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August 23, 2012

Online learning will have lasting effect on campus spaces

  • Lecture halls are giving way to active learning spaces that promote face-to-face interaction and hands-on experiences.
    Schaacht Aslani Architects


    The open courseware movement, made possible by Internet access, is creating a phenomenon that has been dubbed “the great disruption” in higher education. As planners and architects for academic institutions, we see the evolution of online education in light of the changes it will manifest on campus and learning environments.

    The impact of the Internet on higher ed parallels its effect on the music and print media industries. Harvard and MIT recently announced a joint project to put all of their courses online. At the same time, two for-profit startups, Udacity and Coursera are offering “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, for free to a worldwide audience. Both companies are led by Stanford University faculty.

    Udacity seeks to replace institutions by working directly with faculty. Coursera partners with 19 major research universities to host their courses online, including the University of Washington, underscoring the significance of the open courseware movement.

    The rapid expansion of online education impacts all aspects of academic planning and design, transforming the way we think about gathering spaces, lecture halls and classrooms. We are exploring the possibilities in our current work, which includes a campus master plan for Lower Columbia College in Longview and on a 75,000-square-foot multiuse academic building for Olympic College in Bremerton.

    We are finding, even as sweeping changes occur, that the fundamental role of a college campus to be the heart of an academic community is a strong as ever.

    Hybrid schooling

    MOOCs increase access to higher education. They promote interactive learning for large classes in ways that traditional 700- to 1,000-seat lecture courses have never been capable of doing.

    The Coursera platform combines video with social media concepts to simulate a normal college course with lower enrollment. Each week the course combines a series of video lectures, case studies and video discussions with discussion forums, graded essays and online quizzes. The compelling part of the program, which differentiates MOOCs from video lectures on YouTube, is the structure of the peer review and discussion.

    Peer assessments are divided among students, resulting in each person’s work being reviewed by multiple people. The process frees the instructor from having to review each individual assignment, which is a necessity because enrollment in an open online course can be in the tens of thousands. Discussion forums allow for hundreds of simultaneous conversations about a wide variety of topics. Students can have in-depth conversations with their peers just as they would if they were on campus, sitting in the coffee shop or at the library.

    Course grading is a central challenge of implementing MOOCs. The University of Washington is addressing this issue as part of the effort to provide “enhanced” open online courses to its enrolled students. UW will be the first major university to offer these courses for credit.

    While MOOCs are not the appropriate delivery model for all courses, their potential to advance pedagogy is significant. Harvard and MIT are learning a great deal about teaching methods and student learning from their shared open courseware project.

    For example, open online courses enable instructors to receive instant feedback about how students are learning the material. When thousands of students make the same mistake online, instructors can immediately adjust the way material is being taught.

    The impact of the open courseware movement on personal interaction between students, their peers and faculty is a critical issue. While social media is utilized as part of interactive learning, face-to-face interaction cannot be duplicated online.

    A likely outcome of the open courseware movement is the growth of blended or hybrid models that combine online learning with in-class skills development and personal engagement. Research shows that these models are more effective than either all online or all in-class lecture formats.

    One likely scenario is a progression from online courses to hybrids over the four years of a baccalaureate program. As study becomes more focused at the upper-division level, hybrid classes would be increased, paralleling the traditional progression from lectures to seminars.

    Lower Columbia College

    Our approach to the campus master plan for Lower Columbia College and the design of a new arts and health occupations building at Olympic College reflect the impact of MOOCs on higher education.

    Lower Columbia’s master plan considers changing role of the campus in education as the capacity of open online courses to reduce the need for lecture-based classes to take place at the college. Spaces that accommodate experiential learning will become a focus of the campus.

    In workforce education, for example, general content will probably be delivered online. Vocational labs will be designed to simulate workplace environments, enabling students to engage in skills development allows them to prepare for employment.

    Classrooms will be designed as active learning spaces, promoting face-to-face engagement, taking advantage of digital tools and online resources, and serving the needs of hybrid courses. Classroom sizes, instructional technology, furniture and equipment will be evaluated as part of the process. Campuswide technology infrastructure to support online learning will be a fundamental component of the master plan.

    Lower Columbia College’s library, which has already changed from a place for quiet, individual study to a space that accommodates interactive learning and group study, will continue to evolve. In the future it needs to support collaborative, project-based learning and provide places for students who meet through online peer review to get together in person.

    Coursera’s programs reveal that online connections between students enrolled in a MOOC encourage person-to-person meetings. Coursera’s founders planned a party for students who completed their first course and discovered that a thousand students wanted to attend.

    Olympic College

    The College Instruction Center will provide space for Olympic College’s fine arts, music, performing arts and health occupations programs. The mission of the project is to create a facility that brings all its students together to create a community of learners.

    The building is organized to give each discipline a sense of place and promote efficiency for students, faculty and staff. The public spaces are designed to create connections between the programs, encouraging interaction between disciplines. Atrium spaces and open stairwells allow views through the building that create a sense of the whole.

    Transparency, both inside and out, makes each program visible, engaging people in the dynamic activity that occurs in the building — making art, making music, working in health occupations skills labs. In a sense, all of the programs share a vocational orientation due to the hands-on nature of their learning environments.

    Informal student study spaces are located near the stairs that connect the building vertically. These “hub zones” provide places for students to assemble in small groups, work on projects and share ideas. They provide the social spaces that will be a magnet for coming to campus in the evolving model of higher education.

    At the capital request and pre-design phases the project included a 75-seat lecture hall. During the schematic design, the fixed-seat space is being replaced by smaller, more flexible flat-floor learning environments.

    An active-learning lab that will serve all of the programs is being designed to facilitate group work on projects and one-to-one engagement between students and faculty. The space will be located on the ground floor of the building, directly connected to the lobby where it is highly visible and easily accessed.

    The future of higher education in the age of MOOCs both challenges and stimulates administrators, faculty, staff and students to rethink the nature of the learning experience. The role of a physical campus will be transformed as a result.

    At the same time, a fundamental aspect of the academic experience is being reaffirmed. The role of an academic campus as a place that fosters interaction, promotes dialogue and makes palpable a sense of community is likely to be at the heart of planning and design for the future.

    Cima Malek-Aslani is a principal at Schacht Aslani Architects.

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