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Better by design

It's easy to forget that ICT in education is there to improve learning for students. Too often, the desire for technology is the dominant influence, driving its own use. Most technology-equipped learning spaces focus on a one-to-one relationship between the learner and the computer; one machine each with learning often not extending past how to use it.

Consequently, millions of pounds have been invested into a mode of learning that largely ignores how we actually learn. True work-based learning comes from working with others on projects and in teams. As part of a group we learn by conversation - by having to articulate our idea of the world and by responding to the challenges and questions of others.

Real@Caledonian, the learning cafe at Glasgow Caledonian University, attempts to address this issue. The cafe is part of Glasgow's Real Learning Network, which supports lifelong learners and the university's 14,000 students.

In its design, the venue is geared towards group work. Just under 200 seats are arranged around large and small tables and there are comfy sofas and coffee tables. It's no surprise to learn the cafe was conceived as a venue that would be just as appealing as the coffee shops in the nearby city centre.

And it works. Real@Caledonian has won a design award for the best new cafe in Scotland and been shortlisted for a host of other awards. It's frequented by hundreds of learners every day and evaluations of current users show it is highly popular as a learning venue.

The principles in designing an exciting learning space are simple - assess the requirements of the learning and don't compromise. Start from what you expect people to do in the space and translate that into the furniture and fittings needed to do it.

And beware the sceptics. Coffee and computers don't mix, they say. Don't believe it. A cappuccino machine will be a noisy distraction. Buy two. If you want large desks with acres of space and stylish comfortable seating, go for it. Don't buy furniture you don't like. If you have a vision of what the furniture should look like, have it made - it's cheaper than you might think. All the furniture at Real@Caledonian was purpose-built with learners in mind and based on observations of how young people like to work and learn - with their friends and with coffee, books, notes and a computer around them.

Of course, there is technology, despite the focus on people and space, but it remains very much in the background. Of the 80 machines (and deliberately only 80), 60 are Compaq (now Hewlett Packard) Evo thin client machines with flat-screen monitors. The other 20 are Compaq notebooks that can be pulled out from the coffee tables. The message is that you can work in the cafe without technology, but it is there if you need it; it supports rather than dominates. And as the cafe is in the university library, users have access to 350,000 volumes and 2,000 journal titles, many online.

Groups of learners need space, for themselves and for their materials, but desks dominated by hardware hinder users who want to refer to notes and texts, discuss ideas or just chat.

Thin client hardware has a small footprint and leaves the desktop for learners, their information, their coffee and their interactions. These devices are also extremely quiet - because they don't have as much going on inside they don't generate much heat so don't need a fan.

Learners aren't neglected either at Real@Caledonian. Two large plasma screens carry a rolling display of information on the cafe's facilities and those in the library and also answer frequently asked questions.

Real@Caledonian is a high-tech learning environment that not only meets the needs of learners technologically and socially, but is also a great place to be. Oh, and investigate sponsorship - its Costa coffee and food is pretty damn good, too.

Les Watson. BETT stand V98.

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