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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?

education into the future

The best way to understand what higher education was like in the 15th century is to walk into a contemporary college lecture hall and just imagine the professor speaking Latin. The professorial lecture has been the mode of choice for imparting knowledge for more than 600 years. Finally, it is becoming passé. Students are more and more put off with traditional methods. They feel that only 26 percent of their readings are relevant to their lives. And they are forcing faculties and universities to change with them.

top ten trends in higher education

Tomorrow’s college experience will be very different from that of just a few years ago, never mind a generation or two ago. This will require designers to think about future higher education spaces in entirely new ways. At least 10 distinct trends will impact them:

1. Flipping the Classroom
What was once classwork or lecture material has now become homework. What were once homework projects have now become in-class activities done in collaboration with classmates and under the supervision of professors. How’s that for change?

In the flipped classroom, students prepare for class by collecting information from various sources on their own time online in their dorm rooms, in a library cubicle, or some other special space designed for that purpose. Then, during class, the teacher answers questions or poses a problem based on that material and then facilitates the students’ efforts to find a solution. Students today are used to collaborating like this, and it builds valuable skills like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

2. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
MOOCs are online courses that are available, usually at no cost, to basically anyone with a web connection. Instead of a professor being able to reach just those in his or her lecture hall, MOOCs enable them to simultaneously teach hundreds of thousands of students.

There are several leading for-profit MOOC providers working in partnership with some of the finest universities in America. This is a trend that has everybody thinking—or rethinking—the entire question of the value of pursuing a four-year degree in the traditional, costly, on-campus setting.

Some traditional universities are already offering MOOC-only graduate degrees at a fraction of the in-person, on-campus cost. Others are incorporating MOOCs into the flipped classroom concept, creating hybrid courses that improve student performance. In one California state university, incorporating content from an online course into a for-credit, campus-based course increased pass rates to 91 percent from as low as 55 percent without the online component.

MOOCs are also a wonderful recruiting tool for universities, allowing them to give students a taste of the experience before they choose to attend. At the moment, most MOOCs are not-for-credit. But a lot of work is being done to try to figure how to give students credit and how to charge them for it. And it is changing fast. Obviously, MOOCs will affect how universities think about, design, and employ their physical spaces.

3. Teaching in Teams
In traditional pedagogy, “the assumption is that every professor is good at everything and needs to be good at everything,” says James R. Davis, dean of University College at the University of Denver and author of “Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching.” “College teachers are specialists in their disciplines, but they have learned almost nothing about how to specialize as teachers, i.e., how to differentiate the tasks of teaching and become experts at different things. Thus, most college teachers do one thing: They go into classrooms and lecture.”

The new trend is teaching in teams. With team teaching, more than one professor, sometimes from different departments or schools, help the students view material from more than one perspective.
This is similar to the cross-pollination that the business world has found productive. It creates a more vibrant, innovative culture, and increases student-faculty interaction to develop an entire community of learners. It has also been found to increase the effectiveness of instruction with measurable outcomes.

In contrast, team teaching allows the team to divide tasks and bring different talents into play. Team teaching is an important and potentially positive trend because it encourages both students and teachers to view material from more than one perspective. Exposure to a team of instructors also gives students access to a broader base of knowledge than is possible from one instructor alone.

Perhaps even more significant is a trend toward interdisciplinary teams comprised of faculty from different departments or schools. We have seen cross-pollination become a credo of the business world where the “creative abrasion of different points of view” creates a more vibrant and innovative culture.

4. E-books & Beyond
Books are not dead, but in the age of the Internet and with the easy availability of educational videos, films, blogs, etc., the role of books is greatly diminished. E-books, such as iBooks textbooks from Apple, offer information enriched with interactive diagrams, photos, videos, and 3D graphics. Students can highlight text, search for content, and find definitions in a glossary.

For all the advantages of e-books and the tremendous marketplace disruption they promise (threaten?), there has not been a massive transition to e-textbooks. On the one hand, they may bring down the cost of students' textbooks, and a Kindle or an iPad is certainly lighter to carry.

But on the other, printed books are somewhat easier to underline, notate, and not as tiring to read as a screen. But then again, printed books get dog-eared, worn, and quickly out of date, and it is much easier to search an online book for a word or group of words to find text that is relevant to your work. The arguments go back and forth, but the advance of technology is relentless.

5. Distance Online/E-learning
As early as 1728, there was an ad for distance learning in the Boston Gazette. Delivering information or instruction to students not physically present was popular when information couldn’t travel faster than the speed of a horse. Now that information can travel at the speed of light, distance learning is taking on an entirely new significance.

There are two kinds of distance learning: synchronous and asynchronous. The more traditional is asynchronous in which people separated by distance can take the same courses, but not all at the same time. These are everything from traditional correspondence courses to contemporary podcasts. They offer students the greatest flexibility. Synchronous distance learning involves technologies like web conferencing, video conferencing, Skype, etc., and they require students to be “present” at the same time.

There are a lot of benefits to distance learning, especially for students who are independent and comfortable working alone, and good with computers. Online courses can be perfect for someone juggling a job and a family along with going to school. Though many colleges offer distance-learning options, levels of accreditation vary. Most degree programs require a blend of distance and on-campus courses. But that’s starting to change.

The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), together with AT&T and Udacity (a MOOC provider), now offer a master’s degree in computer science that can be earned entirely through MOOCs. Though the courses will be free to the general public, degree candidates must already have a B.S. in computer science and also pay tuition. The distance-learning tuition is about $7,000 compared to about $10,000 on campus for an in-state resident and $26,000 for out-of-state.

It’s easy to see how things such as cost, convenience, and flexibility are already changing the space considerations on college campuses.

6. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)
Almost everybody has his or her own smartphones, tablets, e-Readers, and laptops these days. And more than 50 percent of students use them to integrate themselves into their university’s information stream. It goes far beyond registering for classes online. Students can view e-books and videos related to course work and communicate with teachers and fellow students about class projects.

Though BYOD is a definite trend, the scope can vary widely from school to school depending upon how much and what type of technology is integrated into the university system. What’s more, universities can’t control which devices students are bringing with them, so they have to adapt their systems to the students.

There are two keys to making these systems work. One is ample WiFi bandwidth. The other is adequate and ubiquitous power supply. Without these, as Dr. Joseph Cevetello, director of learning environments at the University of Southern California has observed, the devices become dead weight. It’s important for universities to get this right, because some studies have shown that for today’s digital natives, integrating personal devices into the teaching process on campus can improve learning by up to 400 percent.

With that in mind, some colleges and universities are implementing furniture that enables students to gather around a central screen used as an external display for their laptops. New technology allows new levels of collaboration.

7. Widespread Video Collaboration
Today’s Digital Natives are perfectly comfortable sharing screens. And technology gives anyone, anywhere the potential to share with anyone else, anywhere else. Underserved students in cities or jungles can now connect to a vast spectrum of learning experiences via YouTube, as well as those provided by schools and educational websites such as Kahn Academy.

This kind of mass education is only one of the peripheral effects of widespread video collaboration. According to Steve Delfino, vice president of corporate marketing and product management at Teknion, it will transform economic society around the world. Just one example is in Ethiopia at Jimma University. To address its lack of resources and teaching staff, the university has installed a video conferencing system in classrooms and offices.
This system enables Jimma University to conduct video lectures, expand distance-learning programs, and connect to other universities and government departments. A real-time media platform allows for multipoint conferencing with other campuses and permits connecting 10 to 12 classrooms at once.

Widespread video collaboration also offers a way to truly engage students in a new kind of educational experience rather than just tweaking what we’ve always done, but digitally.

8. Gamification
Since the advent of Sesame Street nearly 50 years ago, people have sought to embrace the idea of making learning fun. Gamification takes that idea to a dramatic new level.

Applying game thinking and game mechanics to education has been found to build engagement and personalize learning. A core gaming strategy is to provide rewards for accomplishing certain tasks: e.g., points, a progress bar, or certificates of achievement. Gaming also attempts to minimize cognitive fatigue or frustration, respond to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and tap into intrinsic motivation, as opposed to the pressures of external competition.

Data of students’ performance can be collected and analyzed. This data can then be used to inform and adapt teaching methods, as well as to assess teacher effectiveness. Several pilot programs in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif., have found that making school feel “less like school and more like real life” helps students experience purposeful learning.

MOOC courses offered by Coursera in the spring of 2013 included not only Human-Computer Interaction and Songwriting, but also Gamification. According to the Coursera website’s description, “Effective games leverage both psychology and technology, in ways that can be applied outside the immersive environments of games themselves. Gamification as a business practice has exploded over the past two years ... in areas such as marketing, human resources, productivity enhancement, sustainability, training, health and wellness, innovation, and customer engagement.”

No doubt gamification will soon migrate to and perhaps “explode” in higher education, and will affect the design demands of space in ways that are hard to predict.

9. Active Learning
Also known as experiential learning, active learning taps into the social nature of Digital Natives. These students thrive on collaboration, group projects, and sharing ideas; sitting in a traditional lecture hall or sequestered deep in the stacks of the library, they quickly lose interest.

Judging by the way it is being embraced both by students and educational institutions alike, active learning is a very important trend. Though it is not entirely new—internships, apprenticeships, and student teaching have existed for years—active learning has been taken to new levels by technology via hands-on projects and real-life simulations. The ultimate indication of its importance is the fact that colleges are willing to invest capital in the form of building design to support it.

10. Big Data
There is a torrent of data: 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated a day. The potential power of this is only now being appreciated and leveraged. One opportunity is to use related data to get answers to questions previously considered beyond reach. In the world of higher learning, big data can help capture more complete views of students, their activities, and what influences the choices they make.

Big data will also influence design choices, because it will help colleges and universities better manage their real estate and classroom scheduling. In an age when classroom use is falling—as students spend more time interning, researching, and teaming in informal spaces—it is more important than ever for universities to leverage every square foot of their real estate. Though its future impact regarding education remains unknown, the potential of big data is still in its infancy and is something designers would be well advised to pay attention to.

what’s next?

The embrace of technology is total, and not merely by students—teachers have adopted it as well. Just consider a few facts.

For students:

  • 38% of college students cannot go 10 minutes without technology
  • 65% use digital devices to create presentations
  • 82% use a device to research or write
  • 50% of those who own a digital device regularly read e-textbooks

For teachers:

  • 79% of their students access assignments online
  • 76% of their students submit assignments online
  • 91% of their students think email is the best way to get extra help from their teachers

For designers like us, the challenges and the opportunities technology presents are enormous. We have to question everything we think we know about what college is and how it works. What is the relationship between the students and the teachers? What is the relationship between everyone and their classrooms? How do today’s students really learn? And what are the most efficient, cost-effective ways to help spaces enhance that learning? Is there a new chalkboard waiting to be invented?


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