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Chalkboard to Whiteboard

The effect of technology on the design of space in higher learning.


The year is 1841. President William Henry Harrison dies of pneumonia just one month after taking office. He is succeeded by John Tyler. The city of Dallas is founded in the independent Republic of Texas. China cedes Hong Kong to the British. And, in the world of education, the chalkboard—black slate written on with calcium carbonate—is introduced, an invention that will remain state of the art in education for 150 years and will change the world.

It used to be that technology evolved, taking its time moving from one advancement to another. Today it seems to mutate, instantly jumping from one level of capability to a dramatically different one. For the oldest Baby Boomers, it could be argued that the single technological innovation in their entire school lives, say 1952 to 1968, was the ballpoint pen. Their school desks had the same inkwells their grandparents’ desks had. Today, technology has education in a sprint to … well, that’s the problem. Nobody knows exactly where.

no time to adapt

Consider for a minute how technology once came into our lives. People had 13 to 25 years to get used to television. It took 13 years for TV to penetrate 50 million households. Facebook, by contrast, took just two years to get to 50 million households. The iPad sold 300,000 units the first day, and also was in 50 million households in just two years. Plus—are you ready for this?—the iPhone is just eight years old.

It’s not just the speed of change; it’s the tremendous leaps in capability. Remember the wonder of floppy disks and CDs? Well, a modern memory stick has 22 times the capacity of a CD. And 11,200 times the capacity of a floppy disk! It could be argued that technology is advancing at a pace beyond our ability to keep up. Consider, for example, new wearable technology like Google Glass and the new Apple Watch. But there are people who can and do keep up—the people who have grown up in this new technological world: the Digital Natives.

digital natives

Today’s teenagers, people who will be attending universities in the near future, have never known life without computers, smartphones, or the Internet. They are arriving on campus knowing more than ever before. They bring different attitudes, talents, opinions, and expectations to the classroom.

The technology is intuitive to them. They are natural collaborators. They make decisions faster. Video gamers, for example, make decisions five times faster than non-gamers. This is not an incremental change from the previous generation of college students, but a fundamental shift. Of necessity, universities are scrambling to adapt to these changes and remain relevant to their key constituents.

When you consider that these same Digital Natives will soon be streaming into the workforce with even more advanced tools and newer ways of working, technology’s effect on designing workspaces will be as dramatic as it is today in designing higher education spaces.

The idea of educational spaces and workspaces has been static for a long time. No more. Today’s designers face a dynamic, moving target.

is college worth it?

Running parallel to the dramatic changes technology is effecting on campus is the astronomically rising cost of college. In the past 20 years, college tuition has increased a breathtaking 550 percent. Meanwhile, incomes, even for people in the 90th percentile, have increased only 90 percent in that same period. People with lesser incomes, of course, have fared much worse.

People are asking questions about college they’ve never really asked before, like: Is it worth it? How do you justify enormous debt when the prospect of being able to pay it back seems more and more remote?

Fewer than 10 percent of today’s college students are majoring in liberal arts. For most, college is about preparing for a job. The fact remains that higher education is vital to becoming a competitive, productive member of the workforce. So what is a college to do?

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