Op-Ed: Campus of the future: It's about connections, not tech

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 4:08pm

Henry of Germany lectures at the University of Bologna, latter half of 14th century.

Henry of Germany lectures at the University of Bologna, latter half of 14th century. Buy this photo
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Think about the iconic learning space of higher education: the lecture hall. It is iconic because it has been a staple in universities since their beginning. Medieval images from the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, show students listening, pretending to listen or napping before a professor. 

The lecture hall was a technological solution to the social and economic problem of disseminating information efficiently and affordably. The lecture hall solved it by being an auditorium, a place of listening. A single expert could disseminate information by having many people listen to him (always him) silently.

This may have worked for centuries, but in 2017, nearly a millennium since the advent of universities, it no longer makes sense. For all their supposedly progressive politics, academics tend to be resistant to change. In that resistance, they do not always see how the lecture hall no longer solves a problem. In some ways, it creates it. It is just one of the many relics of the campus of the past. We use the term relic literally: It’s a revered but outdated object from the past.

What should the campus of the future or, indeed, the campus of 2017 be like, then? While technology certainly plays a role, we have discovered, thanks to our students, that whatever the answers are, they are less about technology than they are about social connections.

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This should be the beginning of a bad joke: “A nanotechnologist and a political theorist walk into a classroom …” But, in fact, it was the beginning of a collaboration that gave us a glimpse of the campus of the future. Three years ago, we co-taught a course at the University of Michigan on “the campus of the future.” The course was listed in the College of Engineering and LSA. It was open to students across the University and at all levels. We had sophomores, seniors, graduate students and even staff.

Together — and by “together,” we mean all of us, instructors and students alike — we explored the ways the campus of the present constrains learning or the pursuit of passions and of big questions. We studied learning spaces, curricula and academic support infrastructures such as freshman orientation.

We didn’t assume anything was necessarily wrong, but we also didn’t assume things had to be the way they had been for the past 20, 200 or 1,000 years.

Interestingly, the biggest constraint was evident in who was not in the class. Dozens of students had told us they wanted to take the course, but couldn’t: It didn’t fit into their already packed curricula. It was something the students wanted to do but couldn’t if they also wanted to graduate on time and prepare themselves for the next required steps in their careers.

So we sought other ways to let students pursue their interest in imagining the future of higher education. The University’s Bicentennial gave us the platform and the resources. Over the last year, we have run a university-wide design competition on the campus of the future. (“Campus” is used in all its literal and metaphorical meanings and in all its different scales, from classrooms to the globe). On Oct. 26, the University will showcase almost three dozen projects that demonstrate the creativity and passion contemporary college students have for shaping the future of higher education.

There are projects that focus on the campus as a space, imagining it underground or seeing its buildings as organic. Other projects provide tools to members of the campus community to learn or find people in new ways. Others rethink the way courses, spaces and policies emerge. All have students play the role not just of a passive receiver, but a doer.

So the technological and policy innovations are just means to an end: to foster connections, a sense of belonging and a sense of agency among the communities on campus. The students want the campus of the future to be accessible: a place where higher education is attainable with hard work and talent, and a place where everyone feels they belong as who they are, not only if special accommodations are made for them. They want it to be sustainable, both in terms of how universities affect their natural and social environments and in terms of how they remain relevant as the world changes. And they want the campus of the future to foster connections and opportunities that allow them to get to know new kinds of people, learn from them and prepare them themselves for an unpredictable world.

As faculty, we like to tell ourselves we have played at least some part fostering the creativity and skills the students’ projects demonstrate as well as the passions that motivate them. We probably have. But probably not as much as we wish.

The campus of the past did foster such connections. It did it more because of its smaller scale than because of its pedagogies, however. When American campuses massively expanded after World War II, they solved the problem of scale with efficiencies that worked for the political economy of the 20th century, through specialization.

Now, the efficiencies have become silos, and our students yearn to reach beyond them. The world still needs specialists, sure, but it also needs people trained to be nimble problem solvers who are comfortable working and communicating with people across specializations. The small scale of the campus of the past fostered this; the structure and the tools of the campus of the future need to do it now.  

So, students don’t need the lecture hall from the campus of the past. Indeed, in terms of meaningful connections, the lecture hall may well fare worse, or at least no better, than a massively open online course with 10,000 participants. Why do we have images of students napping in lecture halls in the early Middle Ages? Why did we — or, ahem, our friends — fill out crossword puzzles in the campus paper back in the 1980s when we were in college lectures? And why do our students Snapchat in our classes? Because they feel alone, even, or perhaps, especially, if they are in a room with 300 fellow students, each asked to pay close attention but not asked to engage in any meaningful way.

The lecture hall, in other words, was an efficient and affordable solution to a social and economic problem of learning, but it wasn’t an ideal solution. Neither is a MOOC. Or the “iClicker,” a student-response system. They are partial solutions, some better than others. The key, as we have found it, is to think about approaches that foster engagement, our students’ sense of themselves as learners with a degree of agency.

So the university remains relevant, as long as we focus on the right things. The campus is a place of guided exploration, innovation, intellectual and social growth, and making connections to new ideas and new people. Just look for them somewhere other than in the lecture hall.

Mika LaVaque-Manty is a Bicentennial professor of political science and Joanna Millunchick is a Bicentennial professor of materials science.

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