In an era where online courses and degrees are becoming increasingly popular and universities across the state are facing declining enrollment, brick and mortar schools are seeking new ways to improve student retention and recruitment.
While academics remain a strong selling-point, capital improvement projects have also become an attractive way for universities to market themselves. By improving academic spaces through design, universities can better foster social interaction, a shortcoming of online learning.
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The modern student requires a different school than they did in the past. Studies show student success and physical environment often go hand-in-hand, which is part of the reason why universities promote resident life, student centers, and extracurricular activities.
A recent example of this trend includes Ferris State University’s new Center for Virtual Learning (CVL). Construction manager, Triangle Associates, Inc. and design firm, Stantec Architecture, Inc. are partnering to build the $29 million academic building which will create a physical location to bring together online and technology-focused classroom education efforts and serve as a core academic building in the heart of the University’s campus.
“We are trying to create spaces where students want to study and interact before and after class,” Brianne Pitchford said, project development manager at Triangle Associates. “This will give students more options for collaborative spaces outside of the library.”
Pitchford sees academic building design becoming equally intentional about creating informal breakout spaces outside of the classroom as formal learning spaces.
“It’s the idea that learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom,” Pitchford said. “It’s about student satisfaction. They are driving the demand and they don’t want the utilitarian feel.”
Capital improvement projects are also driven by the university’s vision and strategic goals. In the case of the CVL, the project’s goal poses a unique challenge: create a physical location for social interactions without losing the development of Ferris State University’s online and technology-focused classroom education efforts.
“The key to designing learning spaces is to provide diversity,” said Travis Sage, senior associate and project director for Stantec. “Having a diverse variety of options available to students certainly has been shown to affect retention.”
Sage believes the key to retention is providing tailored experiences, and by designing different classroom sizes, breakout areas, and meeting rooms, students can customize their learning experience to their individual needs.
“The biggest trend in learning spaces right now is permeability,” Sage said. “There’s a lot more flexibility and adaptability across all different types of learning spaces.”
“There is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning,” Pitchford said. She believes creating an environment that supports a variety of activities including lectures, informal learning, hands-on activities, and project work, should be incorporated into the design.
Ferris State University’s CVL will house technology-focused academic courses including the School of Digital Media and Information Security and Intelligence program; however, the technology in the space is designed for flexibility and multi-use purposes since another objective of the building is to provide a multidisciplinary environment.
“We understand that technology is constantly changing,” Pitchford said. “Spaces must be adaptable so it’s able to host any type of program. By incorporating too much technology into a building, it reduces the long-term adaptability.”
Universities have instead shifted their focus to the social experience, recognizing the lifespan of technology is much shorter than that of a building and students own an average of three or more portable devices.
“Universities are realizing that there’s a lot more power than can be brought into the classroom on a cell phone than what a building can provide with a projector and a TV screen,” Sage said. “The space should facilitate the interaction, and putting too much customized technology in a building becomes cumbersome.”
As careers in technology continue to grow, the CVL, which is set for completion in late 2021, aims to bring together the developing programs. With a new physical space to support successful online and technology-focused education and program development, Ferris State will be able to increase capacity for existing degrees and create additional course offerings.