Universities: The learning mould is smashed

Warwick has introduced a classroom without desks. Lucy Hodges finds out why
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Do you fancy studying in a large space containing no table but, instead, a heated rubber floor on which you can loll, soft plastic squares on which you sit, a Le Corbusier reclining chair on which one person can lie, and a projector? This is what some students are doing at Warwick, Tony Blair's favourite university, and one that sees itself in the vanguard of innovation in teaching and learning.

Warwick has opened what it calls a Reinvention Centre, in which students are handed a laptop and a tablet and undertake research as part of the university's attempt to redesign teaching. The idea is to create a place where students can work together, think, talk, write and be scholarly, using all the latest technology - and at the same time free up their minds to be original.

"Students are not very well prepared for their third-year project or dissertation," says Dr Mike Neary, director of the Reinvention Centre. "Our initiative is about getting more research-like activity into the curriculum at an earlier moment so that students begin to think about what it is to do research, what it is to be, say, a sociologist."

The undergraduate curriculum has been criticised for being too superficial a way of learning, relying as it does on the student essay and examination. Warwick wants to change that and bring some coherence to what is known as research-based learning, an issue that is moving fast up the higher-education agenda. Until now, research and teaching have been separated. "The two activities will be brought together," says Dr Neary, who is a sociologist. "What we're developing are programmes and practices where students are working in collaboration with academics on their own research, on the academic's research or on a piece of extra-curricular research."

But why the futuristic play space? "If you are redesigning teaching, you have to redesign the places where students work," says Dr Neary. "This is a room that is designed for movement and play, maybe for lectures, maybe for group work. It's not technologically determined."

Not all the students have taken to it. They seem to have mixed feelings about their new modernist play space, which is costing £2.5m over five years. "Some of the students are very interested," says Dr Cath Lambert, a lecturer in sociology and academic co-ordinator of the Reinvention Centre. "Some regard it in a playful way; others were quite threatened when they first came in. They didn't know where to sit. In a conventional classroom, you put your books on the desk and sit at the front whereas when you walk in here you say, 'Whoa, where do I go?'"

The centre, which is part of a collaborative project with Oxford Brookes University, is doing its own research via a questionnaire into what the students think of the space. Some of them think that it has made the interaction between students and lecturers less hierarchical, according to Dr Lambert. The academics who use the centre are very positive, mainly because those who choose to use it for their classes have to want to do so - and to develop what Dr Neary calls "a progressive pedagogy".

Those involved in designing the new room are determinedly idealistic. The designers took a deliberate decision not to have any tables in the room because tables force students to sit in one place and not move about. Tables create a barrier, according to Neary. Having no tables means that people can feel closer to one another. "This room is driven by the dynamics of the relationship of collaboration," says Dr Neary. "There's no place for the teacher. It's open and democratic and dynamic."

The centre has been acoustically designed too. "It's architecture-literate, hence the Le Corbusier chair," says Dr Neary. "The room itself is challenging."

That doesn't just mean the Reinvention Centre but also the libraries. Warwick is unusual in that it has been rethinking its library spaces. Two years ago it opened the Learning Grid, a £1m futuristic space in which students can work either on their own or in groups. The Grid won the Jason Farradane Award in 2006, an international award for innovation in library services.

As with the Reinvention Centre the designers took into account how students like to work nowadays. So, it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and students are able to use their mobile phones. They may also eat (cold food) in the Learning Grid and drink cold drinks but they are not allowed to sleep or drink alcohol there. It's similar to an internet café, only more professional, according to Neary. Very few universities have anything like this.

Staffed by students, who are paid at least £8 an hour, the Grid is divided into different areas, some where students can work on presentations, watch videos and DVDs on a plasma screen and others where they can work quietly on their own.

"The library felt that students were learning differently," says Rachel Edwards, the Grid's manager. "We felt we needed a redesign to meet student needs."

The Reinvention Centre is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council as part of a national Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning initiative. Warwick has a second centre for excellence based on its long-standing relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "This aims to bring the expertise of the two organisations into conversation with one another," according to Carol Rutter, director of the Capital Centre, short for Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning.

In practical terms, it enables the English department to take coachloads of undergraduates to see Shakespeare plays in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. Last year the actor Simon Russell Beale was invited to work with a group of 20 students on Othello, thinking through Iago's soliloquy, its purpose in the play and how it works. In addition, Mike Poulton, the writer, came to talk about his adaptation of The Canterbury Tales for the RSC. There will also be a playwright in residence, Adriano Shaplin, who will work at both the RSC and at Warwick.

With the money it is receiving from Hefce, the Capital Centre is in the process of converting a building to create two big studio spaces, a writers' room and some other accommodation.

These centres are one way that Warwick is able to keep going in the fast lane, innovating more than most other universities and carving out a reputation for itself as a creative university that gives a high priority to students' needs as well as doing well in research. Students seem to appreciate the Capital Centre.

"If it gets the commitment it deserves, it will transform the way Shakespeare is taught and the experience of an English degree," says Peter Cant, 20, who is in his third year. "Seeing Shakespeare's plays means that you get a sense of Shakespeare as drama rather than as dead text."

Cant has also benefited from contact with the playwright in residence. He has had a one-on-one tutorial with him to get help for a play he is writing that he hopes to put on at the end of the academic year.

However, not everyone is uncritically enthusiastic about the Capital Centre. Julia Ihnatowicz, a third-year student, says that the logic behind it is absolutely right - theatrical texts should be engaged with in a practical way. The workshops have been fun, she says. "And playing drama games has helped to illuminate the possibilities in a text; but there isn't yet enough emphasis on thinking about what those possibilities mean. Ideas are touched upon but not pursued, which actually makes the whole experience somewhat frustrating."

Warwick should be proud that it has students who can provide such a thoughtful analysis of the university's innovative learning schemes. Will it take the next step and modify them to take account of the criticism?