Increasing Innovation in Higher Education

I had the privilege to attend a recent conference hosted by the Society for College and University Planning. It was focused, as the name might suggest, on the design and planning process for higher education facilities. There was a whirlwind of valuable information on how to modernize the country’s campuses to better facilitate student learning. The conference was focused keenly on higher education spaces, but one thing still struck me as clear: the needs of higher education, while nuanced, aren’t as different from the needs of PK-12 spaces—and even corporate workplaces—as one might expect. While innovation in the design of PK-12 and corporate spaces has surged, similar attempts at innovation in higher education have struggled to gain traction.

“The needs of higher education, while nuanced, aren’t as different from the needs of PK-12 spaces—and even corporate workplaces—as one might expect.”
– Jeff Parker, Educational Specialist

This isn’t just a philosophical point. The infrastructure of colleges and universities across the country is reaching a critical level. Historically, higher education has been viewed as a slow-moving institution where the halls of the academy represent something resolute, unwavering and, in every sense of the word, classical. Yet, as the needs of the world rapidly change, the physical spaces that prepare citizens for a life of civic and workforce engagement aren’t keeping up.

While colleges have remained steadfast, PK-12 spaces have raced ahead with innovation. Grade schools across the country have adopted inter-disciplinary learning spaces, makerspaces, huddle rooms, flex spaces and any number of ways for the building to set the stage for collaborative learning. Meanwhile, people have begun questioning if college and universities will become obsolete.

It’s imperative, then, that our most historic and traditional institutions of higher learning—many dating back to the 1700s—begin to look to innovative spaces students enjoy in their formative years, and those spaces where they will send their graduates, to determine how the spaces of their university campuses can be the best bridge between the two.

Eliminating Segmentation and Isolation

The need for colleges to reassess how space impacts learning isn’t a call to completely abandon traditions. Just as we work with PK-12 communities (and workplaces, for that matter) on identifying an educational vision that incorporates the history, goals and vision for a particular space, the same can be done for higher education. There’s always a place for historical context.

Within that context, there are a number of changes that can be made to bring innovation—and teach students who will be innovators in their own right—to the higher education space. After attending the SCUP conference and talking to colleagues across the education industry, one stood out as most important: reducing academic segmentation and separation.

In virtually every way imaginable, universities are defined by the separation and segmentation of students by their disciplines. Students introduce themselves by their major, graduation ceremonies are often sorted by discipline, and the campus itself is defined by buildings meant for specific programs of study. This creates physical barriers for students so that, after completing a certain number of core courses, they rarely interact academically with other disciplines.

In the “real world,” doctors and nurses collaborate daily, yet universities separate them from the moment they arrive. Engineers and business leaders work hand-in-glove to ensure the success of projects, yet they rarely interact in the years where they’re learning the foundation for their future. Future lawyers rarely interact with the various disciplines they’ll be defending, and those in the humanities are placed in a building separate from the humanity of the rest of the campus population.

Yet success as an adult is, in many ways, defined by the ability to collaborate with others with differing backgrounds. So why aren’t universities reflecting this? Presented with a problem, engineers and teachers can separately come up with a solution that works. Yet, that solution will invariably be defined by the professional biases they hold. If you give them that same problem and ask them to work together, they can build off the strengths of one another to a solution that’s even better. Indeed, that’s how some of the best schools get built.

Knowing this, colleges could look to the ways where PK-12 spaces have spearheaded innovation by connecting and integrating disciplines in exciting ways. They could, likewise, be inspired by looking to the workplaces where their students will be heading and collaborate to anticipate common interdisciplinary collaboration and build that into the curriculum.