Reshaping Space to Reopen Higher Ed – Safely

Reshaping Space to Reopen Higher Ed – Safely

On May 21, Gould Evans’ David Reid joined a diverse group of thought leaders – such as Tom Sack, Ph.D., President and CEO of MRIGlobal, an applied scientific and engineering firm, and Chris Cardetti, Executive Strategy Director of Barkley, a creative agency – to tackle the challenging issues facing the reopening of higher education. Hosted by KC Scholars, KC Global Design and KC Rising, facilitator C. Mauli Agrawal, chancellor at UMKC, opened the discussion with an emotional and all-familiar anecdote: college is not a collection of courses; it is a collection of people. Deciding how to reshape a physical space is a top priority in keeping the heartbeat of the campus — its people — thriving.

David Reid shared tactical, immediate contingency plans for universities attempting to reopen their campuses – and how they can support student and faculty well being, to satisfy both near term strategies as well as long-range institutional repositioning. Gould Evans’ work with campuses has revealed that most universities already have ample space on campus, but often, it’s the “wrong space” – it doesn’t meet the demands of contemporary pedagogies and evolving customer demands for meaningful learning experiences. When schools do reopen, university campuses can adapt to support a digital learning environment and student well being, even if students aren’t attending class in a lecture hall, as long as quality on-line delivery is seriously evolved into meaningful and appropriate pedagogical delivery for an online setting.

Equity of access to online learning content has been amplified by the Covid-19 remote teaching experience. Many students have unreliable or no internet access in their home environments. As a result, Reid noted that institutions should consider providing additional opportunities for students to access online content within good study environments on and around campus.  Distancing separations will lead to a shortage of space in libraries and media commons. In fact, since nationwide shelter-in-place was enacted, many students have been completing homework in their cars, parked in university parking lots, in order to access strong wifi. This solution is not conducive to learning and further devalues to the expense of post-secondary education. Instead, institutions should consider adapting otherwise under-utilized spaces to become e-learning hubs, and increase campus internet hotspots to create “mini-learning commons” throughout campus. Small classrooms that are inefficient in supporting social distancing protocols are good opportunities to provide this type of space.

As learning continues to extend to the online sphere, equity of virtual learning needs to be addressed. Universities must begin planning intensive online delivery strategies and faculty development. It will require faculty to be trained on how to amend or transform their pedagogies to be successful in the online world – new ways of learning will emerge. Reid recommends that institutions lean into this and research how online learning can be an enhancement to hybrid learning models while simultaneously supporting students with vast learning variabilities. He also recommends the disruption of silos to ensure teaching & learning staff are collaborating with IT staff – these disciplines can no longer exist in isolation from one another.

Active learning spaces — a UDL principle — naturally encourage movement and social distancing, creating circulation throughout the room. This strategy also enables students and staff to be together — safely. If possible, amend your existing classroom or lecture hall settings to support active learning – our UDL Higher-Ed toolkit can show you how. Reid also encouraged universities to leverage outdoor spaces to create opportunities for community-building while maintaining safe distancing protocols. Students want to hang out with their friends. Consider modifying your outdoor spaces such that they are the default over interior spaces that are unable to support large gatherings of students.

Reid concluded by posing a few ideas for future exploration. Instead of going for immediate band-aid fixes, how do we leverage design on campus to better support students, both in the short term and long term? How can we facilitate more real-time conversations to hear what’s on students’ minds? And most all: pressuring students to attend classes will not be productive if they don’t feel safe. Rather, universities should recognize that their spaces define the body language of their institution – these visual messages will outshine any written messages – so they should make sure their campus spaces and policies truly reflect a culture of care. We need to ensure that students are receiving the message that their safety and well-being is front and center in the institution’s mission.