WITH ALL THE WONDERS OF TECHNOLOGY—its ability to enrich learning, as
well as to extend educational opportunities—the fact remains that something
is often sacrificed when one’s only experience of formal learning is through technology. Like the office, you don’t have to be there to be productive. But most students, given the choice, want to be “there”, at least part of the time. Schools are not just bricks and mortar, a collection of places to read books or listen to lectures or even a one-stop-shop for resources like labs, art studios, theaters and libraries. They are communities. The relationships formed with teachers and with other students can be extraordinarily inspiring and motivating, as can the spaces in which learning takes place.
In an effort to compete, schools often rush to install the latest technology without considering its long-term relevance. Technology cannot supplant great teachers or the experience of learning from one’s peers. In the end, perhaps education is about providing intellectual experiences, creative experiences, life experiences—which often occur most vividly when shared with other people. Studies have found that the more students interact with faculty, administration and each other, the more engaged they are with the learning process.
In creating a distinctive identity and strong sense of community, the quality of the learning spaces is as important as resources, digital or otherwise. Schools need buildings that invite people in and spaces that provide comfortable places to read, converse, use technology and bond with each other.
“A university is just a group of building gathered around a library.”
- Shelby Foote, American Historian and Novelist
As research by Gensler has found, the diverse needs of students and educators require a broad palette of spaces for learning. Regimented, one-size-fits-all spaces lack flexibility and inhibit interaction and active learning styles. While buildings in place impose architectural limitations, the construction of new buildings gives schools an opportunity to design new kinds of learning spaces. For example, classrooms have traditionally been organized along a corridor, but it would also be possible to position classrooms around a shared open space where students and teachers could socialize and participate in various types of learning processes. Older buildings, and in particular legacy buildings, may limit innovation. However, furniture, A/V equipment and other technologies can be employed in new ways to support teaching and learning in which interaction and engagement are active and continuous.
Of course, the classroom is only one element of a college campus. At the
UCLA Powell Library, students “sprawl across futuristic furniture pods, with coffee and snacks in plain sight. Gone are the days of the library as a monkish hideaway, the province of sunlight-deprived grad students hunkered down in carrels deep in the stacks.” In the library, student union and dormitory, students and educators are using in-between spaces such as lounges, courtyards, and atria to interact and learn from each other.
Cafeterias and dining rooms are vital social hubs that can also function as learning spaces. Tables of different shapes and sizes, along with comfortable chairs and booths equipped with power and lighting all encourage people to use these spaces for study groups, mentoring or other learning activities. Designing campuses to take advantage of the creative learning that takes place in such “in-between” spaces can help colleges and universities provide a more inclusive and engaging experience of education.
As students, teachers and college administrators reconsider the form and function of learning spaces, the focus is shifting from formal to informal and from categories (libraries, lecture halls, classrooms and cafeterias) to more flexible and fluid spaces. There is a blurring of conventional boundaries and learning that is abetted by technology occurs almost anytime, anywhere alone or with anyone else in the world. The physical spaces in which students have traditionally learned are being reassessed not only in terms of the student teacher role, but also with regard to student health and well-being; evaluated not only in usage and costs but also experience and sustainability.