Lee WidraLee Widra: 'the learning space is what matters'Designing learning spaces is one of the fastest moving areas in education. From the realisation that it's the learning spaces that effect learners' experiences and achievements rather than the shells of the building, through companies like RM repositioning furniture, fittings, resources and ICT to  model learning spaces, schools can now model their own virtual learning spaces – in 3D and to perfect scale.

Partnerships for Schools' "Future Learning Spaces" area at the BETT 2010 educational technology show, featured a small stand with big implications for anyone involved in capital build projects like Building Schools for the Future. ‘Design Your School’ is web-based software to involve stakeholders in any BSF, new-build or refurbishment project, in creating, modelling and signing off their learning spaces.

"It's the missing link in the building programme," commented one collaborator. "It's the stakeholder engagement bit that we need." What impressed BETT visitors was the simplicity of design and the speed with which plans can be created. You just log into the website and create a room to scale as a 2D image. You can drag and drop walls, doors and furniture. With just one more click the room becomes 3D and you can really get to model the space, moving fittings, furniture and equipment – even lift the floor – until the favoured environment is achieved. Well-known providers of furniture used by schools, like ISIS, are already providing scale digital models of their products so the virtual experience is as near to the real thing as possible.

Once a virtual space is created it can be shared by anyone using a computer that can connect to the internet. The extent to which they can manipulate the design depends on the levels of permissions they are given. This has enormous benefits for engaging stakeholders in school capital projects. And the ease of use means that it is impressively inclusive.


"Build programmes are not about creating buildings; they are about building fantastic learning environments," says Lee Widra, the man behind the development. "They are about building environments where our children can and want to succeed.

Design Your School might be pretty new but it's already being used in BSF projects. And the plaudits are starting to come in. One of the biggest supporters is David Triggs, CEO of the Academies Enterprise Trust based in Essex.

"Our whole vision is to become the education provider of choice for children, that they're excited about coming to school and they love the learning environment, and that we are the employer of choice for staff, that they're given the right resources, the right learning spaces" he says.

The Academies Enterprise Trust has four Academies open now, and will open a further six over the next two years – £167m of capital build – and this includes remodelling existing schools. So it needs to make sure it gets the very best out of the buildings it already has. That's why the design of the learning spaces is crucial.

'Now we've got the students designing their classrooms, saying how they like to learn'

"We have a standard classroom which has a computer, speakers, whiteboard – all the technologies and the right furniture and we want our Academies to be the investment of choice for parents," he continues. "That's a great theory, but the reality is how do you deliver it? That has always been difficult. We think that Design Your School has helped us enormously to take that forward.

"Now we've got the students designing their learning spaces, saying how they like to learn. They will design what they want to do so we get great benefits of student engagement and student voice.

"We've now got staff telling us exactly what they want from their classrooms but actually, equally important, once they've said it and they've designed it, they sign it off. So later on, when it's built and they might say, 'I didn't ask for that', we can say, 'Yes, you wanted a plug there, you wanted chairs there, you said you wanted pods there, or whatever it's going to be.' From the staff point of view they know exactly what their classroom is going to look like.

"And the engagement for parents now is just through a simple web link. We can design a classroom and we can then send the link out. They can see the classroom, they rotate it, they can do all sorts of things with it and then give us comments. So now, for future parents coming into the school, they can see the environment, they can help design the environment.

"So we think this is real engagement. We think that in the Building Schools for the Future programme this is the link between the PQQ [pre qualification questionnaire], outline business case, final business case and the delivery into the classroom. This is the bit that gets the students, the staff and the community engaged.

"We've been using it for about 6 months now; £52 million worth of new building with all the classroom and learning spaces, and design of the building based on this. It also means that what we can do now with our Academies is to generate rapidly the furniture, fittings and equipment list. Now we know exactly how many new chairs, how many whiteboards, how many projectors we need and then we can put that out for tender and drive the cost down. We think it’s got massive cost-saving benefits.

David TriggsDavid Triggs: 'massive benefits'"Once we say the size of the classroom, then we can actually scale the desks down or scale them up. We might want, say, a 6-foot whiteboard, we might want a 4-foot whiteboard. We can design all those in. We can put speakers in different parts of the classroom and actually see where that audio is pushing out to – and make sure that every child is linked in to that.

"We can think about the design for disability – how that works, where will we park that wheelchair, how we make sure the hearing is in the right place. Before it was always in CAD, which costs a fortune and is very slow to use. This will go into CAD once it's actually finished and dealt with.

The Academies Trust had tried a number of services before deciding on Design Your School which it feels is the most accessible, flexible and cost-effective. The licence costs around £395 per school. He adds, "We previously weren't able to bring the right furniture in but we can now just import into the design chairs, whiteboards, tables, seats, lamps, speakers - everything goes in. If we had an existing building where a classroom was not working for a teacher, previously we'd simply say, 'Tell you what we'll do. We'll put a coat of paint on there, we'll give you some new chairs.  And we'll see if we can put some ducting around the wall and give you a few more sockets. Is that OK?' That is what we used to do.

"Now we can say, before we invest any money into this, before we spend any of our hard earned cash and dwindling resources, 'Let's design this classroom. You can live in that classroom virtually for a while and you can actually really think that through. You can design it yourself until you are satisfied that you've got the student flow right. Simple stuff. You can change the size of the desks. Now we think it'll work. It's not like the old days where you did it and it still didn't work and then you've got to start again.”

Design Your School addresses the gap in BSF – mapping the pedagogy to the design

Design Your School's Lee Widra has a wealth of experience in capital build programmes and has also worked as a consultant with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), its ICT agency Becta and Partnerships for Schools (PFS) which leads on the BSF programme. He spotted the challenging gap in the BSF process where schools and their stakeholders have to turn their visions for learning into real spaces. It's known as mapping the pedagogy to the learning spaces and it's a lot tougher than it sounds.

He explains, “It’s simply a collision of two worlds. Building doesn’t understand learning and learning doesn’t understand building. Stakeholder engagement is absolutely critical to a successful school and a major focus of any building programme, whether new build, re-model or ‘light touch’. One of the key issues is the difficulty that stakeholders have in being able to visualise and engage with complex drawings and diagrams of their school, yet they are required to sign off these learning spaces.

Design Your School software is there to support the process and provide a simple-to-use, visually engaging tool allowing all stakeholders to fully engage and collaborate together to ensure the best use of each type of learning space. Literally, within minutes, you can draw the space, completely to scale and simply drag and drop furniture, ICT, power, data and a host of other elements into your space. One click of a button and it’s a 3d environment that really allows you to be able to understand and visualise that space and how it can work.

The advantage of course is the ability to trial as many different options and layouts as you want. This can negate the considerable expense of the architect having to redraw different layouts and designs and of course saves considerable time.

The ideal way is to work with the architects and get them sharing the Design Your School designs too, says Lee Widra. Then, when everyone is happy with the learning space layouts and the arrangements of the ICT, fittings and furniture, the architects can update their CAD designs: "We can use this software during stakeholder engagement and as long as a room is scaled to size, which it is, then actually all the architect needs to do is then go back into his CAD drawing and draw it in.

"They only have to do it once because you have had the opportunity of testing the ICT and furniture layout. Design Your School also gives you shadow, perspective and views through windows. Not only that, all the data can be exported to multiple formats and provide a list of all the items you have selected for your rooms which helps considerably. We can link items directly via a hyperlink to a specific manufacturer and even to their shopping cart to make a purchase.

'Schools don't have to wait for architects to put their own thoughts into design'

"What you, as the experts in teaching, need to do is ask, ‘How will we transform learning in those spaces and how we will make it work?’ You just get on with challenging the best use of the space to support teaching and learning."

Lee Widra stresses that schools don't have to wait for the architects to come to meetings to begin putting their own thoughts into the design: "By the time the architects come along we are already collaborating. We are already thinking about different learning approaches, different learning styles and pushing boundaries.

"It is not just about the new builds. It's about the here and now. I would say 70 per cent of the people who have bought Design Your School are still in existing buildings, starting to look at their current teaching spaces and asking 'What can I do with it?' ‘How can I improve my current teaching space?’ The uses become endless.
A teacher will say, 'I've got assemblies and I need to set up in certain ways.' So they go on here to draw their assembly hall, publish the plans for the premises manager and then say: 'That's how I want my room set up.' Primary and secondary school children are also using the software, and becoming engaged in the process too."

Like most web-based software, Design Your School is continuously updated by a team of engineers and designers. Lee adds, "The product is growing and anyone who buys it will get all the releases free of charge. At the moment we are working on the 360-degree panoramic. At any point in the room click on a button and you get a 360-degree photo. We are constantly moving forward with the software and welcome and encourage feedback from our users.”

More information

Design Your School costs £395 per annum for a single school licence. This includes full branding with the school's choice of logo, colour scheme and a personalised web address for logon to enhance the sense of ownership.

Alternatively, an organisation or local authority going through BSF or PCP can purchase a year's licence at £4,995. This is a customised business license giving pretty much unlimited plans and multi-user/multi-site functionality.

For schools wanting to experiment, there is a Design Your School branded 'lite' version for £145 pa. (These are special launch prices, valid until April 1, against the usual prices of £495/ £5,995/£195 pa respectively. Offer prices will always remain the same for the purchasers, who also get a free one-day workplace training workshop.)
Design Your School is also available as a free demo by registering on the website

The company will be exhibiting at BSEC 2010 (Building Schools Exhibition and Conference) at Excel, London, February 24-25.

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