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What's the blueprint for a 21st-century college campus?

With enrollments declining and technology advancing, colleges are breaking ground on spaces that give students and faculty new ways to engage.

Facing headwinds that are muddling their missions and their budgets and luring away prospective students, college and university officials are adapting their campuses in big and small ways that they hope will help them navigate it all.

From soaring, high-tech innovation labs that attract new students, to small-scale huddle spaces and digital campsites that foster the soft skills bosses increasingly want, colleges are building anew or repurposing existing infrastructure to meet the learning needs of today's college students. And flexibility is key.

"More education is happening out in the field through immersive experiences and technology. This will cause campuses to fundamentally rethink their physical assets," says Traci Engel Lesneski, who led the team at Minneapolis architectural firm MSR, which designed the award-winningVisual Culture, Arts and Media (VCAM) building at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania.

The college promotes the repurposed gymnasium as a "24/7 creative hub" that bridges previously siloed departments, packing in flexible work and collaboration spaces, offices, a high-tech presentation lounge and a communal kitchen.

Planning for the 21st-century campus

These spaces and others like them accommodate learning in two new ways.

First, they are less focused on traditional lectures and isolated study and more on blended and online learning and collaboration. Professors may develop more sophisticated and interactive lessons, for example, especially considering that more students are likely to have one or more mobile devices in tow.

Second, the campus IT infrastructure will get more sophisticated in response, such as through more charging stations, stronger WiFi or Internet service, and the use of augmented and virtual reality to expand education experiences.

In a June 2015 report, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) found higher education administrators aren't planning well enough for these changes, especially concerning technology. When they surveyed more than 2,200 higher ed leaders involved in academic, strategic and other areas of planning, "IT or Technology Planning" ranked No. 12 of 15 areas based on effectiveness of planning at their institution, with a score of 5.8 on a 1-10 basis.

Haverford College's Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) Building is a space for teaching and collaboration.

Credit: Lara Swimmer

There are a few reasons for that uncertainty. First is the yet-to-be-determined long-term impact of online learning on the need for large, sprawling residential campuses. The other concerns whether colleges should make dramatic changes and massive financial commitments to new facilities, or incrementally adjust to a changing landscape...

At a 2017 meeting of SCUP's North Atlantic region, participants overwhelmingly said in a series of polls that residential campuses will slowly but surely adapt to include new technologies in newly built and renovated campus buildings such as libraries and residence halls. A small percentage of respondents said the pervasiveness of technology will create "a major disruption" to campus planning.

"We will experience tremendous shifts in how we think about technology," said SCUP President Mike Moss. "The new norm will be planning as an ongoing exercise to allow a more iterative approach to allow for the integration of new supportive technologies."

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. Staff authors are listed in

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