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Digital Natives and the Campus of the Future

Image © Gensler

In July, the World Futures Society came to Chicago for their annual conference. I was asked to speak about the “Future of the University,” specifically the urban renaissance that has been occurring over the past few years. I used the opportunity to do a bit of future-casting, and predict what the university will look like. The results are below.

I co-presented with Dr. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, and we realized that the best laid plans start by understanding the past. So we look backwards to a 1975 Business Week magazine article by George Pake, the leader of Xerox Corps Palo Alto Innovation Center (even before Palo Alto was known as Silicone Valley) in which he proclaimed that by 1995 the office environment would be paperless (he was obviously worried about the future of the Xerox paper copy company). The article posited that by 1995 an office employee would be able to call up files digitally on a TV screen mounted on a desk by the push of a button. It questioned how many papers an employee would even need at work.

As Cindy and I prepared for the presentation, we were at a large conference table with hundreds of pieces of papers around us. Even in 2013, we are far from a paperless office.

What was interesting about Pake’s target year of 1995, however, is that the freshman student arriving on campus today was born in 1995.

Image © Gensler

To understand the class of 2017, it is helpful to understand the world in which they were born. . William Jefferson Clinton was president; every Thursday at 7pm, many of us huddled around TVs getting to know six new Friends quite well; most of us accessed the Internet via dial-up connections. Who doesn’t look back fondly on that that dial-up handshake sound.

And while 1995 was not the year that Al Gore invented the internet, it was the year that Netscape Navigator debuted and Windows 95 came into existence unveiled. DVD technology was announced and the most tech savvy of us ditched the bag phone in favor of the much smaller Motorola Flip Phone 8500 (which did not have a touch screen).

Why is this important? Because it shows that members of the incoming class of college freshman are digital natives. They grew up with but digital technology and came of age with 24/7 connectivity. It also means is that the modern college campus should not be the same in 2017 as it was in 1995 or even 1975.

Such paradigm shifts are redefining higher education. Students are networked to the cloud, expect to learn anytime and anywhere, and are looking for space as flexible as the apps on their iPhone. They know the power of a campus in a digital world and are looking for spaces that are memorable despite the fact that they are part of more on-line communities than face-to-face networks.

What the student is looking for is not much different to what we are seeing come to fruition in the most innovative incubator work environments. 1871 is a co-working incubator environment recently completed in downtown Chicago. A flexible, work environment proves that innovation today needs the power of space, that despite the ubiquity of third places like Starbucks, youthful entrepreneurs are willing to pay for co-working space that brings like-minded workers together.

This same energy is what universities are trying to capitalize on in the design of their new spaces on campus (which are really future environments, educating the next 50 years of students).

Our Changing Course research, which resulted from a smart phone survey of 250 college students from over 100 different institutions, looked into current student campus experience preferences of a variety of spaces, such as lecture halls, study modes and time between classes. The result was loud and clear: most campus spaces are not working. Lecture halls received a 19% satisfaction rating.

Are lecture halls still relevant? Image © Gensler

This World Futures Society presentation set the stage for a think tank round table discussion focusing on one question: How can campuses meet the needs of tomorrow’s digital native student graduating in 2017? In this room of 75 futurists, we were able to spend an hour divided into six different groups. Four very similar themes emerged:

  • Incubator University—call for flexibility. Spaces and furniture need to allow for rapid adaptation and create creative, collaborative experiences.
  • DIY University—more individualized course paths. Provide relevant, just-in-time learning with a more self-directed learning experience-as one person put it, “Think e-Harmony of learning.” Another said, “We all don’t become the same type of accountant or architect, why should we all be educated the same way.” Students will look to take multiple courses from multiple universities for one degree.
  • Studio University—gamification of learning/physical space. Make learning fun and relevant with hands-on learning modules (e.g. Studio 805, MIT Media Lab, 1871).
  • Ubiquitous Technology. Technology is everywhere, make great spaces that don’t feel tech heavy and provide learning opportunities that take advantage of the cloud environment we live in.

They also had very common concerns about delaying the evolution of learning that students need.

  • Faculty must adapt quicker. One questioned, “Is this the end of the large, closed-office faculty office?” A more open faculty environment would allow faculty to learn more easily from each other and “see” what the others are doing around them.
  • Curriculum must adapt faster. One institution represented claimed that “A new course takes five years to get implemented.” The world is flying by the ivory towers at this pace. Quicker adapting on-line and non-degree certificate programs are eclipsing formal bricks and mortar educational environments.
  • Space must allow for flexibility. Furniture needs to encourage collaboration and ubiquitous technological environments.

In a world that is quickly evolving, the biggest overarching theme of the discussions was that the university space and business model need to allow for more rapid change. Nearly everyone in attendance appeared to support the academic model that is college; however, they did seem to portray grave concerns about its eventual demise due spiraling costs, value of education equation, and slowness to respond in rapid moving times.

What do you think? If we were to start a university from scratch in 2013, what would it look like? Where would it be located (urban or rural)?

David Broz is very involved in his community, sitting on nearly a dozen not-for-profit boards and committees, ranging from "Placemaking in the Loop" to "Multicultural Scholars Program at the University of Kansas." A common thread runs through his work and his volunteer efforts: the desire to create great spaces to live, work, and play that respond to today's social and economic realities. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

Wonderful article! Love the inclusion of the fact that it takes 5 years to implement a new class. Yikes!
08.21.2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatty Hendrickson

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