Challenges Facing the Built Environment

For more than 20 years, I’ve been involved with the Learning Spaces Collaboratory. Through this collection of people, including architects, academics and leaders, we’ve explored many topics with the aim of improving built environments in higher education.

In March, I participated in one of the LSC’s regional roundtables, held at North Carolina State University. To kick off our discussion, we were invited to answer the questions: “What keeps you up at night? Or, “What is your big question?” 

My big question involves meeting the needs of today’s students in today’s environment. Both are very different from years ago. I’ve got two children about to enter college. They and their friends are not interested in a mass production mentality. They want learning spaces that provide them with individual experience that keeps them engaged. At the same time, I know that institutions have to balance fiscal concerns along with student wants, so I’m asking how we can do both.

My colleagues at the roundtable shared their big questions, too. Here are excerpts from some of the participants, edited for length, clarity and diversity of ideas. This week, we’ll include viewpoints from the academic side. My next post will focus on input from the design, facilities and architect side of things.

Bob Beichner, Faculty, NC State University
As the world is changing and content is available literally at the touch of your fingertip, shouldn't that change what happens in the classroom? Shouldn't that change what the classrooms look like? What are those new tasks and skills that students have, and how should we change to accommodate them?

Kristen Eshleman, Director of Digital Innovation, Davidson College
My biggest question is thinking about the future of students: how they're going to be working going forward, and the knowledge economy, what does that look like? How can we design spaces so that students are doing the kind of integrated knowledge that needs to happen for them to be successful? How do we design spaces that are interdisciplinary in nature?

Reed Perkins, Professor, Queens University of Charlotte
When I got to Queens in '98, the building where I started teaching was built in the mid-'60s. The construction reflected the pedagogy of the day. Tables were bolted to the floor so gas lines could come up. I (asked), "Can we rip out the bolts and have the flex spaces?" They said, "No, we don't have money to cap the gas lines." My pedagogy was fundamentally shaped by the building in which I taught. Fast forward. A new science-dedicated lab building opened in 2013. I was struck not only by the design, but by how faculty were being challenged to adapt to this new space, a new set of potentials. Some faculty were willing to leap into the great abyss of unknown pedagogical strategy, and some were unwilling and reverted back to the way they taught in the old building. How do we engage faculty to embrace new possibilities? Students will go along (with) whatever train you put them on. Faculty have entrenched inertia that prevents them, often, from taking that similar leap.

Dana Gierdowski, Faculty, NC State University
Our students and teachers have responded very positively to active learning spaces. But every so often, there's a student who has a particular type of physical disability, who is learning disabled, (or) who has an anxiety disorder. Also, (some of) our students are second language learners who come from different cultures. When we put them in a space like this, are their voices getting lost in some way? Are we not reaching them in ways that are really important? 

David Woodbury, Head, Learning Spaces & Services, NC State University 
How do we define and show value to student success in the coming age of big data and tools that are very oriented on individual students? What's our API to tools that show the value of things like maker spaces, digital media labs, VR spaces, flexible classrooms? (Also,) can we stop building single-use spaces like maker-spaces, digital media labs, VR spaces? Are there ways that we can have spaces that accommodate multiple kinds of activities? 

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