by Chad Reilly
No longer confined to the classroom or to four years after high school, learning now regularly occurs outside the walls of schools and across entire lifespans. This change in how and when learning happens has impacted the function of the academic campus. We see the implications for these changes most clearly by exploring three shifts: 1) the ability to learn anytime, anywhere; 2) more hands-on learning; and 3) community and industry partnerships.
Learn anytime, anywhere. Online learning environments are getting more sophisticated, attractive, acceptable, and normalized. What does all of this mean for physical campuses? To remain competitive, universities are radically rethinking how they utilize their facility assets. Face-to-face social interaction and in-person collaborative learning are two aspects of campus life that cannot be recreated in a virtual environment, so facilitating and promoting these types of experiences is of utmost importance. Today, open, mixed-use social commons and bookable, semiprivate learning spaces are becoming as common as classrooms. The design of these spaces needs to account for both the varying groups that will use them and also for the different types of work that will happen in them. Providing flexibility of use and adaptability is paramount in these collaborative spaces, which may include flexible teaching spaces, formal and informal study suites, and multimedia rooms.
The rise of hands-on learning. As research into how humans construct meaning and apply new knowledge and skills reveals the mechanics of how we learn, we also better understand how students’ surroundings impact their learning. Hands-on and experiential actions ground concepts in reality. This increased focus on hands-on learning and the need to help students develop skills relevant to the working world have changed the way we use our classrooms. The focus on real-life experiences and problem-solving has led to an increase in simulation labs, makerspaces, and other nontraditional teaching labs.Coding, open-source hardware, Legos, 3D printing, and laser cutting are all emerging tools in the classroom that allow students to learn quickly through hands-on discovery. In our open-source culture, sharing is encouraged and a key way of learning.
Community and industry partnerships. Relationships with industry partners and local communities are important to universities as they can help facilitate shared funding, research collaborations, and increased well being and quality of life for both students and residents of the community. Spaces that are accessible and open on the periphery of campus invite community and industry partners in for discussion and collaboration. Buildings can be strategically sited to intersect with local surroundings in an inviting, unobtrusive way. Open ground floors create space to house outside functions and community gatherings.
Looking towards the future. What will the classroom or campus look like in 10 to 15 years? This is a difficult prediction to make.There are many variables to consider. What impact will virtual reality and other new technologies have on teaching methodologies and student expectations? What more will we learn about the neuroscience of architecture and physical space, and how will that inform the design of even more responsive learning environments? What are the jobs of the future, and how will academia factor into training and job readiness?
Higher education campuses and facilities need to respond to the existing state of campus life and culture while building in enough flexibility to account for an, at times, unknown future. No matter what — the student experience needs to be at the center of both campus planning and design. Using the design process to gather insights, feedback, and ideas of both current and future students can inform strategies that optimize their learning and help attract them to the physical campus. Design solutions that are informed by this type of information will set both higher education institutions and their design partners up for long-term success.
Chad Reilly, AIA, is vice president and managing principal at HDR, Inc.’s Boston office.