5 Keys to Keeping the Physical University Campus Relevant

In College Needs to Act Like Startups – Or Risk Becoming Obsolete, Evan Selinger and Andrew Phelps reveal what countless articles and conversations about the future of education fail to recognize.  They wrote, “Recently, universities are being painted with a too-broad brush that equates all forms of higher education into a single model of archaic practice while reducing all elements of the campus experience to only the classroom.” In my words, the higher education residential experience is about much more than taking classes.

Their essay highlights a critical reality for higher education of the future. In the presence of online learning, MOOCs, adaptive learning software, personal learning plans and networks, and increasingly ubiquitous access to learning resources; courses, credits, degrees and programs are not what will keep the doors open to physical campuses of the future. It is the learning community. They explain that startups and Universities both thrive on density, shared resources and nurturing communities. The power comes from having a large group of people gathered in a well-resourced physical community with opportunities for informal collaboration, connections, mentoring, rich social interaction, interest-driven groups, ideation, exploration, and more (March Madness, anyone?). This is illustrated by experiments like the Black Mountain Sole that I wrote about in 2013, essentially a learning community with some density, shared resources and a nurturing community; but they don’t actually offer degrees.

If Universities want to have a solid standing in the upcoming years and decades, that means investing in and capitalizing on the best of emerging teaching and learning, but investing even more in cultivating community. I suggest 5 good places to start.

1. Student life and academics must function as more of a common unit.

This happens in some Universities, but not all. The learning mission of a school needs to be evident not only in the academic programming, but in the vision (and resources) for the community experience: activities, events, clubs, symposia, guest speakers, etc.

2. IT must be driven by the charge to develop systems that enhance community.

It should go without saying that open and accessible wifi needs to be available everywhere, but also quick access to power (not just on the edges of rooms, but in centers as well). It also means policies that encourage and empower the use of social media and other tools and technologies to easily connect with one another. Apps like Social Radar take on new meaning with this in mind. Find ways to help students connect with others; instructors, support people, and other people who have shared passions and projects.

3. Student life must embrace the student who wants to live on campus and learn online (for a personalized blend or all courses).

Policies requiring students to take a certain number of face-to-face classes to live on campus miss some important points. Online or face-to-face students may want access to physical library resources, coffee with a professor/mentor/advisor, a rich community of learners with whom to connect and network, great learning spaces, student support services, and everything else that a physical campus has to offer.

4. Build community opportunity around online programs.

Since the majority of higher education institutions are offering online courses and/or programs, this is an important point. Some online programs run apart from the rest of the University, sometimes offering lesser services to the remove students, and paying no attention to learning and community beyond the classes. The best online programs will do things differently; coming up with powerful, creative and engaging opportunities and experiences that extend beyond the standard online classroom.

5. Pursue new building projects with community, collaboration and experimentation at the center of the design.

There are countless books and resources to guide these considerations, but it means reconsidering how spaces are used, creating more spaces for informal networking and collaboration. Visit some of the emerging workplaces of this age and use that as inspiration for how to re-imagine spaces.

Higher education is changing, but one thing has not changed; the fact that institutions of higher learning are and have always been about more than courses, credits, degrees and programs. Given the nature of life and learning in the digital age; it is more important than ever to recognize this reality, build upon this strength, but do so in a way that leverages the best and mitigates against the worst of this technological world.