologies’, and should be considered within the same framework, whether it is budget, design, maintenance or flexibility.
The life cycle of every element should be considered, how these vary and how they must be addressed to ensure that all elements are up-to-date. “Stuff”, as Stewart Brand calls the ‘mobilia’ elements in his book How Buildings Learn, includes such technologies as computers, which have a life cycle of three years before being superseded. The space plan or furniture, fittings and equipment may well be seven years, and the services 10 to 20 years, while the building structure could be in excess of 100 years.
In one evaluation, the development of a TEAL studio was seen as a significant investment justified through improved knowledge outcomes, including engagement, attitude and collaboration, in addition to absorption of the curriculum.
Measures of those outcomes were necessarily qualitative but, based on comments from students and faculty, the evaluation team (cautiously) concluded that the studio met those goals. They also acknowledge that they will need to continue to evaluate progress against outcomes as people gain experience with using the space.
Other studies available to date suggest that there are significant improvements to knowledge outcomes in adopting this approach. Additional findings are reinforcing the need for teachers and lecturers to be supported as they move into new knowledge spaces. This is also true for activity-based workplaces.
It is not enough to provide new, technologically connected knowledge spaces without giving teachers and lecturers the time, space and guidance to build collaborative teams of students, teachers and tutors. The world of work outside educational institutions must also have ongoing skills upgrading programs to ensure we all are able to operate in a 21st century evidence-based knowledge environment in a hybrid way – both face-to-face and online simultaneously.

Dr Kenn Fisher is Woods Bagot’s director of knowledge environments and an associate professor in learning environments for the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

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