Why is the physical environment for higher education still important when arguably with the emergence of online learning and digital access, students do not need to leave their own homes?
We are, as is so often pointed out, in a world where the focus is increasingly on personalisation. In healthcare gene therapy is tailored to treat specific conditions unique to a specific person; people can order cars or computers with specific features determined before production; and of course education where students expect that educators will meet their own specific needs at a time that suits them.
Such is the power of technology, that much of ‘learning’ and the acquisition of knowledge can take place anywhere and at anytime, it does not all have to be on campus. Indeed some see the future of higher education as being completely ‘on-line’, with students taking a series of courses at home with little or no interaction with anyone else. Doubtless this will seem attractive and may well happen in some cases, but those institutions that still place a value on the role of human interaction in the learning process will need to explore a combination of physical and virtual connectivity. This may become the hallmark of a quality university, and how the environment can enhance an institution’s competitiveness.
Although universities must enable individuals to learn at their own pace and in their own place, crucially they must enable individuals to connect with each other. The exchange of information, knowledge and ideas between people is critical for not only learning but also for generating new ideas. Canadian psychologist Kevin Dunbar studied the development of innovation amongst micro-biologists. He found that the real innovations didn’t happen in the confines of individual studies through a microscope, but in conversations among people from often different disciplines. Swedish researcher, Ola Thufvesson, found in his study of over 480 Nobel laureates, that accidental meetings in corridors or on staircases between people from diverse disciplines was how new ideas were created and spread.
So, what then is the implication for higher education in terms of its physical environment? Quite possibly networks of learning environments which are smarter and more responsive to student and academic needs. There is less need for large lecture halls, and greater demand for smaller more varied spaces for individual and group work. Such environments may be within a campus, but could be spread across a town.
This idea is not unique to education. For example, in healthcare environments as medicine becomes more personalised, and surgical techniques are developed that enable faster patient recovery from even the most invasive of procedures, there is less demand for large hospitals, and greater demand for smaller clinics. Even within the hospitals there is less reliance on large wards and more on focused clusters. In the workplace generally, similar ideas are emerging as different ways are being found to enable people to work together – there is more attention on providing different types of work settings to enable people to interact in different ways whether they are in the office or not.
For higher education the key will be creating environments that enable people to interact in different ways. Much of academic life will also take place online, and there will be pressure to give up as much physical space as possible, apart from anything else, to do so will reduce maintenance and operating costs. While the difficulty will be finding a balance between creating physical places and using virtual environments, the opportunity might well lie in how the two environments are brought together. For example, the work of MIT’s Media Lab shows the extent to which the two are beginning to merge. Advances such as augmented realities will have a profound effect on how people interact both with and in the physical environment.
There will probably still be a need for spaces that cater for large and small groups of students, research and university administration. However, the emphasis must be on creating settings that encourage interaction between people, casual dialogue stimulated by the place that they are in, the chance meeting they have and the focus of their interests.