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Is there a There There? Online Education and Defining an architecture-X

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

Speculation regarding the impact online education will have on the traditional college campus is at an all-time high. Some say that online education and the benefits it brings will render most college campuses obsolete within 50 years. Others argue that online education is a fad – perhaps even an ineffective educational model – that will not lead to the alteration of a single brick on the traditional college campus. But there are some who see a more nuanced future in which optimal learning occurs in a blended online and on-campus experience.

In that blended future, there is a there there. The importance of place will not be eliminated by online education. Rather, places are being adapted to these new conditions. Classrooms are no longer unidirectional with focus on the lecturer; they are multidirectional with focus on each team member as well as shared display screens. Hallways are no longer conduits for getting from point A to B; they have nooks and crannies for informal technology-infused gatherings. Libraries are no longer warehouses for books; they have meeting spaces with access to technology. And community centers are no longer just places for Girl Scout meetings; they have spaces equipped with online learning resources for the entire community. There is an architectureX emerging in response to edX and other such online education providers.

ArchitectureX encompasses all of the spaces for learning activities that are not easily replicated online. It is the spaces that an institution preserves and accentuates as part of a reassessment of their core values and mission in relation to the online environment. It is the small seminar room with just a simple wooden table and chairs overlooking the tree-filled quad. It is the turpentine-scented art studio and black countered laboratory. It is the music room with a gaggle of sheet music stands. The definition of architectureX is ever-evolving because the very definition of “education” is rapidly changing.

As online providers are pulling chunks of “education” out of the college sphere, the definition of education is undergoing a metamorphosis. This means that the reasons for bringing people together for “education” are also rapidly changing. Even though the definition of architectureX will continue to be in flux as the definition of education evolves, right now campus leaders can ask themselves important questions that might point to what architectureX means for them. These questions – ranging from planning to architecture to landscape design considerations – are critical if institutions are to assess the ways in which their physical assets best support their mission, vision and values vis-a-vis the rise of online education. Should an institution build a satellite campus? Should low-ranked university programs be phased out? Are there spaces for intimate personal interaction to counterbalance the massiveness of the MOOCs?

By asking hard questions, campus leaders can better discover what architectureX means to them in relation to their core mission. Regardless of the answers, it is essential that academic institutions begin the inquiry. Change is coming and is already making a clear impact. Institutions need to know where they stand. What is their “there”?  What can they do “there” that cannot be done online? 

See the author presenting this topic live at SCUP-49 on Monday, July 14. 

For more on this topic, read the author’s contribution to the Perkins+Will Research Journal.