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Emphasis Shifts to Hybrid and Blended Learning at Higher Education Institutions Nationwide

Campuses Might Have Enough Space, but Not the Right Space in the Right Place
Published 4/24/2024
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Data from recent studies analyzing space utilization at colleges and universities across the country indicates a post-pandemic shift toward supporting hybrid education models that blend remote learning with in-person instruction. The studies, conducted by EDUCAUSE and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), were designed to analyze the impact of technology-intensive hybrid and experiential learning modalities on higher education while identifying key considerations, best practices, and metrics that can help space planners create more efficient, flexible environments that meet the needs of today’s students, faculty, and staff.

The studies illustrate the long-term impact the pandemic will continue to have on space planning for higher education. One of the key findings of the SCUP 2022 Campus Facilities Inventory Report—which surveyed 104 institutions across the U.S. and Canada—is that, in addition to an increased acceptance of remote learning, students and faculty also desire a return to in-person learning. This dichotomy is driving institutions to adapt hybrid education models that combine online education with active-learning classrooms that require sophisticated IT infrastructure and casual social environments that facilitate informal learning and collaboration.

“There is definitely a trend toward more flexible and adaptive spaces that can better cater to hybrid education and experiential learning modalities,” says Elizabeth Strutz, associate principal at Flad Architects. “But hybrid learning requires thoughtful space planning as well as a heightened focus on technology equity, faculty training, student experience, and community engagement.”

The studies also reveal a continued decrease in undergraduate enrollment contrasted by an increase in the number of international graduate students. Additionally, there has been a growth in cross-institutional programs and academic partnerships that emphasize interdisciplinary education.

“We captured some key takeaways from the student perspective based on survey data and qualitative information that was gathered through focus groups,” says Laura Serebin, president/CEO at Flad Architects. “Consistently across the board, the ability to receive lecture content virtually in an asynchronous manner was very positive for most of the students.”

Hybrid and Experiential Learning

Virtual and blended instruction approaches—like converting lecture classes into online courses that students can attend based on their schedule while maximizing onsite experiential learning and lab time—requires a different approach to space planning and utilization. In these situations, the physical location of where learning occurs is less important than having the technological capabilities to make the information available and manageable for both instructors and students.

“We were already headed toward an experiential and hybrid learning approach before the pandemic started,” says Strutz. “If anything, the pandemic just reinforced the need to make the best use of student time whenever they’re in the classroom.”

In the post-pandemic world, social interaction has now become a greater driver than the physical location where the education occurs. This shift was underscored in post-occupancy evaluations led by Flad Architects. Information provided by students and faculty emphasized the importance of informal learning spaces and the types of spontaneous social interactions they missed during the era of exclusively remote learning. The evaluations provided quantitative and qualitative data on how these spaces contribute to a sense of belonging, community, health, and well-being.

“We’ve been talking a lot about how valuable the social aspect of learning is for years and trying to build these kinds of spaces into our programs, but they often get value-engineered out,” says Serebin. “I think now is the time to really push these things forward and make sure we are including them in our projects, because the next generation of students is finding that they need to have access to study spaces, lounge spaces, and spaces to connect where they feel safe. Sometimes we’re seeing these spaces implemented as part of identity centers or cultural centers that are part of a more dynamic campus network.” 

Reconfiguration and Renovation

In response, many institutions are looking at how they can converge or reconfigure existing spaces to better support a blended approach to education with socially inclusive spaces that facilitate peer interaction and group problem-solving. Many institutions reported that they are planning to renovate or reconfigure existing spaces to better support hybrid learning by providing more technology-infused classroom environments and social interaction spaces, as opposed to investing in new construction.  

The majority of respondents in the SCUP Inventory Report stated that they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to create more active learning classrooms over the next three years. Most respondents also stated they planned to increase their online learning components. There was also a collective focus on improving the utilization of existing experiential learning and lab spaces, supported through the use of occupancy sensors and time-lapse cameras that help identify what spaces are being used by whom and for what purposes.

“I believe most campuses already have enough space; it’s just often not the right kind of space or it’s not in the right spot,” says Serebin. “In general, we’re seeing more of a focus on renovation and adaptive reuse of existing facilities. And we’re finding that institutions are more likely to change the classrooms as well as make changes to library spaces to address the evolving nature of study space. Now that a lot more people are working from home, if someone requests new office space, that request is going to be looked at with more scrutiny.” 

The use of time-lapse videos and occupancy sensors has provided objective data regarding how students actually use spaces, including the fact that students will often gravitate toward certain areas for doing collaborative work, despite other areas having more comfortable seating. This data highlights the importance of designing spaces around actual student behaviors and needs. Students also indicated that extended access to learning spaces for things like after-hours group study sessions was highly valued and utilized, underscoring the importance of flexible space usage.

Technology Training and Equity 

Hybrid education models that combine virtual learning with live instruction also necessitate an increased investment in technology that is often allocated to a few select classrooms or lecture spaces. Since technology integration and faculty support are essential to effective hybrid learning, this raises the challenge of maintaining equity and access for both students and faculty

“There is certainly an objective need for flexible, adaptive spaces that support in-person and hybrid learning modalities and promote a sense of community engagement, but investing in technology for just a few rooms creates issues of equity and access,” says Serebin. “How do you schedule those spaces? How do you bring instructors up to speed? Students need the technology to access online lectures, whatever the material might be. They also need access to the internet, the software, and space to learn.” 

“Conversely, on the faculty and instructor side, it’s important that they get the training they need to deliver hybrid education effectively,” says Strutz. “This is all very new for a lot of faculty and instructors, and some of them may be better at it than others. So there are some equity implications to consider. It’s also important to ensure that faculty are properly trained and supported by their IT staff.”

According to post-occupancy surveys, equity issues include the fact that instructors need greater access to technology resources that can help them quickly create educational content that can be effectively delivered online in a virtual format. 

Future Opportunities 

Collectively, the data from these recent studies demonstrates a post-pandemic shift towards hybrid education that blends online anytime/anywhere education with experiential in-person learning. These trends present new challenges for academic institutions, but they also present new opportunities to repurpose existing spaces for more efficient technology-driven solutions. 

According to Serebin, the key to successfully implementing hybrid learning models is thoughtful space planning with a focus on equity, faculty training, and student experience and wellness.

“I think it comes down to providing faculty and students with a toolbox of different space types and providing choice in the environment. Perhaps, as things get sorted out over the next few years, we’ll see more investment in what I could call simpler spaces for learning. Maybe not everything has to be solved with tech.”

By Johnathon Allen