They are tiny parts of an institution’s footprint yet essential to the mission. Hospital administrators pay attention to ORs. Provosts rarely give classrooms a second thought. In the digital transformation of higher education effective learning environments are becoming more critical, not less. Inattention to classrooms and learning spaces can be an Achilles heel.
Patient-Centered Operating rooms are part of a much larger patient-centered environment that includes beds and outpatient clinics. A hospital without an operating room is not much of a hospital. Though ORs and surgical support areas make up less than 7% of a hospital’s usable floor area, these small components and the procedures they support are the essence of the hospital. They are among the most carefully built spaces, with extraordinary care taken for every aspect of the physical environment, from air quality to floor vibration.
Not Student-Centered Universities are not student-centered in the way that hospitals are patient-centered. ORs are not located for the convenience of surgeons, however classrooms are located for the convenience of faculty. ORs are part of an integrated patient care environment. Classrooms are balkanized by department, school, and university with different rules pertaining to each.
Classrooms and teaching laboratories are a small part of a university footprint, often less than 7%. These spaces and the experience they support are as essential to the university as ORs are to the hospital. ORs are never an afterthought, classrooms often are. ORs are understood to be strategic assets, classrooms are rarely considered at all, except to be sure that there are enough chairs to satisfy the “butts-in-seats” pro forma.
Examples While ORs have changed dramatically in the last century, classrooms are just beginning to get the care they deserve. A wide spectrum of active learning spaces have resulted from this attention. FLEXspace and the Learning Spaces Collaboratory have growing inventories of examples.
Active learning spaces have more floor area per student than traditional classrooms, and the floors are flat. The combination of floor area and flatness serves the needs of evolving pedagogies. Flexibility for movement and engagement allows reconfiguration for discussion and project work – and writing surfaces are everywhere. At the high-tech end of the spectrum, the rooms have the fastest possible network speed. At the low-tech end, these rooms resemble traditional seminar rooms without a massive central table.
Investing in Obsolescence The rate of improving classrooms is slow, requiring a couple of decades on most campuses. Digital transformation of higher education is accelerating, making time in traditional classrooms evermore important. Still, it is possible to find universities reinvesting scarce capital funding in obsolete teaching spaces. I won’t name the institutions, but it is happening all across the nation. The explanation usually has several sources:
- senior faculty members who do not wish to change teaching methods
- lag times of more than a decade between documented need and occupancy
- ineffectual influence from knowledgeable facilities staff, and
- indifferent institutional leadership.
All of these factors contribute to the slow change in classrooms, but none more than indifferent institutional leadership. If presidents and provosts saw the classrooms as key to a student centered environment – as a mission critical asset – they would act differently and more urgently. That is what hospital administrators do when they see problems with their ORs.
It takes decades to make significant physical change to a campus-wide array of classrooms – creating more effective and supportive learning environments. Even though poor learning environments are not life threatening, starting the process is urgent. In an increasingly competitive and digital world, physical transformation of learning environments is critical to the education mission.