Case study 3 - designing your space/planning resources
Marie-Madeleine Kenning, University of East Anglia
This paper offers some reflections based on the updating and extending of language
learning facilities at the University of East Anglia, following a bequest of £200 000 by a
local benefactor, Miss Irene Platt, in the early 90’s. The setting up of the James Platt
Centre for language learning was very much a home grown project involving a lot of
discussion between representatives from the language learning interests in the School,
both on their own and with a certain number of specialist services such as the
University’s design office and the University Library. The aim of this paper is to make
explicit the kind of considerations that gave the Centre its present shape and are likely
to be relevant to any development involving designing one’s space and planning
Case study: the starting point
Most of the premises occupied by the James Platt Centre previously accommodated a
Language Service Unit consisting of two small language laboratories divided by a
movable partition, a small computing laboratory, a tape library, an area for private study,
a room with satellite television, and offices. At the time of the bequest, the facilities were
under pressure and the introduction of a modular course structure was widely perceived
as heralding increased demand for language learning. As it turned out, the setting up of
trade barriers by certain Schools of Study stopped much of the hoped-for expansion,
but a case was made at the time for increased space and the James Platt Centre was
allowed to ‘swallow up’ a lecture theatre and a large seminar room.
Designing one’s space and planning resources inevitably leads to looking at one’s
language provision and anticipating the kind of activities that one wishes the new
facilities to be able to promote. Key factors here include
a) the type of session planned, with a primary distinction between taught classes and
independent learning, and a further subdivision between directed learning and
b) learner configuration: will students engage in individual work, work in pairs or small
groups, or will activities involve large groups or whole classes?
c) whether the learning is to be print-based, audio-based, based on videos or TV
programs, computer based, or involve multimedia.
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Clearly, different patterns of options will be associated with different lists of
requirements and raise different issues (Table 1).
Key factors Impact / Issues
Type of session Space, layout, equipment,
independent learning availability, access,
- directed learning working conditions, support
- autonomous learning
Configuration pattern Space, layout
pair work/small groups
large groups/whole class
Medium Equipment, resources, layout,
Table 1: Key factors and their implications
Looking at the type of session first, one can see that taught classes and independent
learning have very different impacts on space, layout and equipment requirements.
Thus, although classes vary in size, a taught class is likely to require a largish room
while, in itself, independent learning does not make specific space requirements.
Similarly, taught classes are likely to require a layout that permits interaction whereas
independent learning may not do so. On the contrary, an environment in which silence
prevails may well be preferred. Issues such as whether some noise can be tolerated,
whether students should be able to overhear each other, and see what others are
writing need therefore to be considered. Finally, taught classes and independent
learning have different equipment requirements in terms of the need for a console, for
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In addition to affecting space, layout and equipment, the type of session has significant
implications for the provision of resources and for staffing. Here independent learning is
likely to make more demands than taught classes. To begin with, there will need to be a
wider range of materials on offer, especially if students are to engage in autonomous
learning and have genuine choices. However, the creation of an effective, supportive,
learning environment is not simply a matter of accumulating a large number of different
types of materials. Availability is undoubtedly important, but so are questions of access
and accessibility. Thus, when planning resources, consideration needs to be given to
whether materials are to be on open access or whether access is to be restricted and
materials obtained from, say, a tape librarian. This, in turn, will obviously have
repercussions on space, layout and staffing, since it will influence where and how
materials are stored, support staff located, etc. Another aspect to be considered is how
learners will get to know about the materials, as distinct from gaining physical access to
them. Again the issue is crucial for learners working autonomously and calls for the
evaluation of information sources, including the type of catalogue required. Last, but not
least, in order to maximise learning effectiveness, there will have to be some means of
support, perhaps in the form of access to a language advisor.
Turning to learner configuration patterns, one can see that the size of group will affect
the demand for space. The impact on layout is less clear and may well be overlooked,
as it is a particular tricky affair which requires making a deliberate effort to visualise
activities. This is something which we unfortunately failed to do, so that we ended up
with a language lab in which it is difficult for students to move their chairs to form
discussion groups, something they could do in the old lab.
Finally the medium will determine the range and type of equipment needed (including
recording equipment) and will influence the layout. It will also have significant staffing
implications (need for different types of technicians, again with repercussions on space
and layout) and, along with resources, raises the issue of security.
Case study: outcomes
The ‘Think tank’ established at UEA soon reached a consensus that we should continue
to cater for both taught classes (at least for the delivery of some types of materials) and
independent learning. As far as enhancements were concerned, the audit of existing
facilities in relation to our language provision and approach to learning revealed two
significant gaps: the need for an interpreting suite and for better facilities for
independent learning. The first was a straightforward requirement arising from the
existence of an interpreting and translation programme, as well as from a perception of
interpreting as a useful activity for the development of communication skills. The second
was a much more complex matter due to the inherently unpredictable nature of
independent learning. Again, investment was seen both as generally desirable, and as
meeting specific needs linked, in this case, to the emphasis placed on the fostering of
autonomy in several of our language courses.
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To arrive at detailed requirements we examined possible scenarios, becoming aware in
so doing of some potential conflicts, and notably of the difficulty of accommodating both
individual and group work. The solution we adopted was to have areas specifically
designated for interaction and areas intended to be relatively quiet. The large open-
access Resources Room that forms the core of the Centre is thus primarily designed for
individual work, although some small scale collaborative work does go on. As can be
seen from the plan in the Appendix the layout is primarily linear with students sitting side
by side, except on the left hand side where tables form a square, or chairs are arranged
in a circle round a coffee table. At the same time, provision was made for untutored
group work in the form of 2 viewing rooms, currently equipped with video recorders, and
2 partitioned areas on either side of the fire exit, also equipped with video recorders.
To enable students to access different types of resources, the Resources Room was
equipped with a variety of workstations: 10 TV monitor positions with video recorders
and access to Satellite TV, 8 computers, 7 multi-media positions combining computers
and video, 9 audio positions, and a PC with CD-ROM. The latter is a more recent
addition as is a card-operated printer for student use.
The Resources Room also contains a limited range of resources, mostly dictionaries
and other reference works, dossiers, magazines and newspapers and a small number
of videos, typically recent news recordings. Other resources are on restricted access
and obtained from the librarian on production of a Platt Centre card. Videos are tagged
and can only be viewed in the Centre but audio cassettes can usually be taken out.
Furthermore, to increase accessibility the resource catalogue was computerised and
integrated into the University system (Kenning, 1996). The outcome is a facility that
allows students to browse and identify items of potential interest through a range of
alternative routes (title, topic, etc.) without the assistance of someone acquainted with
the contents of our materials collection.
As shown by the Floor Plan (see figure 1), the Centre also houses 2 separate language
laboratories, one doubling as an Interpreting Suite, a computing laboratory with 12
positions, a language teaching room with a video recorder, a video editing suite and two
offices. But, as technology progresses equipment needs to be upgraded and we have
recently embarked on some refurbishment, which despite being planned, is unavoidably
taking place under less favourable circumstances than the previous phase. The
necessity to keep upgrading facilities is indeed a consideration that needs to loom large
in any modernisation project. However, one should also bear in mind that the latest all-
singing all-dancing technology is not necessarily the answer and that a suitable degree
of flexibility can often be achieved by assembling pieces of less high-tech, possibly
Although not perfect, the James Platt Centre provides a learning environment that
meets the needs of the community it serves. It is visually pleasant and in constant use,
a feature noted by our TQA assessors: “The JPC is an excellent facility which is
extensively used by students and greatly appreciated by them.” (HEFCE, 1997, p10).
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The main shortcoming, to my mind, is the lack of language advisors, but this is
something we are working on with a fair prospect of success.
HEFCE (1997) Quality Assessment Report Q7/97, University of East Anglia, Modern Languages.
KENNING, M-M. (1996) Creating an infrastructure for autonomous learning: the resource catalogue,
System, 24 (2), 223-231.
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