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Looking Forward: Examining Trends in Higher Education

Research lab space in Elon University's Innovation Hall

When it comes to the evolving world of higher education, one of my favorite quotes comes from a popular “Did You Know” video by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”

As a learning environments strategist, I am fascinated by the recent changes in the progression from high school to adulthood. In past generations, the path was reasonably straightforward: many 18-year-olds graduated high school, spent four years in college, and then entered the workforce upon graduation, where they gradually climbed the corporate ladder by learning managerial-based skills on the job. On this track, the average person would experience six job changes from college to retirement.

Today, a person’s career path is often more agile and unpredictable. With the short lifespan of technology, the tools and skillsets we depend on in the workforce can become obsolete within a few years; the pandemic and the rapid development of artificial intelligence has only sped up the sunsetting of industry-standard technologies and methods of working.

Now, our most promising professions are related to knowledge creation and innovation. The most valued workers are those who possess soft and smart skills and the ability to work well on interdisciplinary teams. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, today’s learners will also switch jobs much more frequently – holding 10 to 14 positions by age 38. These statistics point to the need for more fluidity between the future of learning and work – how we work influences our evolving needs relating to post-secondary education.

To keep abreast of trends and learn what these changes will mean for the future of physical campus environments, I repeatedly turn to a few valuable resources:

Like many other trend-watching sites, the resources loosely organize trends via a STEEP analysis, looking at Sociological, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political factors that influence the field of higher education. Studying trends in this way helps bring perspective to the higher education market and shape possible future adaptations to our learning environments.

The resources above suggest emerging opportunities and threats that may influence physical space needs. By analyzing trends and potential futures for higher education, designers have a toolbox to assist clients with innovative solutions that capitalize on an institution’s core strengths and key differentiators.

Emerging Opportunities for Higher Education

As we enter the post-pandemic next normal, institutions are thinking more intentionally about connected and experiential learning. Campuses across the country are seeing a need for learning environments that are more cross-disciplinary, connected, and hands-on, taking advantage of and responding to the latest advances in artificial intelligence and augmented and virtual reality. Learning is no longer entirely schedule- or place-based. Designers can employ flexible, modular, and adaptable solutions for learning anytime, anywhere, and with anyone.

Virtual Reality rendering

As mental health concerns become destigmatized and, concurrently, more common, colleges and universities have a new opportunity to consider mental health and wellness as part of their campus planning efforts. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an excellent tool for designers. As an entry point, students must have their physiological needs met on campus, and they must be able to feel safe and secure in a learning space. From there, designs that foster connection and autonomy will reinforce belonging. Once students feel safe and valued in a space, they can engage, persist, and succeed in their learning.

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Potential Threats to Higher Education

Potential threats to higher education include the devaluation of the college diploma, political instability, the impact of COVID-19 on K–12 learning, growing financial challenges, and increasing inequities across institutions and student bodies. These trends point towards finding alternative methods to and through higher education. Larger public institutions explore delivering learning at scale, while smaller institutions look at shared resources across departments, colleges, and communities. While COVID-19 led to a learning loss when viewed from a traditional lens, students gained many smart and soft skills during the pandemic as they learned that our population is interconnected and interdependent. The K-12 and post-secondary population emerged as a student body that is curious, persistent, adaptable, socially aware, and adept at problem-solving and communication.

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It’s easy to begin imagining a future where universities evolve into an ecosystem of physical, virtual, and social spaces that revolutionize opportunities for learning and connection but do so with scale and reach in mind. Built environments are shifting away from passive classrooms and offices towards interdisciplinary living lab research centers, expanded project-based space for making and prototyping, industry-adjacent start-up centers, and wrap-around services focused on holistic wellbeing. Learning spaces will likely merge in-person and telepresence options, loosening restrictions around attendance, credit hours, and sequencing. Space solutions may instead capitalize on haptic technologies to augment experiential learning and bring the learner closer to the source of knowledge.

It’s hard to say with absolute certainty what new types of physical spaces or technologies may be required to meet future student needs. A trends assessment can help us think creatively about emerging needs in higher education, how we may see universities advance future innovations, and how we can best assist our institutional partners in agile design and planning efforts to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s learners.

(Opening image: a laboratory space within Elon University’s Innovation and Founders Halls)

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