Designing learning spaces for your meerkat

I remember when I first heard that Sean Coleman was running a workshop at New Generation Learning Spaces 2014, I was a little confused. Sean works for Monash University, nothing strange there… but he’s talking about applying design principles from a zoo!? I needed to know more.

Prior to starting his new role at Monash University, Sean worked for Melbourne Zoo as the Head of Education: “the easiest way to explain it was that I was looking after a team of ten educators, and as a group we were responsible for the 100,000 students that came through the gates every year and the educational content that was delivered to them” he explained.

Sean’s focus right from the start was clear: use spaces to build the connections between educators and students. As a result, the zoo reviewed all their facilities and ultimately upgraded, refurbished and built new learning spaces.

So how exactly do you build that connection? And perhaps more importantly – is it an area where we’re currently missing a trick?

There’s a huge focus on the physical things we put into our spaces at the moment; what technology, what chairs, should we even have chairs? But perhaps one of the most important elements is the natural environment you’re in.

We’re lucky here in Australia that we’re surrounded by beautiful views and fantastic weather (mostly) to show them off. Sean believes it’s this connection to the outside that can really create a strong learning platform:

“Providing that connection to the students is vital. It’s important that they feel connected with the world around them

Some would argue that’s the job of the academic or the educator, but we have to able to support and enable that connection, not detract from it when looking at learning strategies.”

There has been a lot of research around working outdoors; a recent study demonstrated

72% of outdoor learners scored higher on tests than students in traditional classrooms.

But of course, this isn’t always practical. Fear not, Sean shared a few key areas that he’ll be utilising for his next challenge: developing a framework around learning spaces in his new role, going from seven learning spaces at the zoo to 700 at Monash:

The framework

“In the zoo I kept a list of key considerations and qualities that had to be brought into the design of any refurbishment or new build. One of those qualities was to have key views to an ambassador animal.We were trying to have a learning space in each of the precincts around the zoo, and the ambassador animal was one that was used in a conservation campaign.

As an example, in the gorilla rainforest area we used our western lowland gorillas as ambassadors for  They’re Calling on You campaign, which is about recycling mobile phones. Our learning space there (named the Jungle Hut) was built so that it had big bi-fold opening windows and big double opening doors to a deck overlooking the gorilla enclosure, creating that connection.  With the newest learning space in the Growing Wild area, we actually put a glass wall in and had one of the meerkat enclosures abutting the learning space. We created a little indoor-outdoor den for the meerkats to come in and be as close as possible to the students.

Of course, you don’t generally see meerkats or gorillas in education facilities, the principle of using your outdoor social areas or focus viewpoints to engage your audience remains key.”

Natural light

“Natural light is hugely important to learning spaces; we’re seeing it more and more in tertiary educational spaces. We’re doing a huge refurbishment at one of our lecture theatres currently and the designs feature some huge windows that started to get smaller and smaller during the PCG. You have to push back and keep them as big as possible. If there’s too much light, you can always retrofit blinds or window treatments, but let’s just get as much light as we can and provide students with a connection to the outside world.

It aids in the connection and engagement of the teaching staff and the students, especially if you can see the changes in the season – letting light into what would normally be a dark room.”

Revitalise your teaching

“If students are turning around and getting engaged by what’s happening outside, go over and talk to them about what’s happening. If we go back to the meerkats, it’s a great opportunity to talk about their adaptations and individual personalities, have a chat about what they would be doing in the wild and why they’re behaving a certain way.

If you’re trying to draw their attention back to you as an educator, then you’re just teaching from an egotistical point of view and not from an educational point of view.”

Focus on your intent

“You can’t be innovative if you’re sitting in a darkened room lost in your own head; you need to be constantly engaging, talking with people, picking their brains, learning from them. That means speaking with a range of stakeholders, because light bulb moments don’t happen in a darkened room when you’re sitting there thinking by yourself.

One thing that you need to do when looking at any learning space is to be able to articulate the intent of that space.

For example, if the intent of a space is to be entirely flexible so that multiple faculties can share that particular space, then regardless of how far down you get in the planning process you always need to refer back to that intent. That’s often the bit that gets lost and watered down, the further you go down the process.  By the time you’re in construction phase, it’s too late.

Our spaces have to be flexible to support our more integrated learning experience. We’re seeing a lot of support for less lecture theatres and more collaborative learning spaces, and spaces that are flexible enough to be able to include collaboration in small groups, large groups, and roundtable discussions.  Blended learning is constantly pushing this envelope, asking questions such as ‘how can we make this more flexible without moving away from the intent that it’s still a learning space, not just a place where you’re shuffling furniture every five minutes’.”

Hear more from Sean during New Generation Learning Spaces 2014, you can see the full line up here:  

Also, do get in touch if you have any other learning space principles you’re applying to the classroom…


It’s tough to be an architect for remote and regional healthcare facilities

Architects working on healthcare facilities in Australia are faced with some pretty unique challenges. It’s an issue that’s not going away as the focus heightens on tackling rural and remote health challenges. Ahead of Australian Healthcare Week 2014, it seemed a good time to take a look at the factors that make these projects unique to gain some insight into how to tackle them.

During the Health Facilities Design and Development 2013 conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Dario Salvatore, Manager at Hodgkison Architects. He’s currently working with Alice Springs on the Hospital Staged Works Contract. The hospital is a 189 bed teaching hospital located immediately south of Alice Springs Town Centre. The hospital serves a geographic area of 1,600,000 km2.

Dario explained there were some key challenges that apply to these environments requiring a different approach: “It’s a big challenge dealing with the lack of resources and high transient population base. People take for granted that they’ll be dealing with one person all the way through whereas in remote Australia, you don’t. You start off with one person and you end up working with three or four throughout the project. As much as it’s a challenge, it changes your thinking from a person-based to a holistic approach. It’s absolutely crucial to get that communication element right, engaging all your stakeholders early on and then throughout.

“You also have to understand the people you’re working with are under a lot of pressure. There are finite resources, limited staff and you’re working in a very extreme environment. It is hugely rewarding, but that’s the reality.”

The other challenge for architects comes with the design itself where Dario warns it’s essential to ensure you are tailoring your design principles to accommodate a harsher environment.

“The design has to be a response to the specific environment you’re in. Alice Springs, for example, has extremely high temperature conditions; we have to design around this. Too easily we forget about what’s happening outside and focus on what’s inside the building. There is a huge focus on patient staff flows, health and safety considerations, etc. Yes, these factors are all very relevant and very critical but working regionally forces a design response to the environment you’re in. We have to factor in that there are extremes and your building needs to respond to those extremes. 

“They require a different approach to a building where you’re not faced with the same outside conditions. Engineering solutions, for example, along the coast for ventilation won’t be the same ones you can apply to central Australia. The air conditioning design criteria would have to change and be differently considered.”

“Remotely and regionally, it’s really starting from the base principles and not taking things for granted and assuming that what you’ve done before elsewhere will apply here, because it won’t.”

As I was speaking to Dario, we discussed some of the lessons he’s learnt from his experience in the project. Here are some of his essentials:

  • Understand the local culture
  • Indigenous inclusion
  • Engage with all stakeholders
  • Listen to your client
  • Educate and learn
  • Understand local industry and expertise
  • Strive to balance specialist expertise with local knowledge
  • Appreciate and respect the resilience of local industry
  • Embrace technology, but with caution
  • Old technology isn’t necessarily bad
  • Future proof
  • Design and develop an adaptive facility
  • Understand the climate and respond

We’ll be looking in detail at the specific construction challenges associated with operating in remote locations during Australian Healthcare Week 2014 from Lahey Constructions Sydney Manager, Martin Pullicin.

P.S I’ve added Dario’s full presentation and a whole heap of other awesome content around health design here.

A-Z Guide: The ultimate content marketers challenge

Each year I work on one of our largest APAC events, Shared Services and Outsourcing Week.

Ultimately, it’s a business transformation event where we pull together the top experts in APAC business, see how they’re adapting to various changes and ask them to share their knowledge with hundreds of delegates.

Over the year I’ve worked on various branches of the SSON events portfolio including public and finance transformation, but this is the biggie.

To kick off our content campaign for 2014, I thought it was time to take stock of some of the year’s happenings that have impacted our next programme. Just to make it an even bigger challenge – in  A-Z.

The A-Z journey was a tough one,  25 (you’ll see I hit a brick wall on ‘Z’) mini assignments if you like. It’s also amazing how many stories from the year fit into the letter C.  But alas, I filtered through to come up with just one for each.*

The result – APAC Business Transformation in 2013: Your A-Z guide.

I look forward to covering some of the topics mentioned in this guide over the coming months as we lead up to the big day itself, but for now don’t forget to send me your ‘Z’ (I really did get stuck)!

Also, let me know if you think I’ve missed any of the big movers and shakers here, interested to hear your thoughts.

*As a slight side note, the A-Z theme also gave me flashbacks to my days of worshiping the Spice Girls, so I‘ve been resisting the urge to break into song each time I talk about this piece…

Is the tide about to turn for big banks?

The loan process is a complicated one; we’re not talking about snap decisions but potentially life changing ones for the customer.

In the past this is just one factor that has enabled the big banks to gain a huge chunk of the lending pie.

But with a wave of new and innovative companies entering the market, how can non-banks take advantage of the huge opportunities becoming available and where are the more established lenders falling behind?

Heidi Armstrong is a name that many will find familiar. Heidi is the CEO of online lender, State Custodians; where she also runs the successful blog ‘Ask Heidi’. It’s been a pretty good year for the company who proudly position themselves as Australia’s Non-Bank, a label Heidi firmly believes gives them the leading edge. State Custodians has not only won Money Magazine’s Non-Bank of the Year for the last three consecutive years but has also taken out the Best Non-Bank Lender and Best Online Operator at the 2013 Australian Lending Awards.

In an age where knowing the customer and earning trust trust can potentially win business, I sought insight from Heidi on how this relatively small business has the potential to take on the big four:

“State Custodians was one of the first mortgage lenders to fully embrace the web to attract new business. We understand what web visitors want – so as well as driving traffic we know how to convert website visitors into borrowers.”

There was a time when a brand name carried the primary weighting for a customer evaluating their lending options. However, online growth has changed many of the factors customers prioritise so ‘non-banks’ have really been able to grow and compete:

“When you go up against the big banks, you have to position the company differently. Our proposition is to be the friendly authority. It goes right to the heart of what the non-bank service proposition stands for and resonates with customers looking outside banks for options.”

“We certainly don’t have the marketing dollars of banks so we have to get smarter in how we spend our dollars. A large part of our marketing involves educating the audience around the value of the non-bank proposition, what we do and how we work. We’re consistent and relevant and that’s how we build trust.

“It’s not just telling people you’re the best or safest. It’s demonstrating it in various ways. Our biggest source of new business is referrals from existing clients. This has the added benefit that those clients then do the trust positioning on our behalf.

There are two main audiences within the lending product portfolio; new customers and providing additional options and value to existing customers. Gone are the days when you can use one message for both:

Heidi explained an area where segmenting messages delivers impressive engagement results:  “For our electronic mail (EDM’s) to the lead database we’ll use State Custodians branding and deliver relevant and high value content that goes beyond pushing our own products. Typically our open rate for these is 29% with a 19% click through rate. However it is the Ask Heidi brand that we use for EDM’s to existing clients. Open rates are 41% and click through rates are over 18%. These EDM’s have been far more successful once we introduced the Ask Heidi personality into the mix.

“In the back office we collate customer information into a single database so everyone has the same picture of a customer. It allows us to provide a consistent and fluid service by monitoring and engaging with clients who provide feedback. We do this through social media including independent forums such as product review.  Responses to any negative client feedback are treated with very high importance internally and are managed at a senior level. This ensures we engage with the client genuinely but also take on-board necessary improvements and changes.”If you are prepared to listen, the client will tell you a lot about your business. They can highlight inefficiencies or where there are potential difficulties. If you are engaging well with your customers they are happy to give you honest and constructive feedback. We send an email survey to clients on settlement and we get around a 75% open rate and a 54% click through completion rate. We have real genuine engagement with our borrowers, and it’s giving us the edge.”

Hear more from Heidi during Loan Origination 2014 where she will be delivering the presentation Channel innovation: leveraging technology to provide an exceptional online experience. Heidi will also be joining an expert panel to discuss what key factors drive customer acquisition and retention in today’s “new normal?