Designing Colleges For More Than Just Connectivity

Once we make sure the settings for higher education are totally wired, what comes next? Educational design that emphasizes connection and collaboration, and also: actual pens and paper.


While it’s counterintuitive to think of today’s college students as anything other than techno-savants thriving in a hyperconnected campus, I would like to pose a softer, gentler perspective on what these students think really matters and what seems to be getting lost in all the fiber-noise: their individuality.


Case in point: Students today largely are not finding what they need and crave as individuals in the physical design of today’s campus. They’re not finding classrooms that inspire them, environments that support collaboration with their peers and teachers, and quiet places to actually get the work done.

Gensler, the global design firm where I practice, recently spent a semester surveying more than 250 undergrad and graduate students from around the country in an effort to better understand exactly how and where they spend their study time on campus, and whether those physical spaces (classrooms, labs, libraries, in-between spaces) effectively support their needs.

The point was to get into the nitty-gritty of their student lives so we can get to know our end user and better design places that meet their needs. The lessons we learned questioned the stereotype of Gen Y/Z as “born-to-text” (and revealed its penchant for, of all things, pen and paper!) and also provided us with a framework for a Campus 3.0 (with the assumption that Campus 2.0 is the newly wired fiber campus). Campus 3.0 still needs to be wired in all the right places, but just as importantly, it needs to be interactive in a very human sense.

Imagine a campus where the immutable lecture hall (with fixed, stepped seating arranged in a forward position) ceases to be. In its stead: classrooms that are “hackable,” allowing students and professors to restructure the room based on the coursework, breaking into teams, writing on the walls, and engaging the high technology now present to communicate with like-minded students on the other side of the world. It’s not that these types of classrooms don’t exist; it’s that they are the anomaly and still sit in a Campus 1.0 structure (think traditional).

Our survey results–combined with earlier research Gensler did with students, teachers, and administrators–strongly suggest that Campus 3.0 re-examine teaching models together with physical constraints that are rigidly one directional. Students in our earlier research revealed a general dissatisfaction with the lecture format. They told us they believe effective teachers act as facilitators; masters of the art of conversation and collaboration, not the soliloquy.


Our recent survey pushed those findings. It revealed a dearth of such “conversation” happening on campuses today. Nearly one-quarter of the students we spoke to reported spending no time collaborating on campus at all. Zero. And of those who did collaborate, only 13% said they broke into groups to collaborate during class time.

That’s not to say the lecture no longer has a place in higher education. Online delivery programs have packaged high-level learning into a commodity that’s consumable on demand. And certainly, students still turn out in droves to experience–in person–the spectacular professor capable of silencing the masses with his performance. The reality is that those teachers are few and far between.

Imagine a campus populated with spaces that create a culture of learning 24/7. Classroom buildings are alive with students all day, all night. Along with making classrooms/class time more collaborative, Campus 3.0 extends that same kind of energy to the surrounding spaces. Gone are the classroom buildings that go dark when the last bell rings for the day. Gone are the empty classrooms inhabited by students who squat here as a last resort and “hack” the kind of study/collaborative space they need.

Traditionally, classroom buildings were designed with double-loaded corridors that efficiently carve classroom after classroom into both sides of a corridor. Those corridors/buildings now need to be opened up. A mix of classrooms, open team-based spaces, and social spaces needs to be interwoven to give students the dynamic learning environments they told us are missing from their campus experience.

Gensler recently finished a project at MIT in which we turned an underused campus space (a former radio manufacturing space and warehouse) into an International Design Center. The goal was to create a multi-modal building that does not sleep, and the mix (workshop, learning, collaborative, and social spaces woven together with a high level of technology infused at every level) got us there.


Imagine classrooms that inspire students with their energy. Imagine students using pen and paper.

Campus 3.0 is sensitive. It remembers the human side of connectedness. And this ties to probably the most surprising finding in our survey: the fact that students ranked pen and paper as the study tools they used most often on campus, followed closely by and in tandem with the laptop and Internet.
As someone who has worked around student populations for more than two decades, I interpret this constant of “pen and paper” as something physical and tangible and likely to never go away. The act of writing/sketching/concepting connects students in a very personal way to their notes, their research, and by extension, to the whole process of becoming independent adult thinkers in this fast moving world. Today’s students still want to feel and own that connection.

And they want to feel inspired by the classrooms where those connections to big thinking are forged. The students we surveyed acknowledged the functionality of their classrooms and in particular, the technological prowess shown within. But fewer than one-third of them said their classrooms inspired them.
For the new Medical and Graduate Education Building at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, significant work is being done to address that “inspiration” factor. New classrooms are being designed (Diller Scofidio + Renfro is the lead designer, Gensler is the executive architect) to support and inspire team-based learning and problem solving, particularly appropriate for the medical profession where the team construct is critical. The furniture is highly flexible, whiteboards dominate, and the space is adaptable for 30 to 60 students. Each classroom floor is connected to a subset of smaller spaces meant for small group learning as well as a combination of social, quiet study, and informal learning spaces, with no lifeless corridors.

Similarly, at the one-time warehouse on the MIT campus, classrooms don’t just sit there all wired up. The highly transparent and flexible spaces connect to create a center for multidisciplinary research and development that grows globally–into cross collaborations with students at the Singapore University of Technology and Design–so students can address real issues in the developing world while tinkering in a workshop environment.

Imagine the campus library reinvented as a complement of reading rooms–from large to intimate–with a strategically located “genius bar” (a la Apple) making research librarians accessible without disturbing the prevailing quiet. Hold the pastries.


Quiet space to work alone, and, in particular, the lack of enough of it on campus, was an issue for the students we surveyed. More than 70% of students we questioned said they prefer to work alone as opposed to in a group. And indeed, students reported spending 44% (by far the largest portion) of their on-campus time “studying-working alone.” But fewer than one-third said on-campus spaces supported their activities effectively. Specifically, their preferred “alone” work space–the library–is not delivering. Students told us they simply aren’t finding enough space and/or enough quiet space there.

Campus 3.0 needs to rethink the real purpose of the campus library in the 21st century and the trend of moving in cafes and even more technology where once there were stacks of research books. Perhaps the space once occupied by academic tomes–now headed for deep storage–needs less coffee klatch and fewer computers and more “alone” study space.

Clearly, today’s college students bring to the world enviable skills in technology and virtual communication, not to mention the new art of multi-techno-tasking. But what they need and want and what all involved with higher education need to consider is a campus experience that honors those skills while enhancing the thing that matters most: their humanness.