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INSIGHTS: Changing Space - How COVID-19 Will Change Learning Environments

Hickey James 05

James Hickey, AIA

Education Practice Leader

Related Markets

WR SUNY Albany 11

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those events that will significantly transform how we live.

School districts and educational institutions of all kinds have, like all of us, been forced to adjust their model in an instant, reacting to the immediate need for social distancing to protect the health of their communities. It’s not a matter of if we make long-term adjustments, but a matter of how.

As architects and designers, we view the current challenges through the lens of physical space, which plays an essential role in the success of students, teachers and administrators alike. The experts in our Education Practice have developed the following predictions for how the education market will plan and use their space differently in the future.

Merging of online and traditional learning will lead to a more customized experience for students.

As online learning increases so will opportunities that provide flexible learning strategies. Distance learning will become a common option for students of all levels and could change how a student determines their path based on their unique lifestyle and requirements at any given moment. Large gathering of students within an auditorium or lecture hall will only be one option for instruction, presenting the concept of a flexible learning environment that fits each student’s needs to learn at their own pace, in various settings and around their specific schedules. For higher education this hybrid class type can address the financial constraints facing many students today and provide a solution that is more palatable.

Colleges and Universities will become more integrated into our communities.

As institutions require less physical space for large quantities of parking and student amenities, they can seek out smaller spaces that accommodate specific learning environments and are embedded into the community of the students that they serve. Similar to how today’s workforce has left behind offices for a multipurpose, co-operative and mixed-use environment, college settings will follow suit, with courses being conducted in the comforts of the local coffee shop.

Spaces will become more flexible, requiring design solutions that respond to the needs of the moment.

Advances in technology paired with the forced acceleration of distance learning will push design of educational spaces to focus on adaptability and flexibility. These spaces will be used in varying ways such as individual learning and large group settings as needed based on the curriculum, changes in teaching methods and individual learning preferences. For PreK-12 schools in 1940s and 1950s buildings, this will mean taking more innovative approaches to retrofitting existing space. As many corporations have adopted modular furniture, so too can learning environments, utilizing workstations, seating, storage and space division solutions that provide flexibility.

Career & Technical Education (CTE) will embrace distance learning.

Changes will be made to the Career & Technology Education (CTE) curriculum and opportunities for distance learning will be created to allow for these hands-on vocational classes to be supported by more than just classroom teachers. CTE centers will leverage corporate partnerships within industrial, construction and automotive industries to further develop student skills and provide a clear path for workforce entry.

Spaces will incorporate lab and cleanroom best practices to promote health.

How can we design educational space in a healthier way? Colleagues specializing in Lab Design have identified cleanroom best practices that can be applied in non-scientific spaces to vastly reduce the transmission of viruses and kill bacteria. Some examples include:

  • Focusing on surface materials that have anti-microbial or anti-bacterial properties.
  • Increasing opportunities for “hands-free” with technology to reduce the spread of germs on light switches, door handles and drinking fountains.
  • Reviewing mechanical systems and installing UV-C lighting to inactivate viruses, bacteria, mold, mildew and fungi (read Bergmann’s INSIGHTS: Designing for Health article)

There’s no doubt that today’s educational architecture will forever be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our focus needs to be on delivering holistic approaches that look at space differently and prioritize health and safety while continuing to inspire students, teachers and administration.