The physical implications of the digital transformation of higher education are becoming visible.
Classrooms and libraries are being retooled in response to changes in basic assumptions that have guided campus development for more than a century.
Student housing and campuses are evolving in response to social media and the changing use patterns of members of the campus community. From classrooms to libraries to residence halls, digital transformation is changing the physical presence and requirements of each institution.
Rethinking Assumptions – Once upon a time, college campuses were built around chapels. Today’s universities have been built for books, lectures and private offices. A library was assumed to be a repository for paper books with rooms for reading. Academic buildings were the pedagogy of lecture cast in concrete. Scholarly isolation was crystalized in private offices.
Digital transformation is leading institutions across the globe to rethink the most basic assumptions about books and lectures. Some are even challenging assumptions about private offices.
Within the academic career of current graduate students, long-standing assumptions about higher education have been overturned. Time in class need not be face-to-face. Students in a course need not experience it synchronously. Textbooks need not be printed. Contact hour and credit hour are losing literal meaning, just like dialing the phone. Undergraduates have never known anything else.
Learning – Pedagogy is being rethought to exploit the capability of digital formats while maximizing the value of class time. It is happening course-by-course, department-by-department, and college-by-college. Innovative instructors are exploiting the potential for more effective teaching and learning outcomes. Learning environments are being adapted in response.
Curricular change still moves through the molasses of traditional committee processes. Pedagogy can move at the speed of an individual instructor as she develops a new course or re-develops a part of the existing curriculum.
Almost any pedagogical change now underway leads to less time devoted to lectures and more time working with, adapting and applying the principal learning objectives of the course.
Lecture halls and many existing classrooms are ill suited for even minor deviation from the straight lecture model. Group discussion can be compromised by rigid seating arrangements. Project work is stifled by the “tablet-arm.” Rooms built for mid-20th century lectures are poor substitutes for 21st century learning spaces.
Pedagogical developments recognize the need for much of the learning process to occur outside the formal classroom setting. These developments through “flipping” and other forms of hybridization are requiring the availability of student workspaces outside the classroom. The most available alternatives are libraries.
Libraries – Libraries are finding the need to provide more usable space for students and faculty. Whether engaged in study, research or course projects, the campus community continues to migrate back to the library.
Many librarians are seizing the opportunity to make most of the books go somewhere else. The on-campus space, once used for book storage, can then be renovated and reconfigured for use by the campus community. Libraries have never been about books. They have always been about access to and use of information.
Offices – While the rest of North America has moved to mobile devices and shared workspaces, academic organizations tend to be locked into the private, fixed office arrangement of an earlier era. It is troubling that these spaces are used with increasing rarity. They are also dysfunctional in that these offices introduce isolation and cloistering that restricts face-to-face communication. It is ironic that the campus facilities work against the forms of communication that are the basis for their continued existence.
Campus Response – From an institutional perspective, many of these changes are difficult to see, lost in a thicket of business issues that present themselves with increasing urgency. Whether it is the decline in traditional college age students, the ongoing reductions in public funding or demands for greater access, wide-ranging issues threaten the continuation of business as usual.
The changes induced by digital transformation are difficult to address with traditional capital funding process. This is not about the need for a new campus student recreation center or teaching laboratory. This is about adjusting the performance requirements of the campus to support a digitally transformed pedagogy and academic community.
The inherent ability of the members of the campus community to adapt means change of the campus environment need not happen overnight. No campus will instantly be able to meet the evolving expectations of the digital transformation. Creating a building suited for a new idea about books, lectures and offices may take more than a decade.
Those that begin to move quickly on their libraries and learning spaces will be able to provide capabilities that are expected. Those that can’t move quickly enough will be left to offer less in the increasingly transparent market place for higher education.