Changing Course

Much is made of the millennial generation’s affinity for technology. But how have college campuses adapted to this cohort of digital natives? Have university classrooms kept pace with professors keen to introduce new models of education?

They haven’t, according to Gensler research. In “Changing Course: Connecting Campus Design to a New Kind of Student (PDF),” Gensler finds that on-campus spaces are trailing the demands of educators and students. To catch up, schools need to embrace the competitive advantage of their physical presence in an increasingly virtual world. More than access to technology, today’s students value dynamic learning environments. Providing these means reinventing campus design to align with new educational realities and student needs.

Image: The SUTD-MIT International Design Centre, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Surveying a new generation of students

Millennial students’ arrival on college campuses has been accompanied by a desire for new models of education. Having grown up with digital media, these students are interested in integrating physical spaces, like classrooms and dorms, with the virtual campus they inhabit via smart phones and social networks.

To better understand how schools can tailor learning environments to suit this generation of students, Gensler’s Education & Culture practice surveyed graduate and undergraduate students to understand how campus spaces do and don’t help them learn. Their responses reveal that the current paradigms for campus design are not effectively supporting student needs.

Today’s spaces aren’t working for students

Colleges and universities would do well to question campus design conventions. Survey respondents reported that on-campus spaces – from classrooms to study lounges and libraries – are falling short of their expected functionality.

Students make it clear that when they attend class, they want more than a long lecture or wireless network. They expect classrooms to support collaboration and take advantage of lateral learning opportunities that arise from interactions with peers and professors. Learning spaces designed for one-way communication, like lecture halls, cannot provide the interactive classroom environment that students crave.

Independence is core to the student experience

Outside class, students report that they spend more time studying alone —and that they prefer it that way. At the same time, students say great study spaces are lacking. On many campuses, students find it difficult to find quiet space for heads-down focused study.

Moreover, quiet spaces within libraries are in highest demand but shortest supply, leaving students to look elsewhere for silent, solitary study. Campuses that struggle to support independent learning are unknowingly challenging students to make do with group-oriented spaces like labs and studios.

Classrooms are wired, but not inspired

Contrary to popular belief, technology is no longer the main ingredient of a great on-campus space. Campuses have, in effect, reached a tech saturation point. High-speed Wi-Fi is now a staple in every classroom and high-definition televisions and projection screens are ubiquitous. In fact, when asked what tools they use most often use on campus, the top student response was “pen and paper.”

Adding more technology to this environment will yield diminishing returns. Students come to class with their own devices and an expectation of Wi-Fi access. What students want, but can’t supply by themselves, is an environment for inspirational learning experiences.

Connecting to a new kind of student

As universities make courses available online, they call into sharp relief the value of their physical presence. From earlier Gensler research (PDF), we know that students perceive teachers as most effective when they act as facilitators of a multi-modal learning environment. Now that students express a preference for collaborative classrooms over lecture halls, we see the need for a significant shift in the university business model and mindset.

Lecture halls are no longer where universities compete. To attract and retain the best students, universities will need to deliver exceptional interactive learning environments on-campus that complement the non-interactive online learning experience.

Kevin Craft (Gensler – Washington, D.C.)
Tim Pittman (Gensler – New York)

Chris Leonard: Page 1
Pierce Fisher (Gensler – Washington, D.C.)
: Pages 2-6

Learn More
Research: “Changing Course: Connecting Campus Design to a New Kind of Student” (PDF)
Blog: “Learning is Virtual, but Students Aren’t” by Maddy Burke-Vigeland

Maddy Burke-Vigeland and Mark Thaler (Gensler Education & Culture Practice – New York)

Research Methodology
Over the course of the 2011 fall semester, Gensler conducted a series of surveys of 250+ college students with the goal of identifying the factors and spaces that contribute to successful higher-education environments. The survey sample included 32% graduate students and 68% undergraduate students representing various disciplines and more than 116 colleges and universities throughout the United States.

The first was a profile survey, followed by five learning modes surveys—lectures, collaboration, studying or working alone, group studying, and time between classes. Conducted through a series of six short surveys on smart phones, each survey did three things: ask about the time spent in each study mode that week; ask specific questions about the space where students performed particular activities that week, with each week focusing on a different mode; and ask questions to understand students’ on-campus experiences and preferences. This allowed the team to capture in-the-moment data, and by using a series of short surveys we achieved an unusually high participation rate over the course of the three months.

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