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Simone Oliver speaks to Ainslie Chandler from AFR about new education paradigms

Posted/ 26 June 2013

When architecture firm Geyer took on the task of updating the interiors of three of the University of Sydney’s core buildings, they did not imagine the education project would interest their corporate clients.
But the buildings’ fitouts, designed with the new generation of tech-savvy students in mind, have caught the eye of companies looking to become employers of choice for graduates.
Geyer, in collaboration with Suters Architects, is upgrading the university’s Fisher Library and the Carslaw and PNR buildings, as part of its $40 million Learning Networks Program.
Geyer partner Simone Oliver, the project’s team leader. has worked with companies including Macquarie Bank, Westpac, American Express and Rio Tinto on their workplace design. She has been collaborating with Suters and the university on the project for 18 months.
With universities competing for students, Oliver says the University of Sydney was keen to “deliver on its promise of a prestige university”.
Features of the library fitout include whiteboard paint on the walls, LCD screens with a touchscreen overlay, wireless internet access throughout. Different work spaces are dotted throughout the buildings, with areas including pods, tables for collaborative work, modular seating, lounges and individual seating. 
Oliver says today’s university students learn very differently than those before. The focus is peer-to-peer interaction, rather than lecturing, with the teacher acting as facilitator rather than lecturer.
The new spaces are about engaging with the students as adults and letting them manage themselves within a supportive environment. Oliver describes the project as “really ABW [activity-based workspace] in its purest form”.
In an ABW-style fitout, staff do not have permanent desks and are encouraged to keep minimal paperwork, with belongings put away in a locker each night. Workers can shift to different work spaces, depending on the task at hand. Companies including Commonwealth Bank, Macquarie Bank and ANZ Bank have adopted forms of ABW in their offices.
Oliver says corporate clients are interested in the work they have done at the university, as they expect to be employing the students soon. “Now there is a very strong shift towards ABW,” she says, “regardless of whether a workplace is going to full mobility. It’s about giving choice.”
Associate professor Robert Ellis, University of Sydney’s director of e-learning, Learning Space, says the aim is to make boundaries between formal and informal physical learning spaces and e-learning space “porous”.

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