Arts West: Innovating in Teaching and Learning and improving our student experience

By Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecum

Rarely do opportunities arise to create purpose-designed learning and teaching spaces on the scale of the Arts West development. For almost half a century, during a period of change and expansion, our Bachelor of Arts learning community has not enjoyed a new development specifically designed for them. The last such purpose-built space was the John Medley building (c. 1971) which followed the Arts (now 'Old Arts') building built approximately 50 years earlier (c. 1924). Both these buildings continue to support teaching and learning in Arts to this day.

With these realities in mind, Arts West has been designed from the outset to support not only the present needs of the BA but also to provide a flexible and fostering environment for teaching innovation and student learning 20 or more years into the future. This is a challenging task. Future directions in teaching and learning may seem clear for imminent years, but can be difficult to predict at the distance of a generation or more.

A rendered visualisation of the Arts West Building
A rendered visualisation of the Arts West building

The BA itself aims to prepare its graduates to meet unforeseen challenges, and the design of Arts West has been informed by fundamental principles that build on the traditional strengths of the program while transforming the possibilities for teaching innovation and student experience. The goals of active, experiential and peer learning, of enriching student/teacher engagement, and of collaboration both within and beyond the classroom have been as central to the design of Art West as the concern to provide up-to-date teaching technologies and a ‘future proof’ teaching infrastructure.

From Semester 2, 2016, Arts West will be home to the majority of teaching in the BA. The teaching rooms in Arts West will enable an active learning experience for all students through the provision of high-quality teaching spaces designed to facilitate small seminar, workshop, tutorial or lectorial groups. Each room allows for both whole-class activities or discussion and work in student sub-groups utilising eLearning resources in class when needed. This inbuilt flexibility means that the same room can be used in different ways by different classes. Similarly, various modes of teaching and learning can be employed during the same class. This enables a diversity and flexibility of teaching and learning practice that in the past has often been precluded by the spaces available.

An important part of the active and experiential approaches to learning followed by the Arts West design is the encouragement of object-based learning utilising the rich cultural collections of the University of Melbourne. The emphasis on object-based learning (OBL) is true not only of the purpose-built, specialised Object-Based Learning Lab, but of opportunities for the display and analysis of cultural objects throughout the building. This is one way in which Arts West is designed to provide a learning landscape rather than a simple collection of teaching rooms. Alongside the opportunities for learning through analysis of high-quality digital materials (also supported by specialised Media Lab and Interactive Cinema spaces), the OBL facilities of Arts West will enable direct student engagement with material and digital culture to an extent not previously possible.

The much anticipated Object-Based Learning Lab
The much anticipated Object-Based Learning Lab.

Teaching space design in Arts West will also enrich student-to-teacher and student-to-student engagement. The principle of face-to-face teaching is fundamental to Arts West's design, as is the value of peer-learning. Each teaching room in Arts West, including the lectorial spaces, allow discussion and project work to be undertaken by multiple sub-groups of up to six students in the course of a class in addition to larger group interaction. The high-quality technological infrastructure designed into each teaching room also allows peer-to-peer collaboration to be extended beyond the Parkville campus to form exciting connections and group learning projects with students from partner universities around the world, or to bring valuable collaborations with industry partners and community groups into the classroom.

Informal learning spaces outside the classroom extend peer learning opportunities. Arts West is designed to be a 'home base' for BA students. While the adjacent Baillieu Library is in the process of expanding spaces for quiet, individual study, Arts West will offer a diverse range of spaces for students to relax and meet up with their peers outside of class time. A recognition that opportunities to rest, reflect, talk and exchange views are a vital part of student life, and are also essential for fostering a community of learning among BA students, informed the decision to create these spaces.

The interior of the new building will offer innumerable spaces for private study, collaboration and relaxation.
The interior of the new building will offer innumerable spaces for private study, collaboration and relaxation.

For some time, as a cohort, BA students have experienced limitations to the physical spaces they could identify as their own. These were not simply limitations of comfort, size and usability - it was also in regard to a sense of belonging to a space made specifically for them. More than an environment for teaching excellence and innovation, Arts West is designed to foster learning communities among current and future generations of BA students.

Staff profile

Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecum
Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecem

After studying at the Universities of Tasmania and Cambridge, Associate Professor Parshia Lee-Stecum worked for three years at Trinity College, Dublin before joining the University of Melbourne in 1998. His main research and teaching interests include Roman poetry of the Augustan period (especially Roman elegy), Roman myth and ethnicity, and magic in the Roman world. Parshia is currently the Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts and Program Director of the BA.