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The New Normal in Higher Education​: The Digital Campus Of The Future ​

There are a number of factors influencing how universities are being built. In the following article we focus on the impact of technology and what the digital campus of the future might look like.

The Digital Campus

The digital campus is a well-connected one - limiting frictions by using readily available data. Essentially, they can be thought of as mini smart-cities, underpinned by a technologically adept infrastructure.

Expectations of a “new normal” are forming and university campuses are having to evolve in response to increased digitisation, changing preferences and usage patterns. Institutions are also having to adapt their offering as a result of greater competition from the rising number of digital course providers that offer online educational experiences. The e-learning market, which was valued at $105bn in 2015, is expected to more than triple by 2025, reaching $325bn . The world is becoming increasingly tech-savvy, evidenced by the fact that in 2019 there were more than 4.39 billion internet users around the globe. It would be unreasonable for universities to expect to survive in their current form and so adaptive changes to business model and structure will be necessary in order to compete with online providers and other academic institutions.

The growth of digital or e-learning hasn’t made the physical campus any less important, however campus space requirements are being redefined as a result.

Digitally-native students do not need to receive educational content synchronously. Digital content is flexible and placeless and so classrooms need to be adapted accordingly. It’s likely that fewer traditional classrooms and lecture theatres will be required as the time spent in such rooms drops. Instead, campus space will need to be more flexible to accommodate interactive configurations and a range of uses.

The emergence of digital learning in the past decade has led to some interesting trends in the HE space. These include:

  • Lower demand for lecture halls/traditional classrooms
  • Fewer on-campus hours per student (“on-campus time per degree”)
  • Less justification for traditional offices
  • More demand for flexible, collaborative and trans-disciplinary workspaces that have adaptable layers and can be transformed regularly
  • Labs, pods, quiet spaces and ‘innovation hubs’ are also experiencing greater demand
  • More IoT sensors monitoring space

Formal learning can take place in a variety of locations. As a result, the boundary between learning and social space has blurred, making flexibility and adaptability two of the most important characteristics for physical space on campus.

Live sessions are replacing the need for large lecture theatres as students can join in a session remotely. Transitioning from lectures to more interactive learning requires a re-think of the physical space in which learning takes place. A rectangular box filled with rows of desks facing the instructor and writing board do not support the integration of the key elements of a successful learning environment - namely pedagogy, technology and space.

Despite this, the digital campus won’t necessarily be a smaller one. There may be fewer traditional libraries and lecture theatres but different types of space will be required to cater for new and more varied learning methods - spaces where large groups can work together to secluded corners for concentration, and everything in between.

Inefficient use of campus space is costly so institutions like the University of Cambridge are piloting mobile applications such as Spacefinder to match student study preferences with spaces across the University. Sensors are also beginning to be used to harness real-time data to help search for patterns and predictive uses.

Headline student numbers have increased to new record levels in recent years. In 2017/18 there were over 2.3 million students at UK higher education institutions and there has been a general upward trend in terms of applicant numbers since the mid-90s, with an average growth rate of 2.3% a year. Almost all of these students, to various extents, will need to make use of campus facilities.

The rapidly growing student body means that space utilisation will become increasingly important. A 2006 study of UK universities found that the median space utilisation rate was just 27% over the core teaching week. Rooms were used for just over half the time, and when they were used, they were just under half full . With classroom hours per degree dropping in the wake of digital transformation, HE institutions will need to think carefully about what kinds of space can maximise space utilisation.

Should universities be investing in ‘clicks’ – not ‘bricks’?

For physical institutions to compete with providers of online education, the focus will shift to the ‘experience’ of going to university. Introducing state-of-the-art learning spaces, inspiring architecture, high quality accommodation, good campus atmosphere and sense of community as well as providing access to sports, leisure, retail, bars and cafés will all help to win over market share.

It appears there is still a need for physical campus experiences otherwise online-only universities would have become much more commonplace. Defenders of the university in its physical form have argued that:

‘Online learning cannot replicate everything that is of value in the face-to-face, on-campus experience of learning’

Hands-on experience often requires physical space and face-to-face interactions, so retaining the physical element of higher education looks set to remain, at least for the time being.

No campus will easily meet the evolving expectations of the digital transformation, but for those that don’t the future will be difficult. Institutions will have to decide how to best dis-invest in obsolete and underutilised buildings and spaces and invest in flexible and well-utilised ones.

Find out more from our series: The Campus of the Future

[1] Ellis, R. A., and P. Goodyear. 2016. “Models of Learning Space: Integrating Research on Space, Place and Learning in Higher Education.” Review of Education 4 (2): 149–191. doi: 10.1002/rev3.3056