Digital Visible

Hunt Library Int.2.wcThe 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 AssumptionsOnce 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.

LibrariesLibraries 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.

OfficesWhile 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 ResponseFrom 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.

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3 thoughts on “Digital Visible

  1. Michael – I’m with you on teaching spaces and particularly libraries. However, there is a need for an individual student or faculty member to have a “private” workspace. The workspace does not necessarily need 4 walls and a door and to be assigned to one person for an extended period of time. Also, the workspace and support spaces need to accommodate both paper and electronic based resources.

    • Robert – I think we are in agreement. “Individual student or faculty members” do need private workspace.

      The problem is that campuses tend to have one private office model that has not been adapted to support the mobile and collaborative patterns of student and faculty work. Few alternatives have been tried, and admittedly with mixed to strongly negative reaction. (Proposals as Michigan and UCSF are well documented.) However, since office space typically represents more than 30% of campus space, alternative configurations, that honor privacy needs while better supporting evolving needs for mobility, should be explored.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks once again for some very interesting observations. The changes are indeed happening even if in too incremental a fashion. The molasses-like movement in the capital development world – particularly in the public sector – is troubling. Certainly the legislative analysts, i.e. the gatekeepers of very limited capital funds, I ran into seemed to have all the foresight and creative energy of discarded sit-com characters. Added to that, California’s term limit laws have eliminated any legislators with more than a two year horizon and any actual knowledge of the functioning of higher education. Therefore repeating past mistakes seems to be a tried and true operating methodology.

    In spite of my apparent skepticism about the ability of many institutions to accommodate the required changes in a reasonably timely fashion, I have seen the changing program requirements for classroom spaces as well as student residences appear in a number of buildings our office has done over the last several years even within some very large state bureaucracies: our Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU, for example, and new dorms for Pomona College. Flexibility, connectivity and attempts to foster a community of scholars – both physical and virtual – characterized the programmatic expectations of those and other recent projects. Nevertheless it feels a bit like the societal response to climate change: too little, maybe too late.

    Offices and the attendant faculty sense of entitlement is another story. I have no personal experience with any movement on that front, while seeing several administrative attempts at rationalizing department office space thwarted by the cry of “shared governance”.

    Keep up the good fight.

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