A student’s physical environment is important, but their virtual one is becoming more so, writes JAMIE ATHERTON.

Worldwide, universities are judged on their appearance. Phrases like ‘the hallowed halls’ speak of reverence for ‘respected seats of learning’, and lyrics like Bob Dylan’s “I met him one day on the green pastures of Harvard University” conjure images of students enjoying philosophical discussions in clean, open spaces, surrounded by traditional collegiate architecture.

Australia is not without its share of physically appealing universities, with a recent Times Higher Education study conducted into world university rankings claiming Sydney University to be one of the world’s most appealing institutions due to its mix of “traditional English collegiate architecture… and local Sydney sandstone buildings in the neo-gothic style”.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are spaces that are purely functional, such as the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) making the most of a small urban footprint by operating in a high-rise environment.

While the school’s academic record and course suitability definitely rank as primary concerns when evaluating university options in an ultra-competitive environment, a student’s overall sense of satisfaction with the physical appearance of their institution is also relatively important.

There is a strong move towards modern-looking, free-flowing spaces in university design, with emphasis on accessibility and technology. The phrase ‘innovative learning spaces’ gets used a lot by schools attempting to modernise their physical offering. This generally refers to the adoption of widely accessible technology, open areas where students can work, meet and interact, as well as access files and coursework digitally via seamless connectivity to the internet and cloud-based resources.

Filed away

Before long, the ‘virtual experience’ will be standard to education at all levels, and this should also form an intrinsic part of spatial modelling for the future.

One aspect of this modernisation process is the move away from physical documentation. Fewer physical files means less general clutter in offices and common areas, fewer actual hardware installations such as desks, drawers and filing cabinets. Adopting a content services solution is becoming widely accepted as an essential part of a university’s digital transformation plan, but can, in fact, also form a core part of the facility’s physical design plan as well.

Monash University, for example, describes its vision for a modern learning environment as: “Beyond simply being outstanding socially and academically, the leaders of the future will be required to learn throughout their lives. This means creating learning environments that make learning and social collaboration inspiring, stimulating and productive.

“Our learning agenda recognises the critical importance of our on-campus learning spaces. We have ambitious plans to reinvent the on-campus experience to create inspiring, contemporary and flexible learning spaces that encourage active engagement with knowledge, and lay the positive foundations for a life of learning.”

In order to facilitate this design space transformation, reducing clutter is a necessary first step. Moving documents, images, students’ histories and enrolment files into an Enterprise Content Management platform – the core element of a content services solution – provides not just a pathway towards a cleaner, more physically appealing environment, but also a more efficient way of dealing with content in general.

As Monash University states, the objective is to create inspiring and flexible spaces that encourage active engagement with knowledge. In order to provide that engagement, it is necessary to have a better, smarter way of storing and then presenting that information to students and staff.

A content services solution provides a 360-degree view of all information pertaining to a student, from their enrolment details to their academic records, payment history, coursework and much more – making it easier and much faster to access files from anywhere on campus. This means that administration staff will have a clear view of that student’s essential files wherever they happen to be at the university, and students themselves will be able to access or present their credentials and files to whoever needs them, at any time.

Further to this, content services also includes the automation of much of the manual data entry that normally accompanies a student’s enrolment, which reduces human error and also leaves the facility with more time to devote to one-on-one interaction with students. This increase in direct interaction between staff and students is another element that modern universities are including in their spatial design planning, with open, comfortable spaces set up for relaxed-yet-efficient meetings. Long gone are the enclosed offices and corridors full of students lining up to change course detail components or check enrolment details!

While modernising and rethinking the physical design of Australia’s universities is an integral part of future planning, an holistic approach should involve as many disparate elements as possible, looking at all aspects of a student’s life on campus. Physical space and the paperwork that follows a student everywhere during their tertiary years are intrinsically linked, and both need to be taken into account when modernising.

Jamie Atherton is country manager ANZ, Hyland Software.

This was originally published in the Apr/May 2019 issue of FM Magazine.

Image: 123RF’s Cathy Yeulet © 123R.com

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