Perkins+Will

As classes shift online, some are predicting a radical overhaul of academic infrastructure.

When it comes to the frenzied advent of the MOOC, the massive open online courses that have been threatening to upend higher education, no college wants to be perceived as old school. For some, there is a very real danger of becoming no school.

With all this potential for upheaval, the physical makeup of institutions of higher learning is being called into question, too. As the business of education moves online, is the traditional quadrangle-dormitory-lecture hall-library configuration really going to be necessary? Could the college campus go the way of – gulp – the bricks-and-mortar bookstore?

To the extent that the college experience still requires a physical presence, some are indeed predicting a radical overhaul of academic infrastructure. "We may eventually see the rise of 'hoteling' for college students whose courses are done primarily online," suggested a recent Wall Street Journal story "Build a nice campus—or buy one, from a defunct traditional school—put in a lot of amenities, but don't bother hiring faculty: Just bring in your courses online, with engineering from Georgia Tech, arts and literature from Yale, business from Stanford and so on. Hire some unemployed PhD's as tutors (there will be plenty around, available at bargain-basement rates) and offer an unbundled experience. It's a business model that just might work, especially in geographic locations students favor. Grand Cayman is awfully nice this time of year."

That kind of geographic change – from Cleveland to the Caribbean – would be very bad news for communities that have come to count on large nonprofits as economic engines, employment centers, and development partners.

Of course, there's a lot of world-is-changing hype to this narrative. Like electronic publishing, no one is sure where the MOOC revolution is really headed, and as Fast Company pointed out back in November, even some of its biggest proponents are backing down from predictions of the end of the university as we know it.

But several institutions aren't waiting around to see how the movie ends. The main strategy is to re-imagine college buildings and their functions. The lecture hall and the computer lab are seen as dinosaurs, replaced by flexible space where students can interact and collaborate and meet informally, laptops and tablets at the ready. The dormitory is another goner. Residence halls are morphing into "living-learning communities," while hyper-wired, newfangled student centers eclipse the traditional library.

David Damon, associate principal at Perkins + Will and a leader in the firm’s higher education practice, insists there's still a purpose to the campus. "As MOOCs continue to gain ground, the campus turns into a meet-up spot," he says – more of a repository for the online experience in physical space.

As such, students don't have to traipse from the dormitory to the lecture hall – it all might happen within the same building, the essence of an experiment currently underway at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Roger Williams College in Rhode Island is testing out a program to bring together students interested in a common theme – fuel cells, for example – for six months at a time, in an immersive environment. The University of Utah is providing "garage start-up" and "tinkering space." Bentley College in Waltham, Massachussetts, overhauled its student center to feel more like a corporate environment, for its business leaders in training.

George Weygand Hall, a living learning community that opened in the fall of 2013 at Bridgewater State University. The 500-bed student residence hall allows affinity groups to collaborate on projects or interests while living together. (Perkins + Will)

The online revolution could end up smoothing town-gown relations, through the notion of campus "porosity." Because the Internet never sleeps, multi-purpose buildings can serve different functions at different times of day and night. At Harvard’s Innovation Lab, housed in the former WGBH public television facilities in Boston, the goal is to allow a mixing of students, professors, and investors. The space, overhauled by Shepley Bulfinch, evokes a much different vibe compared to the stately red-brick and cupola-topped buildings of the Harvard Business School lining the Charles River.

It’s a fascinating re-thinking of the historic model of institutions cloistered behind ivy-covered walls. What seems to be equally true is that all the tiers of higher education – elite privates, publics, community colleges – seem to be looking at this reboot. MIT, Princeton, Caltech, Chicago, all are re-assessing the composition of the physical campus, trying to anticipate the brave new world.

It's too early to say where this is all headed. Last I checked, Harvard Yard is still there. The cities and towns who have come to rely on these institutions as a driving force of regeneration – and increasingly are negotiating for payments in lieu of taxes to weather the ongoing municipal fiscal crisis – may just be doing a bit more fingernail-biting in the years ahead. If the campus can’t reinvent, another piece of the city vanishes.

Top image: The North Campus Residence Hall at Roger Williams University for student occupancy in the fall of 2009. The goal of the 350 bed student residence hall’s design was to create a living learning community and to make students actually want to live on campus. The project successfully reduced the amount of leases off campus and helped enliven an undeveloped sector of campus.

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