Designing for intelligent schools

The advance of technology hasn’t just changed learning, it’s also affected the way architects approach school design, says Jude Harris

Computers have a dramatic impact in every aspect of our daily lives and, with the proliferation of smart phone technology, are becoming increasingly mobile. Continuing to follow the principles of Moore’s Law from 1965, they are also becoming more compact and powerful and, with the advent of wireless technologies, no longer need to be tethered with cables. The mobility and diminishing size of computers opens up many possibilities as to how buildings are designed to accommodate them.

The world of learning will always be early adopters of technology, and schools have been at the forefront of using digital technology to ensure future generations are appropriately equipped to deal with the rapidly developing and globalised digital world. Schools are embracing the power of mobile learning to transform the way students are taught and how they learn. Learning is becoming increasingly personalised, with everything you need just a finger swipe away. That is not to say that technology dominates: many important lessons still occur without technology and designing spaces to accommodate the full range of teaching styles remains paramount.

For architects working in the education sector, the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) has always featured prominently in the design of buildings for teaching and learning. With increasingly mobile devices and greater wireless possibilities, buildings need to be designed to support teaching and learning digitally and physically, as well as being adaptable to the continuing rapid pace of future change.

As much as the current austerity-driven agenda tries to tell us that all we need to facilitate great teaching is simple and compact boxes, we passionately believe that architecture has the power to transform learning spaces and experiences. Human nature tells us that our environment matters, and designing spaces that enable, enrich and enhance can only support improved learning experiences.

It is interesting to reflect on the history of computers and buildings. The first computers of the 1950s required whole rooms to house what can now be accommodated within a small black desktop computer or even integrated into a mobile laptop. More recently we have witnessed the proliferation of mobile tablet devices that rely on the “cloud” for increased mobility, disconnected from a permanent power and data source. The cloud itself is enabled by large data centre buildings, often located remotely, to accommodate massive data storage and remote processing power.

My first experience with computers was receiving a Commodore scientific calculator as a Christmas present in the early 1980s while at school the only computers we had were the BBC microcomputers in the corner of the craft design and technology workshops! Computers are now an intrinsic part of the daily lives of each and every one of us, featuring heavily in the world of work and academia, and also our personal and social lives.

Today school buildings are designed to accommodate server rooms, hub rooms, Mac suites, ICT labs, laptop trolley stores, biometric devices, iBeacons, IP networks for voice, data and images with facilities for using computers standard within every teaching space, even extending outside the classroom into common areas and the outside landscape. The integration of ICT has become as intrinsic to the design of a building as providing basic servicing with power outlets, although no one has invented mobile power yet!

As architects who design schools, Jestico + While have an understanding of how computers are accommodated within learning environments. Many of the schools that we have designed were completed before mobile devices even existed, but are flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of technology. The main consideration used to be accommodating desktop computers with large CRT screens and providing the infrastructure required to support a data network within the building. Computers have since become more compact and even integrated into classroom furniture. It’s not just the classroom which provides a learning environment. Learning opportunities need to be pervasive throughout the building and, with technology advancing so quickly, the infrastructure needs to be provided across the entire campus.

In 2008, the practice worked with the Future Schools Trust, which first started using mini laptop-style tablet devices within open-plan learning plazas, featured in two new-build academies in Maidstone. In 2011, we worked with the Leigh Academies Trust at Longfield Academy in Dartford, designing one of the first schools to accommodate the large-scale deployment of iPads, promoting a 24/7 learning environment for all 1,150 students.

More recently the practice has been working with international independent schools such as Doha College, where we are designing a new campus in Qatar. During the course of the project, the school fully adopted 1:1 provision of iPads for all students and staff, which has caused us to reappraise the design of spaces to reflect the proliferation of mobile learning across the whole campus.

As an architect, an author and a gadget geek, I am tremendously excited by the role that computers play in buildings, and in my postgraduate research at Plymouth University I explored the potential of intelligent buildings to mimic natural systems such as the human body with autonomic responses. The analogy with the intelligent school might include hugely sophisticated circulation systems provided by today’s cat 6 cabling and an even more sophisticated and ever improving ‘brain’, now housed in vast off-site data centres with huge computing power.

Modern schools need to accommodate many different modes of learning, whether it is a primary classroom with children sat on a floor listening to a story, a space designed for those with special needs, a standard classroom for self-directed learning, a smaller seminar room for more intimate group work, a larger presentation space for expert knowledge sharing or a dedicated ICT lab. We also need to meet the specialist teaching requirements of science and technology, music and computer science. What we must not forget in the electronically dominated environment is the importance of books and spaces for quiet study alongside conventional teaching spaces, which even with the advent of technology still have a place.

As architects, we enjoy thinking outside of the classroom and considering the agenda for personalised learning combined with the focus on spatial efficiencies. It encourages us to consider all parts of the building as part of the learning resource, promoting a concept of “anytime anywhere learning”. Examples include Cardinal Pole Catholic School in London, which features dedicated sixth-form study spaces, all equipped with IT facilities and touchdown points, and Passmores Academy in Essex, where students use a ‘heartspace’ throughout the teaching day.

Many of the schools we design include such a ‘heartspace’, which is envisaged as the centre of learning, the “heartbeat” of the intelligent school. The space acts as the entrance, the foyer, the primary means of circulation and a space for serendipitous interaction: the informal learning environment. Other examples include The Agora at Oasis Academy Mayfield in Southampton, the central circulation street at New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone and sixth-form social and study spaces at Stoke Newington School in London.

I have set out above the dramatic change we have seen over the past 50-60 years, but we have all experienced the rapid pace of change first hand, with the internet invented during our professional lives and transforming the way that we live, work and learn. It is interesting to speculate how technology will further transform learning environments in the future.