What’s the future of university campuses? An architect asks 50 post-secondary stakeholders, and here’s what they said.

When June 21 marked 100 days since universities collectively flipped to remote learning, I completed a qualitative analysis of the suddenly-virtual classroom based on the experiences of 50 faculty, students and staff at 40+ campuses worldwide. As “post-COVID” becomes common parlance, I learnt of the personal impact of this watershed phase in health and human interaction as it accelerates long-emergent changes at campuses. It is amplifying deficiencies and strengths in institutional models and forcing a deeper reckoning of the relevance of higher education.

From small liberal-arts schools to large research universities, Spring’s “band-aid-education” received a grade of B-. Campus life is filled with beloved rituals; everyone missed the structure and rhythm of scheduled classes and discovered the merits of “face time” and shared experiences. The university experience exemplifies community, emblematic of a time when young adults gain independence, build lifelong friendships and discover purpose, mostly in the spaces between classes.

Has COVID-19 killed the campus? While this question has arisen since MOOCs became prevalent, the pandemic’s unilateral impact raises fundamental questions on the significance of the campus experience, and architecture as a parameter of excellence.

PLANNING BEYOND The next hundred days:

Navigating Fall’s uncertainty requires various strategies and improvisations based on campus scale, curricula, socio-economic and climatic factors, and regional health protocols. Institutions must also consider ethos-defining values like academic integrity, research excellence and equity when operationalizing parallel virtual and physical worlds. Preparations emphasize creative planning for experiential learning and focus on first-and-fourth year students who are most affected. Apart from immediate responses, these catalysts can frame resilient planning:

  • Unscripted Possibilities: A hybrid Fall requires employing multiple remote learning techniques and constructive use with off-campus places for building rapport and engagement
  • Off Campus Life: Where some student communities are contained within campus/college-towns, most students rely on off-campus housing and viable public transit, which become critical determinants of reliable return-to-campus
  • Economic sways: The pandemic has upended the trend where university attendance swells during economic slowdowns and unpredictable enrollment planning requires agility
  • Reputation matters: Despite large international student bodies and uncertain plans for return-to-campus and research continuity, reputed institutions will likely fare better
  • School to work: As the economy reemerges, agile, work-skills oriented community colleges and unique vocational institutions will be attractive, pushing liberal arts institutions and university towns towards reinvention
  • Majors matter: Despite challenges to experiential learning, applications to health sciences schools have surged, while social studies and arts programs remain vulnerable
  • Regional borders: Western institutions relying upon international students will compete for in-region students; established east-to-west internationalization patterns will fluctuate

While digital platforms can extend remote access, should physical spaces for in-person and experiential learning become rarified, it will set up fundamental divisions between those who are in and out, with unintended, wide-ranging impacts. As social equity emerges as an urgent conversation, structures of education – and therefore campuses as their platforms – must prioritize recalibration towards broad access to educational excellence for those at the margins who can gain the most from it.

Denmark’s retraining program allows re-skilling every four years, and Stanford’s ‘Open Loop University’ promises six years of learning over a lifetime for recurring knowledge acquisition – wider application of such models will dramatically change the physical campus.

What does the whole campus experience bring?

Radical reconfigurations of academic structures are being deliberated as institutions re-examine their mandates, and the fundamental promise of higher education for social advancement is questioned. Beyond augmenting the virtual classroom, the whole-person immersive experience relies on collaborative and social spaces which cannot escape rethinking.

Space matters: Students at campuses across North America recreated their campus in Minecraft to experience a sense of community.

If the armature of campus life is redistributed to their communities, what spaces will become essential to the core campus? The current ubiquity of remote experiences has upended the pedagogical foundations of didactic and experiential learning to instigate new forms of knowledge creation and socialization. The following speculations reshape the campus and its architecture:

  • Campus without departments: Despite department-based structures enduring, decreasing budgets and increasing costs demand delinking departments from space allocations and envisioning the built environment as an amalgam of intersecting typologies
  • Hybridity: After this massive disruption, hybridity will expand; collaborative, student-focused programs, partnership-based and Netflix-meets-Khan-Academy-inspired models will bolster personalized learning, peer-to-peer learning, tutoring and independent research, potentially redefining internationalization
  • Examining Real estate: Like corporate offices, campus offices will be impacted – as courses shift online and work-from-home/hoteling retain favour, the organization of unique faculty buildings will be reexamined, and support spaces may shrink or be repurposed. Student housing may move to off-campus providers, with limited on-campus “hostels”
  • Rethinking “Burolandschaft” (Office Landscape): Campuses may reinterpret this Workplace and Open Schools concept – reductively described as “(noisy) schools without walls”- to shape central Forums for multiple experiences using adaptive infrastructure. Generative design technology will enable iterative scenario planning for scalable manifestations of program, activity, and circulation. Combined with sustainability-oriented intelligent building systems, this concept will imbibe the ebbs and flows of habitation
  • Threshold Campus: A more porous synergistic indoor-outdoor relationship will be embraced, harnessing the potential of in-between spaces and extending the learning continuum while enhancing the overall student experience and supporting holistic sustainability
  • Education Ecosystem: Like vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods, campuses constructed as spatial mosaics with comingled typologies are better suited to upholding community than those with separated zones for academics, residences, and student life. By activating fluid seams between campus and community, they could foster cross-pollination with libraries, museums, community centres, schools and urban parks
Transferring the tapestry of campus life to digital platforms is challenging; digital natives know that meaningful experiences require interpersonal engagement, and educators recognize that multiple networks and serendipitous interactions support learning, cognitive development, collegiality and well-being

The future is here. And its transforming already.

Pre-crisis, MIT was building a platform called “digital credentials wallets” for refugees gathering skills while crossing geographies. This builds upon trends for personalized learning/un-learning/re-learning, where, having gained a secondary school foundation, an individual’s future could defy traditional degrees and single-institution boundaries by exploring project and interest-based learning. As extreme as such remaking appears, individual path-making is germane as campuses evaluate their long-term relevance. To develop academic and fiscal resilience, institutions are challenged to actively experiment, adapt, stake new partnerships and embrace a “permanent beta state”; mirroring advice graduates have been receiving for years.

As interactions dematerialize, a critical reminder from a professor of anthropology: Space for creating knowledge matters. How you sit matters. Where you sit matters. Whether you can make eye contact, matters. How often you can speak, matters.

At a time of profound change, the foundation of predictable 4-year degree programs returns to the center of debate. It is acknowledged that post-secondary education prepares graduates for unknown futures by imparting a growth mindset, critical thinking skills and risk-taking, regardless of discipline. Yet the old order of degrees as socio-cultural currency framing life persists, even though graduates will “pivot” their professional identities multiple times over. While aiming not to commodify education, models for career redefinition emerge – multi-year university “subscriptions”, competency-based learning and “unbundling of traditional programs” to grow access. Free of singular entities, innovation clusters spanning universities and industry are shaping permeable networks of learning and research based upon the shared interests of participants. The post-secondary learning landscape is indeed ripe for transformation.

Ambitious ideas are imperative at this global inflection point, and post-COVID, may hasten to broader fruition. The notion of design creating stable, 50-year spaces responsive to anticipated needs has already shifted with changes in education over the past decade. Forward-looking schools are reimagining campuses as a series of agile, multifunctional spaces with robust, scalable, flexible, tech-enabled infrastructure which can be refashioned owing to sequential or disruptive changes. This will now expand to include variation in occupancy and rules of habitation, based on public health and big-weather events. Soon this conceptual approach will not be unconventional enough to proclaim itself the “campus of the future”; possible futures assumed to be 10-15 years away are here now and becoming the new normal.

This is an abridged version of Jay Deshmukh’s complete white paper, which can be viewed here.