July 11, 2011

Learning Space Service Design

Designing Experiences

If you build it, they will come. This philosophy describes the prevailing state of learning space design, with educational institutions and their designers focused on creating the optimal combination of space, furniture, and technology to support learning. While these physical elements are indeed crucial, recognition of the potential of the services to impact the learning experience is lagging far behind, with many learning spaces having either poor services or none at all.[i]

This is unfortunate because services are an interface between people and the spaces they inhabit, and services determine what kind of experience a student or faculty member will have every bit as much as the physical characteristics do. Services need to be designed, just as the physical elements are, and they must support the different kinds of interactions that happen within a space among people, information, technology, furniture, and the environment.

When services are designed to be integral to a space, the result is often a great experience. Apple stores are examples of this. Conceived as public spaces like libraries to support the “ownership experience” rather than the “buying experience,”[ii] the stores host events and classes, offer consultations at the Genius Bar, and feature roving staff to help customers.  The same kind of approach is needed for learning spaces in higher education so that services are an essential part of the space rather than considered separately. These services could include clinics, readings, tutorials, classes, meet-ups, meeting facilitation, research consultation, writing coaching, or technology lending and support – to name a few.

This practice of designing services that are integral to spaces is a shift for higher education. Institutions must make this shift to adapt to a changing landscape: economic and environmental conditions mandate that learning spaces be effective and well-utilized and learning is more mobile, collaborative, personal, and blended. This shift will require a new mindset in the design and operation of spaces; new staff knowledge, new skills and roles; and a new balance of capital and operational budgeting.  Embracing learning space service design will be well worth it because services can engage people and build knowledge, skills, and community. They can provide for a more personalized experience that accommodates different learning styles. They can enable better sharing of resources and ensure spaces are active and well-utilized, even as needs change.

[i] As an illustration of this point, think about most institution’s space guidelines or classroom design guidelines and reflect on whether or not they provide any direction on the type of services within spaces or how these services should be designed, integrated, and evaluated.

[ii] Ron Johnson, then Apple Senior Vice President of Retail Operations, keynote speech at 2004 Success By Design Conference, as quoted http://www.ifoapplestore.com/stores/risd_johnson.html (accessed June 2011)

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