The Christine E. Lynn University Student Center, Boca Raton, Fla.
A group of people walking around a building.

How New Learning Models Are Transforming the Student Experience

From micro-pods to new hybrid learning settings, students, teachers, parents, schools, and universities across the globe have adapted to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic with creativity, speed, and ingenuity. In just a matter of months, we’ve witnessed a fundamental transformation in the face of unprecedented times. Beyond crisis response and return planning, we’re reimagining a new experience that will be shaped by agility, resilience, and equity.

Pre-pandemic, these terms were already punctuating the picture for education. However, the events over the last eight months have underscored the need for schools, colleges, universities, and the education system as a whole to solve for these imperatives to ensure relevance and — in some cases — long-term survival. As most markets face a new economic landscape, efforts towards objective decision-making, prioritization of resources, and resilience will continue to grow in strength. And the historic and systemic challenges of equity and access in education that the pandemic has exposed must be solved. Rapidly advancing global change and shocks to the system have spurred exponential advancement forward, but education must continue to deftly adapt at an even faster speed than when the pandemic hit.

But what tangible changes will we see in teaching and learning as part of this agile, resilient, and equitable future? Just as the expedited switch to a remote existence in the spring brought an enlightened perspective about what works and what absolutely does not, the variety of models that have emerged this fall afford us a unique position.

As we progress through this continuous beta mode to test out solutions that can be applied over the long-term, some ideas are emerging about the student experience of the future. Here are some of the models we are seeing:

Micro-Pods: Across neighborhoods and communities, families are forming co-op-like environments as an alternative (or facilitator of) remote learning. Most prevalent for primary and middle school ages, these pods are focused on not only providing structure to kids’ lives and schedules, but providing a much-needed opportunity to socialize, explore and test ideas, while keeping learning fun. Models are wide-ranging and vary in terms of ages, curricular parameters, and the local school set-up for remote or hybrid learning. In urban settings, some residential buildings are even leasing space for these micro-pods, betting on families’ needs to identify a communal space where kids can mix for class time.

    • Benefits Now: Rather than replicating the classroom at home, the neighborhood pod is the ultimate opportunity to find ways for learning to happen everywhere — to make every experience throughout the day a learning experience and harness the power of in-situ learning. Often combining multiple age groups, they offer an opportunity for kids to form mentoring and communal relationships, enabling older kids to help and guide the younger ones, sometimes teaming up together peer-to-peer.

  • Future Implications: As families band together to form pods that work for their households and students, schools and institutions can apply successes towards their role as community centered hubs. A heightened support network for learners, families, and educators that engenders inclusive engagement for each learner starts with two primary objectives: (1.) ensured access to tools and technology; and (2.) empowering families to partner with schools to guide and support learning pathways.

College Collab Houses: Looking to replicate aspects of the campus experience while remaining remote this fall, a number of college and university students are forming their own micro version of campus life. According to The New York Times, “These houses range in scale from lavish and pricey productions to smart, budget-friendly solutions for first generation, low-income students. These groups of students have named their college houses and made them social media official, creating shared accounts where they plan to post about their lives together.”

    • Benefits Now: These essential in-person experiences that were absent in the spring not only support peer learning and material comprehension but also build cognitive skills, foster social and emotional relationship-building, and ignite inspiration. Additionally, there’s a level of student agency and responsibility that comes with planning and implementation of this model, including how the space is planned. The New York Times piece features a group from Grinnell who have formed a house in Utah with “plans to recreate a mini campus at home by naming different living spaces after buildings at the school.”

  • Future Implications: As those settings that drive student experience — dining, housing, recreation, student life — combine digital platforms with physical space, there will be a new set of criteria that determine the “highest and best use” of social and interactive spaces. Design for activities that bring the most value for human connection will take new priority on campus, and these spaces will likely take cues from those choices students have made this fall to recreate the campus experience away from home.

Hybrid Settings: While some campuses have remained entirely online, there are a number of institutions and schools who have employed variations of a hybrid model, running the spectrum between in-person and remote engagement activities. With the “space” of the classroom having expanded to the individual working and home lives of students and instructors, structured school hours continue to flex, along with new strategies for balancing personal, academic, and professional responsibilities.

In these hybrid settings, faculty observe students finding new ways to self-motivate, time-manage, and personalize their learning experiences. And some faculty are finding improved learning outcomes for certain online classes and considering continuation of these virtual courses and technologies following the pandemic. Unscripted, open platforms that mimic writable and tackable surfaces — such as Miro and Conceptboard — are proving to be essential components for learning, especially for sharing work, collaborating, and explaining complex content.

    • Benefits Now: With communication platforms now providing a front row seat for every participant, a new bar has been set for using in-person and remote-instruction to create a more equitable class environment. Educators are increasingly striving to use in-room technology to create an equal experience for in-person and remote students. In some cases, faculty have developed new course formats to enable remote teaching to a physically-distanced classroom of students. What’s more, the ease with which content and class time can be recorded allows students to revisit explanation of concepts and faculty to cumulatively collect student work and progress. Whatever the structure, experimentation with technology will only continue to push the bounds for enhanced engagement in the future.

  • Future Implications: Hyper-flexible and tech-enabled learning environments of the future should provide choice based on how learners and educators best engage between virtual and physical space. Learning environments that position digital platforms as supplemental “spaces” for learning help tap into intrinsic interests and equip students to craft their own learning map and future. Technology allows institutions to engage with students in a personalized way, providing flexibility needed in a constantly changing world.

In-Person Engagement: Leading up to the fall, many schools spent energy and resources planning for in-person engagement. Beyond the procedural protocols like temperature screening, contact tracing, and cleaning, the basis for space planning started with distancing metrics, establishing small group settings and individual work zones to minimize the potential spread of germs.

    • Benefits Now: The move towards smaller group work and collaborative learning clusters required by the pandemic enables, almost by definition, more independence. This more self-driven approach offers new learning opportunities centered around intrinsic pursuit of knowledge, while also encouraging students to problem solve first while waiting for help. This independent interaction also fosters empathy building and compassion among student peers.

  • Future Implications: Emphasis on independence and agency in the learning process will drive expansion of incubator and innovation environments that promote exploration and self-driven endeavors. Transcending their place as tertiary buildings and spaces at the edge of campus or as a nice-to-have amenity for schools, innovation spaces will continue to drive industry and community outreach while becoming a core part of the campus and curriculum. Classroom environments will increasingly take cues from these spaces, balancing focus and teaming environments and offering choice in modalities.

As parents, community members, and design professionals, we can’t help but see this opportunity from multiple perspectives. For all of us parents, no matter the workaround we’ve come up with this fall, there’s a part of us wondering if we’ve made the right plan. As designers, we see the inimitable benefit of this time to observe at a macro level the myriad solutions that are being tested for potential future adoption. As community members we see the opportunity to use this moment to impart change for the better, to position our educators, schools, and institutions as engines of our cities and communities. Together, let’s “never let a pandemic go to waste.”

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Meghan Webster
As a principal at Gensler, Meghan helps shape strategic vision and strategy, leverage research, and build client engagement. Her work on a broad range of project types with various education clients has developed her experience across all aspects of the design process. Driven by a lifelong passion for shaping the human experience, Meghan brings strategic leadership, innovation, and expertise to design and its core business in client services. She is based in Chicago. Contact her at .
Deborah Shepley
Deborah is a principal and global co-leader of Gensler’s Education practice who has partnered with over 45 higher education institutions to facilitate integrated, participatory, and data-informed planning and design processes. She brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in campus master planning, space programming, stakeholder engagement, and community outreach. Deborah is based in Newport Beach. Contact her at .