Never Waste a Good (Higher Education) Crisis: Designing for a Dynamic Future

June 17, 2020
MA Design

The winds of change have been blowing through traditional higher education for a number of years. Demographic trends point to a shrinking pool of traditional college-age students, technology and cultural changes have challenged the “sage on a stage” classroom format, new options abound for online-only education, and financial pressures are omnipresent. The current pandemic takes those winds to gale force and pushes higher-education leaders to ask difficult questions and consider, at a very fundamental level, what the college experience should be, and must be, both to deliver on lofty promises, as well as to remain financially sustainable.

Blank-Canvas Thinking

Andy Grove, management and leadership guru and the former CEO of Intel, is often quoted as having said, “If we were not in this business, would we go into it?” His blank-sheet approach to analyzing businesses is helpful to begin rethinking higher education. If we were starting with a blank canvas, how would we design teaching and learning strategies, as well as student and faculty experiences? And how might higher education infrastructure – the buildings and campuses so ingrained in our imagination when we talk about colleges and universities – change in response to support those new delivery models?

Addressing the pre-existing cultural winds and responding to the immediate and long-term effects of COVID-19 present the opportunity to implement changes in the near term that, while there are costs, should be seen as investments in a dynamic future. Resulting strategies will build flexibility and resiliency both in the face of current challenges as well as in support of long-term growth, change and sustainability for higher education institutions.

The Ohio State University Office of Distance Education and eLearning has been engaged in transforming university classrooms over the recent years in ways that are highly synergistic with both current concerns and longer-term trends, offering a blueprint for the future for other colleges and universities. The OSU College of Nursing has been transforming into an interdisciplinary innovation powerhouse, bridging teaching, learning, research and practice to imagine a new model for higher education altogether. Off-campus student housing at the University of Cincinnati is being re-imagined to blend living and learning in creative new ways, meeting students’ needs for convenience, flexibility and peer collaboration in new facilities that also support their desire to be a part of a vibrant college community during young adulthood. Below, we highlight some related MA projects supporting these initiatives, focused on transformations that are occurring in teaching and learning environments.

Learning Environments

The Past: Universities and colleges have a variety of spaces dedicated to learning in their academic buildings, ranging from large lecture halls to medium-sized classrooms to small meeting rooms. The vast majority of the large spaces are dedicated to traditional lecturing, with a speaker at the front of the room and students listening in a largely passive fashion.

Learning from COVID-19: In the immediate future, institutional leaders are studying how larger campus spaces could be reallocated or re-imagined to allow students to practice social distancing, so that colleges and universities can safely reopen in the fall.

  • Large-format lectures with little faculty-student interaction could occur online, freeing up lecture halls for use by medium-sized classes, with students in those classes then able to spread out in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Medium-sized classrooms could then be utilized for small breakout discussion sessions, with half or more of the chairs removed, again to facilitate social distancing.
  • As long as collegiate sports, conferences and other large gathering activities remain on hiatus, institutions could also repurpose these large spaces, such as athletic arenas, convention spaces, large lobbies, student centers, and other non-traditional spaces to accommodate in-person instruction with students more spread out, as well.

Investing in the Future: Looking further ahead, more flexibility is already being planned into many academic spaces, and this trend will continue.

  • Over time, large-capacity, lecture-style classes are destined to move to predominantly online or blended formats, a trend in sync with current COVID-19 challenges as well as the exponential growth in distance learning that has occurred over the past decade. As has already begun, related fixed-seating, tiered or auditorium-style classrooms increasingly will be eliminated, with more flexible classroom configurations taking their place.
  • Groups of classrooms can then be designed to permit scaling through operable partitions, designed with acoustics in mind and with movable furnishings, wireless data and electrical capacity distributed throughout, so that a variety of class sizes, densities and types of activities can be accommodated with minimal added first-cost expense and much improved flexibility and resiliency.
  • Where full-scale replacement of tiered classrooms is not possible, other creative solutions will be designed that encourage active learning while also facilitating reconfiguration to lower occupancy densities. For example, in some cases it is possible to convert a traditional tiered, fixed-seating lecture hall to an active group classroom by extending every second tier. The extended tiers can allow for a table and chair configuration, with added marker boards at every table and added power in the new floor decks under each tier enabling active, collaborative learning in non-traditional spaces.

  • Technology-enabled classrooms will increasingly incorporate interactive teleconferencing capabilities to facilitate blended learning in bold new ways, including allowing some students to attend remotely even while the majority of students attend in person. This type of arrangement will serve not only to accommodate social distancing goals, but also to open up learning and student relationship-building opportunities to non-traditional students who might not be able to attend in person.


Realizing how much students value interacting with peers, “classroom within a classroom” spaces can be integrated to facilitate in-person participation in classroom experiences by a wide variety of students who might otherwise have to remain at home, including non-traditional students who may need to bring young children along on occasion, or students with immunity, perception or other limitations that limit their ability to interact directly with a larger group of students.

  • Augmenting dorm rooms, informal gathering and communal spaces with robust Wi-Fi, ample electrical outlets, and focused video-conferencing spaces with appropriate lighting and acoustical separation will also support student options for class attendance and small-group collaboration, and that flexibility will enable institutions to respond more nimbly to various stressors like COVID-19 in the future.

  • Innovative teachers will incorporate options for learning deliverables that leverage telecommunications technologies, enabling students to hone these communications skills in order to take their place in a world more tech-enabled than ever. Current social distancing is accelerating this technology adoption.

  • Empowering transnational research, hands-on learning and prototyping through maker spaces, teaching kitchens, design studios, interactive technology labs, and physical material foundries could position universities not only as thought leaders but also as active drivers of the economy. Moving beyond theory and pure research in academia, these types of active learning environments promise to lead the transformation of higher education in the 21st century.
Teaching Environments

The Past: While teaching and learning historically have occurred largely together in one space, distance education and eLearning may motivate a decoupling of those two processes and necessitate changes in both.

Learning from COVID-19: In the near term, colleges and universities will need to consider a variety of strategies and constraints to enable and empower faculty when their familiar classroom teaching environments are not available due to social distancing.

  • Faculty can teach remotely in their homes or offices with the assistance of technology, but those spaces may not be optimal for some faculty and may limit their ability to teach as dynamically and responsively as they would in a classroom environment with presentation tools easily at hand.
  • Additionally, turning in-person classroom presentations into recorded online content can be very time intensive and daunting for many faculty members.
  • In response, otherwise under-utilized small discussion classrooms, abandoned for student use due to social-distancing considerations, could be converted to faculty teaching environments through portable communications technology, allowing instructors to continue to teach “live,” from a distance.

Investing in the Future: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been around since 2012, but in 2018, the first fully MOOC-based degrees were granted, creating new competition for traditional colleges and universities. In response, year over year, more colleges and universities are increasing their distance education-based degree programs. Realizing that communications technology can enable a single individual to reach an incredibly wide audience, broadcasted live and recorded teaching is becoming the new standard for large lecture-style classes. To increase the professionalism and “edutainment” value of the experience, we will likely see more elaborate technology and broadcast studio-style spaces being used.

  • Pushing beyond recorded content, lecture format classes could be re-imagined as live broadcasts, or hosted webinars, enabling the reach of distance learning with the personalization and value-added experience of live instruction.
  • Branding these spaces much like newsrooms, using their well-established colors, logos and mascots, colleges and universities could break out of their bricks and mortar geography, developing cultural presences that allow them to compete successfully in the global marketplace for the best and brightest students, head to head with other digital education platforms.

  • At the same time, with physical places supporting much richer possibilities for holistic education and experience, broadcasting from real, recognizable campus spaces, where students might also occasionally attend in person for social or team-based events, will appeal to students seeking a collegiate community. This could give digital course content produced by colleges and universities an edge over their digital-only competitors, such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity.

  • With well-placed cameras for both wide and close-up views providing the ability to easily switch views to focus students’ attention as needed, and with confidence monitors that show attending students “live” within the broadcast classroom, enabling relatively organic interactions, faculty could be able to continue teaching in much the same way as they have done previously, improving the online experience for both students and faculty.

With this kind of progressive, proactive reinvention already underway, colleges and universities are now faced with both an obligation and an opportunity for transformational change. Already impacted by evolving cultural, scientific, environmental and economic forces, the pressures of COVID-19 will accelerate transformation within higher education. With planning, more vigorous institutions will emerge, better prepared to meet the future as resilient organizations, actively participating in vibrant new cultural undertakings, reaching out to educate our communities, and mentoring students toward empowered participation and leadership in more equitable and sustainable new economies.