by James E. LaPosta, Jr.
As we continue to live through an unprecedented time, it has become increasingly clear that a newly defined normal will continue beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic. The changes will affect our day-to-day lives in small and large ways, including disruption to the way that our children receive their education.
In a short time, this pandemic has dramatically impacted the dynamics around teaching and learning, how engagement is occurring with students, and, for architects and interior designers, the way we think about the design of these facilities as a whole. Over the last 20 years, technology has become an important element of our educational buildings; in today’s environment it has been transformed into a key element for remote learning.
Members of our team spoke with Susan DeNicola, principal of the recently completed Barack H. Obama Magnet University School in New Haven, about how they have been managing through these challenging times. As we look toward the future, schools like The Obama School may serve as an excellent case study of how to maintain educational continuity, how students are responding to using technology for remote learning, and what lessons and innovations we can expect for education design going forward.
Remote Learning In Practice: The Barack H. Obama Magnet University School
The Obama Magnet University School serves students from grades K-4 in New Haven, Conn. It is a lab school located on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. The school’s STEM-infused curriculum and project-based learning approach are designed to prepare students to utilize digital media and technology to communicate effectively. It is an example of a school with an innovative, flexible, technology-based design that was helpful in enabling educators and administrators to quickly transition to a remote learning model, due partially to the technology infrastructure that JCJ Architecture and our partner Pickard Chilton integrated into the school.
While the infrastructure and technology that was implemented for the Obama School was designed to be agile and allow teaching and learning to happen from everywhere in the school, we could not have foreseen how it was adapted to handle this unexpected transition. The school’s technology package was enhanced from other institutions based partially on the highly refined communications curriculum and the school’s collaboration with Southern Connecticut State University’s School of Education. Certainly these factors are extremely important, but effectiveness is dependent on preparedness from students, teachers, and administrators. As Susan indicated to our team, the fact that the Obama program is built around communication and that school and district are highly oriented around technology helped to bridge the logistical challenges and greatly diminished timing for implementation. The school’s teachers initially led classes from empty classrooms within the school, before eventually being able to quickly switch to a remote model.
As we shift our thinking in response to our current circumstances, we start to understand this more deeply from the perspective of individual and community resiliency and what our models may need to be moving forward. While the Obama School has been able to transition rapidly and the school’s program has allowed them to deploy devices (iPads for the younger students, Chromebooks for the older students), they have faced a number of important challenges: Even though the program provides 1:1 computing, not every child has access to Wi-Fi; while both teachers and students were familiar with the necessary technology to conduct lessons, the school staff had to work quickly to enhance user-friendliness so parents could effectively help their children learn at home, refining methods for contact and engagement with students so there is continuity and strong personal connections.
Susan shared with us that she is incredibly proud of her teachers and entire team: how they have come together and addressed challenges and engaged in real time problem solving; their concern for the social, emotional and academic well-being of students; their compassion for parents; and their determination to maintain their school’s special culture and spirit. Teachers at the Obama school have gone above and beyond to make this work for the kids, demonstrating their commitment and belief in what they do, and showing that education can and needs to transcend the classroom.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
The format of teaching has changed in the current climate. Traditionally, assignments are delegated and given a due date, and students learn on a structured schedule with defined timelines and expectations. To alleviate pressure on the parents, who are likely wearing many hats in this new landscape of a constantly full house and multi-tasking with unfamiliar content, we see teachers and administrators committed to being creative and adapting their methods to directly coincide with a virtual and remote world.
So clearly the current climate will change how we think about technology and how it’s integrated into learning environments in the future. The key may be to focus on resilience – specifically, digital resilience. The same way our buildings are able to function when a natural disaster occurs, so too must they be ready in the event of a crisis that forces the world to operate on a purely digital scale. Designers will need to ensure that students are able to connect to their school building even if they can’t physically be inside – that the building can continue to function seamlessly even if it must do so remotely. This need for digital resilience expands to districts and across communities. Students who may not have access to the Wi-Fi they need, or who can’t rely on safe experiences at home, may look to their community for the resources they need in the event of another isolating crisis such as the current pandemic.
There are those moments that change how you think and how you take action. In a post-Columbine/post-Sandy Hook world, we all looked at school safety and security through a new lens and knew our work as designers would be important in moving forward. As we evaluate what things are going to look like in the education landscape after COVID-19, we will be listening, learning and adjusting our thinking to help our clients and their communities maximize their resiliency. The DNA of our profession is built on problem solving, optimism and tenacity. While we hear stories about students unable to finish their final school year at their school, unable to be with their peers and missing out on ceremonies and events they have looked forward to, we know our work in the design professions has just taken on another layer of importance.
Looking To The Future
So where do we go from here? As society moves forward from this pandemic, keeping buildings future forward and always ready for the next thing is going to continue to be of the utmost importance.
Designers at firms like JCJ Architecture are going to be asking more questions about technology at the onset and throughout our projects. While robust technology programs were an accelerating trend in educational buildings, we anticipate every school will need to have a distant learning plan in place. Districts will have more information on the types of performance they need from digital platforms, and the physical infrastructure of schools will need to adapt.
As we are seeing a real world application of these technologies and strategies for the first time, we will take this knowledge and will use it to prepare for future challenges. The availability of a real data set offers insight that will be invaluable as we set our institutions up for a successful and safe future. Additionally, this is a new time of exploration for people in all fields, especially software developers, who are continuing to innovate and deliver new products that will help make things easier and more seamless in the future.
Reasons For Optimism
The positives? Students who are going through this period of isolation may be finding a newfound appreciation for school, their teachers and their peers. Virtual programs that allow our schools to stay “open” may eventually change the structure of the school year (will snow days become obsolete, and summer vacations rendered unnecessary?). If deployed properly, technology may alter the way education is delivered to students for the better, and more effectively prepare society in times of future crisis.
As for our team, the emphasis on community, and what that looks like in a digital context, will be top of mind. The primary goal going forward – whether for the team at the Obama School or for design professionals – is to provide for as many students as possible to have access to a comprehensive education and to ensure that they will be socially and emotionally supported, especially in the event of another crisis. We have seen that technology implemented into schools when combined with a focus on meeting common goals can help to create a sense of continuity and community for an entire school community. The work done by the teachers and staff at the Obama School has been truly inspiring.
James E. LaPosta, Jr., FAIA, LEED AP is chief architectural officer at JCJ Architecture.