How COVID Reshaped College Pt. 2 – Physical Spaces

Feb 22, 2021 | E-learning for Educators and Administrators

Colleges faced unique challenges in 2020. Many campuses are the physical space in which their students study, work, live, and play.

When COVID-19 emerged, the shutdowns forced higher education institutions to find a path forward. That path included all of the obstacles that workplaces, housing complexes, and schools were subjected to. So what did that path look like, and what changes may become permanent in post-secondary settings?

In this limited blog series, we will take a look at how COVID-19 changed higher education in three areas: classes, physical spaces, and community.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released their latest issue, “Rethinking Campus Spaces: How to Prepare for the Future of Learning and Work” (available for purchase here). In this issue, they spoke with leaders of colleges that had decided to bring people back to campus after the shutdowns in the spring of 2020. This study provides the framework for this limited blog series.

In part 2, we’ll discuss the changes surrounding campus physical spaces that took place in 2020, and what they will look like post-COVID.

Physical Spaces on Campus Were Changing before 2020

College campuses have been in transition for a number of years in terms of physical space allocations.

As newer generations of students continue to voice concerns about student debt and rising tuition costs and university budgets continue to shrink, higher education institutions have been actively looking for ways to create more value for their students. Prestige and status have fallen by the wayside – students and parents aren’t looking for sprawling grounds, elaborately decorated classroom buildings, or dorm rooms with lavish amenities.

In place of these extravagances, people are looking for physical spaces that encourage and inspire them to make the most of their time on campus. And even before COVID-19 emerged, campus leaders were restructuring things in big ways.

Many colleges were on the path to increasing the flexibility of physical spaces. Lecture halls with tiered seating were replaced with flat-floored classrooms that featured reconfigurable tables and options for creating multi-use floorplans based on each meeting’s or class’s needs.

Large, private faculty offices were reconfigured as conference-style spaces, while professors and other instructors were given desks in more shared and collaborative spaces.

These changes weren’t universal, and some of the best ones continued to take individual faculty members’ preferences into account, but the big theme of the last several years was reducing waste in terms of physical space. This included things like selling or repurposing buildings to accommodate the creation of more student housing or laboratory spaces that could be rented or booked by students and faculty alike for coursework.

How COVID Shaped Campus Physical Spaces

Though the focus always seems to be on how colleges and universities are implementing new technology to allow for more remote learning, there are still many things happening on college campuses across the country.

Libraries, administrative offices, faculty offices and areas, and even classrooms, labs, and student housing are still being used, with updated safety and social distancing setups, of course.

Because many learning spaces have been slowly updated to allow for reconfiguration and multiple functions, creating COVID-friendly configurations was one of the least difficult pivots colleges had to make. Lecture halls were no longer being filled to the brim, but rather being used to house smaller classes that could effectively practice social distancing.

Some institutions decreased class sizes and others created schedules to allow for smaller groups to meet on one of the three class days, again shrinking class sizes without hurting any students or their educational journeys.

The biggest issue was housing. Many dorms and student living areas were created with pairs or sets of students living in and sharing the same sleeping areas, kitchens, and bathrooms. All of these areas had to be re-evaluated to account for COVID-19, and sometimes it was unsuccessful. And when outbreaks occurred, some colleges set aside housing areas specifically for quarantined or isolated students.

Two of the few good things that have come out of these terrible times are the increase in the use of campus “green” spaces and some colleges’ re-evaluation of the ventilation and air filtration systems that are currently in place. Outdoor areas are a perfect answer to social distancing class struggles. In areas where the weather allowed, many schools used their courtyards, quads, and other grassy areas to hold classes.

Some schools, like Kansas State University, evaluated their ventilation systems for the 2020-21 academic year. As many campuses have older buildings, these spaces are not held to the same modern standards when it comes to air filtration and ventilation. COVID-19 highlighted that shortcoming this year because the airborne virus gave administrators the chance to visualize the importance of clean air in their campus buildings.

The Future of Campus Physical Spaces

The future of campus physical spaces is an interesting one. Administrators are now evaluating all the rooms and buildings on campus and asking what can be done to create more multi-purpose spaces.

One considerable change that many colleges are entertaining is the idea that certain administrative offices be restructured to aid in educating and serving first-generation and low-income students by structuring financial aid, bursar, and academic advancement offices in a more collaborative way. Rather than having separate spaces dedicated to each service, some colleges are creating a shared office where any student can come in with a litany of different questions, and common questions will be answered in that shared space. For more in-depth or private conversations, conference rooms are available.

And this model is being adopted by many faculty areas as well. We mentioned before that dedicating thousands of square feet to house a few faculty members creates an enormous waste, especially when most of the faculty are now teaching remotely.

Another area that could see great change is the library space. As more and more students enroll in online classes, they will crave a place outside their home to work on projects or meet for group assignments. And libraries have been in a state of transition, dedicating spaces to group work and even housing different types of tutoring and writing labs within different rooms or areas so as to make the most of this academic space.

As for campus housing, the trend has been moving away from multi-person rooms for the last few years, and with the advent of COVID-19, student housing will continue to move toward more single rooms, nano suites, and smaller, apartment-style rooms where showers and other high-traffic areas will be shared by 1-4 people, rather than the whole first floor or the entire building.

The need for more collaboration and community will be a hallmark of campus physical spaces in the future. We’ll dive into the topic of community in part three of this limited blog series.

Whether on Campus or Off, You Need Great Collaboration Tools

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