Higher Education’s Future: The Blended University!

Blended Learning Pre K-12 / Overview

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released a special report, Rethinking Campus Spaces, that offers strategies for doing more with less space, to save money and prepare for an uncertain future.

One-way signs, sparsely furnished classrooms, and empty faculty offices are the norm now, but they won’t last forever. Still, the pandemic may have permanently altered campuses in other ways, accelerating changes that began years before.

The Chronicle asked more than 40 architects, campus planners, and leaders in student life and housing about how several categories of campus spaces might look different in the future. Below is a small excerpt from the report focusing on teaching and learning.  It comments that blended learning [hybrid learning] will reshape the  “classroom.”

Last Friday, I paired with Tanya Joosten of the University of Wisconsin at the OLC INNOVATE Conference on a presentation entitled Planning for a Blended Future.   We discussed not just blended courses or blended academic programs, but “the blended university.”  The Chronicle’s report supports fully our commentary.




Even though online learning during the pandemic has had its hiccups, many of the experts The Chronicle spoke with expected hybrid classes to persist into the future. That trend will reshape the arrangement of classrooms.

Courses with at least some online, asynchronous components can be better for students who work or care for children during the day, who have health needs that are best taken care of at home, or who otherwise face barriers to coming to campus frequently. As students with more-diverse needs have enrolled in college, Doug Kozma, vice president and campus-planning director for the architecture firm SmithGroup, said he had seen “a really clear shift in space type.”

Even “traditional” students — those who are easily able to attend college full time — want a greater ability to do things when it’s convenient for them. “Everybody wants more flexibility,” said Elliot Felix, chief executive of the consultancy brightspot strategy, “and flexibility generally means a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities and more online.”

Hybrid and online learning may also help colleges deal with shrinking budgets. When officials with the California State University system and Arizona State University spoke with The Chronicle in the fall of 2020, they expected their enrollments to grow but feared not having the funds available to build additional classrooms. Cal State saw a $299-million budget cut this year, a result of falling state revenues. Leaders at both institutions are looking to online learning to help fill the gap.

Flipped classes, in which students watch recorded lectures on their own before coming to campus for guided hands-on and group activities, were widely discussed and put in use before the pandemic. They might become even more common in the years ahead, which could stoke demand for flexible classrooms that can be quickly rearranged for different activities.

Large lecture halls, with their immobile and tightly packed seating, might decline, or so many consultants hope, believing that they’re not ideal for learning. “I typically say that when you have a large lecture hall, distance learning starts at the 10th row,” said Persis C. Rickes, a higher-education space planner who runs her own firm. “You might as well not be in the classroom at that point, because you are not engaged.” The realization during the pandemic that large lectures can work well online might push colleges to keep at least some of those courses in that format, several planners said.

In an atmosphere of scarcity, institutions will examine closely whether they’re making the most out of their physical spaces and face-to-face time. “We’re going to go into every room and we’re going to say, ‘Is meaningful connection going to happen in this space? Is something going to happen in this space that cannot happen online, that cannot happen at Starbucks?’” said Shannon Dowling, an architect with the firm Ayers Saint Gross. If the answer’s no, the next question is whether the space is worth keeping.

Meanwhile, a move to more online learning might create the need for a different kind of space.

In 2014, the Georgia Institute of Technology started an online master’s-degree program in computer science that costs most students around $7,000. To date, the program has graduated 3,795 students, most of them over the age of 25 and already employed.

Although they were not required to meet in person, students liked to do so anyway. They organized meet-ups in cities including San Francisco, Austin, and Bangalore. They formed groups like Nerdy Bones, for women, who made up 19 percent of the students in the fall of 2020. Administrators found that as many as 80 percent of the U.S.-based students in each cohort lived within a two-hour drive of one of 10 major population centers. That gave the administrators an idea: Build co-working spaces in those cities, where online students could work and meet one another. Each space, called an atrium, would have career and advising services too.

The university is in the early stages of developing several atria, including one in Georgia. But the need has become more urgent as the pandemic has moved more Georgia Tech students online. Administrators are seeing that students are talking with their professors and with each other less than they did before.

“The sort of interactions that happen outside the classroom, those are all missing,” said Stephen Harmon, associate dean of research for Georgia Tech Professional Education. “Even the ones that happen five minutes before class and five minutes after class, those informal learning opportunities are really important to building learning communities.” Students report feeling isolated.

If more students take at least some classes online or in a hybrid format long after the threat of Covid-19 is over, Georgia Tech will want to find ways to make sure those students feel engaged, which just might mean creating more physical spaces for them.


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