The Architecture of a College Campus

Many higher education leaders are beginning to question the design and layout of their campus buildings, ending with the same question: What does the ideal college campus look like?

Maddy Burke-Vigeland is an architect with Gensler, a global design firm. She recently led a survey of university students to find out how they were using – and how they wished they could use – their college campus space.

Reporting her results in an article for Co.Exist Burke-Vigeland writes: “Nearly one-quarter of the students we spoke to reported spending no time collaborating on their college campus at all. Zero. And of those who did collaborate, only 13% said they broke into groups to collaborate during class time.”

She interprets these statistics to say that college students want to work together. The students she surveyed “told us they believe effective teachers act as facilitators; masters of the art of conversation and collaboration, not the soliloquy.”

However, students also want quiet. A large majority expressed a desire for more peaceful places to study, but they had a difficult time finding these quiet places on their college campus. It will take some clever design thinking for architects to balance these conflicting needs in order to provide space for quiet studying and noisy collaboration, all in the same building.

The Gensler survey points to an interesting trend in the contemporary college experience. The architecture of higher education is evolving – but maybe not as fast as students want it to.

The design and layout of a traditional college campus dates back to the Enlightenment. Originally, different disciplines staked out their own territory, separate from each other. For example, engineering students go to class in one building, while a different building across campus houses the biology department. Students and faculty were not encouraged to mingle outside their own discipline. Because most universities began as religious schools, it made sense to segregate religious studies from hard science.

In response to growing student populations during the Industrial Revolution, university leaders sought to make education more efficient. They adopted the model of the factory assembly line. Students crowded into a lecture hall, where a single professor would instruct a large group all at the same time. In this stratified system, students were expected to absorb knowledge by passively listening to a one-way lecture.

That industrial model has persevered to this day. But that’s changing. Walls are coming down, and spaces are opening up. Many department heads are actively promoting inter-disciplinary courses and seminars. About half of all students in the US have taken at least some of their coursework off campus or online. And with the advent of Internet technology and e-learning, we now have to ask whether a college campus is entirely necessary.

Maybe a college campus will become just a nice place to visit for special occasions, like commencement.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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