life in the old place yet?

well, this week’s mugginess appears to have just broken spectacularly, and it’s now tipping it down outside. i’ve been spending a lot of this week in the adsetts centre extension – partly to escape the sauna that is the office on a hot day (top floor of a building + lack of air conditioning + pine desks + 30 degrees outside = remarkably authentic spa experience. if you close your eyes, of course. and don’t expect fluffy towels.); partly to get a handle on how it’s being used by the few students who are around at the moment (it’s nice to see new users wandering around, exploring, and adopting particular spaces themselves);…and partly to see if i could find a solution to what’s become known [in my head] as ‘the whiteboard problem’.

as a bit of background: when we were planning the design for the top 2 floors of the extension, we were keen that users should develop a sense of ownership of the space.  partly this has been achieved by letting students and staff develop their own level of comfort with accepted behaviours – so we avoided setting expectations of behaviour, or rules of use, at the outset, instead letting these evolve over time. and it’s fair to say that behaviour has been a lot more restrained than a lot of our staff were anticipating (or fearing, depending on your point of view!). it is a very relaxed and informal space, with frequent bursts of creativity, but there’s been no evidence of users disrepecting the space or, more importantly, other users. perhaps the biggest benefit for me is seeing staff who were initially very sceptical using the space themselves, alongside students, for meetings, breaks, and individual work.

another way we wanted to achieve a sense of ownership was by giving users – primarily students, but also staff – opportunities to display their work. there are some formal channels for doing this (submitting photos or artwork to be displayed on the walls) but we also included whiteboards to aid brainstorming, idea generation, and general doodling to brighten the space up. they’re in this area/set up:

large group pod

it’s fair to say that the whiteboards have hit a few snags: we originally left a few whiteboard pens around the place…which disappeared slowly over time (no surprise there!); a few students did bring their own pens with them and used the boards early on, though examples of this were few and far between; but perhaps the biggest snag was that every time something was written on the board, it was cleaned off – without fail – every morning by some members of staff. so any early attempts to encourage activity were removed – and it’s not surprising that students walking into a place with clean whiteboards and no pens were reluctant to use them. despite the bright colours around the area, the boards themselves soon started to feel quite sterile. needless to say we’ve kept an eye on it over the past few months, but without being able to resolve the issue, and it’s unfortunately slipped to the bottom of the list of things to do.

so last week, i decided to have another go. i had a set of unused whiteboard pens that i’d bought on my way to run a workshop last year (i do have a slight stationery addiction) which i figured i’d ‘donate’ to the area. in true blue peter style i set about them with a roll of sellotape, attaching stickers which say:


subtle, no? i then set about the whiteboards at each end of the area writing something along the lines of:

“please do not clean this message off! these pens have been provided for the benefit of all users – please feel free to use them, but please don’t take them out of the learning centre”

later that afternoon, i was way too excited to find that not only were all the pens still there (yay!) but that a student had written “SRI LANKA ROCKS” across one of the boards. not the most academic of arguments, maybe, but the personalisation was good to see. so i scribbled “please do not clean me” above it, and resolved to return the following day to photograph it.

needless to say, the following morning i was less than happy to find that everything – including the “please do not clean me” messages – had been, well, cleaned off 😦 someone had even helpfully left a whiteboard cleaning pad at the side of the boards. on a brighter note, all pens were still present and correct.

determined not to accept defeat quite so easily, i started to wonder whether there was a slightly different approach to take. this is what i decided on (click on the images for a larger view of the writing):
less than subtle please-don't-clean-these-boards message :) on Twitpic slightly less subtle attempt at persuading cleaners not to cl... on Twitpic

i wasn’t holding out too much hope but, miraculously, something about this oh-so-unsubtle approach has worked! not only are all the messages still there, but there are more and more doodles/scribbles appearing each day – with people adding new lines/drawings to exisiting doodles as well as writing their own thoughts. and the biggest breakthrough? i’ve just seen one of the cleaners glance around guiltily, pick up a pen, and add his own contribution. made my week, that has 🙂 coincidentally, it looks like there are some interviews taking place in the building today – lots of people in suits being brought round on individual guided tours of the space, each one remarking how great it is to see the scribbles on the boards. someone has just walked past and said “it’s nice to see there’s still some life around the space, even though semester has broken up”.

of course, i’m not going to get too carried away. it is out of semester, so whether this is something that will be sustainable as the learning centre fills up from september is another matter. will we be able to get the balance right – having enough place for frivolous scribbles to evolve, while also allowing group brainstorming activities for those who want to use it more seriously? will the pens still remain, if we make it clear that they’ve been donated for all students to use? for now, though, it’s nice to see a few people feeling comfortable enough to make their thoughts – however frivolous – visible. it really does brighten the place up, and makes me think that it might be something we can push forward elsewhere next year.

i’d love to create an area akin to the doodle bar, a place to encourage self-expression and creativity. whether the learning centre is the right place to do this is another matter. does anyone have examples of something similar, whether in higher education or elsewhere? if so, please share them either in the comments, or by letting me know on twitter (reply to @learningspaces). in the meantime, long live doodles!


1 Comment

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One response to “life in the old place yet?

  1. Richard

    A photograph to capture my ‘Blur in Hyde Park’ mural would have been nice… but seriously, I think we should experiment with the idea of setting up a doodle bar

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