Limitless Learning

Limitless Learning

March 23, 2016

Creating Adaptable Environments to Support a Changing Campus

College campuses are defined by contrasting experiences, information, teaching styles, study habits, use of technology and an endless variety of other factors. Today’s students hail from a digital world that makes them strong multi-taskers with endless possibility for collaboration and interaction. This is often in direct contrast to the hallowed teaching methods of prestigious institutions grounded in the tradition of lectures and individual assignments. However, even the most traditional institutions are making use of online learning to expand their reach in a way that was previously impossible while creating new sources of revenue.

Needless to say, these potentially conflicting factors can result in cultural collisions. Venerable professors from the Baby Boomer generation with a formal approach to education are sharply contrasted with younger faculty who are as mobile and informal as today’s students. To view these contrasts, one need only observe the architecture of almost any campus: elegant Georgian structures find multi-purpose learning centers, designed for modern living and learning, as their recent neighbors.

To understand the forces shaping higher education, closer examination of the current goals in higher education and the way these goals impact campuses is necessary. Reviewing these factors to identify a combined objective will determine the design and planning necessary to address and respond to the trends and forthcoming needs of today’s college campus.


Three key factors can be identified as the driving trends in higher education.

  1. Growing Student Body Diversity
    College campuses still vastly feature 18-22 year olds recently graduated from high school who attend classes full-time with a four-year timeframe in mind, i.e. the demographic one immediately thinks of for the typical college student. However, this portrait is increasingly changing. The average age of today’s student is just shy of 30. On the rise with no signs of slowing are students who live off campus and even in different cities, students transferring from another institution or country, students who take classes part time while working, minority students, students who are also parents and a multitude of other differentiators.
  2. The Profound Impact of Technology
    Technology has reshaped the way students learn and connect with material. It is the most influential component in driving change in education and our world. Gone are the textbooks of yesterday, editions whose contents dictated course material. Now, professors are able to create custom-tailored online books that perfectly echo their desired material while freeing students from sky-high costs. Esteemed lecture halls are increasingly specialized to accommodate shifts in teaching and classroom engagement. Students are no longer chained to their dorm room chairs or classroom seats; they are immensely physically mobile. This is true for instructors as well, who are no longer limited by cords, clunky projectors or even front-of-the-room chalkboards. One certainty is that technology and the rapid changes it inspires are here to stay. Instantly accessible information is reliant upon dependable access to power and WiFi and insuring this access is vital.
  3. Creating an Engaging Community
    Technology, despite its ability to forge incredible new pathways of communication, creates a deficit in meaningful interpersonal interaction. More than ever the unity and belonging inherent in attending a college or university is essential to promote. The rigid lines separating school experience from social life from work hours are disappearing as institutions design spaces that encourage collaboration, engaging their students and faculty face-to-face and fulfilling the human need for connection. Schools are increasingly looking to the workplace so they can groom their students for realistic future environments. Teamwork, group projects, communication that transcends the classroom and interaction with a diverse body of peers are all emphasized in an attempt to familiarize students with the working conditions they will soon encounter. Promoting community and collaboration is key to tearing down the walls that have traditionally separated individuals from resources. By encouraging connectedness, groups can achieve more collectively than what an individual could ever achieve alone.

These trends all combine into a sole objective: Limitless Learning.

Schools are seeking to eliminate obstacles that curb the learning experiences of their diverse student bodies, use of technology and sense of community. Limitless Learning is the concept of an unconstrained environment where learning can happen anywhere, by anyone in anyway at any time.

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  1. Anyone
    An increasingly diverse student body comes with a vast range of learning abilities, backgrounds and life experiences. The percentage of high school graduates who are minorities will be almost 50% within 10 years. Many of these young people will be the first in their families to attend college. The largest areas of college attendees come from previously underserved groups such as minorities, veterans and working adults who need specialized support. This diversity of background means a large variance in college preparation, making aid and support services more important than ever for student success.
  2. Anytime
    Instead of consuming the learning experience, in-person lecturing is now only the start. Lectures themselves are often now rebroadcast or available online, letting students determine when they learn rather than scrambling to get to class on time. Students can also access this information multiple times, allowing them to more deeply absorb the content for a higher level of mastery. Technology-based learning tools help adjust to unique learning needs and schedules, providing better and more tailored resources for students. Online-only classes entirely eliminate capacity issues and scheduling conflicts and more and more college students experience online courses as part of their education.
  3. Anyhow
    Technology facilitates different learning styles and alternate methods of teaching to better mirror how the human brain actually learns, granting higher levels of comprehension. Studies have found that students learn better by doing, resulting in increased project work, individual initiative and exploration and small group interaction. Even large enrollment courses often use software modules to direct teams of students in discussions and activities, crafting a more personal and hands-on approach. Traditional universities are now replacing core lecture material with online courses so that professors can focus on more interactive classroom time in later major courses as they impart more complex material.
  4. Anywhere
    Physical boundaries are no longer insurmountable impediments; learning can happen almost anywhere and can also happen spontaneously. Previously, space on campus was very formal: classroom, library, faculty office, dorm, lab. Rigid spaces are no longer essential and are being replaced by the need for generalized and flexible spaces that promote collaboration.

Moving towards Limitless Learning in response to defining trends means new spatial challenges. Instead of serving one or two primary functions, buildings are increasingly designed to be multi-use spaces, encompassing student centers, study areas and technology labs along with classroom spaces. Expanding campuses must efficiently make use of every bit of space to fulfill various functions for their diverse student bodies throughout the entire day. Classrooms shift to group study areas; a student lounge with a café turns into a space for hosting a catered conference reception in the evening; residence hall dining areas become social centers for both faculty and students.

Adaptability is the most essential component of planning unconstrained spaces that will be immediately beneficial and effective long term. Spaces that are adaptable can be quickly and easily reconfigured and let students control and adjust their environments to best suit their needs. The best adaptable spaces require little, if any, additional assistance to reconfigure the environment.

Change is inevitable and adaptability is the most effective way to respond. To avoid becoming disruptive and impeding learning, spaces must be flexible and easy to alter. The key elements within a space also change at very different rates. Technology can become obsolete in 18 months. Furniture will last for a minimum of ten years. Buildings last for decades upon decades. Adaptability in design means being able to effectively respond to all these different variables.

Considering spaces by their primary functions is the best way to support adaptable environments.


  1. Learning Areas
    The traditional classroom has evolved to become a flexible space that can transform for various types of teaching and learning experiences. The setting needs to be flexible and changeable by the students and teacher. The same space often needs to be reconfigured for lectures, breakout discussion groups, demonstrations and interaction with technology. Space should also promote learning no matter the physical position of those who are engaging: sitting, standing, lounging, indoors, outdoors – all spaces should optimally promote human connection and collaboration.
  2. Meeting and Social Areas
    Meetings happen all the time: from planned, formal, carefully coordinated efforts with space reserved in advance to impromptu gatherings that section off within a larger social setting. Creating adaptable meeting spaces gives students effortless options for a variety of group sizes, times of day, etc. Even the most informal spaces, like lounges and rec centers, need to be able to accommodate formal and informal gatherings. The best such spaces offer comfortable seating, plenty of table space, storage, access to food and beverage and access to power and data.
  3. Faculty and Administrative Areas
    As the demand for space efficiency in real estate increases, offices sizes are shrinking. Technology is no longer bulky and space consuming; flat monitors, tablets and cloud computing terminals are removing the need for massive worksurfaces. However, private offices are an important tradition at collegiate institutions. Flexible furniture and well-designed space is increasingly vital as size is constrained and technology changes.

No element more than technology demonstrates that change is imminent and must be anticipated. Dependable and easy access to voice, power and data is paramount. Adaptable environments must support a variety of connections: hardware, data and power that are dependable and easily accessible as well as high speed and high capacity. The same way that furniture must be rearranged and updated, technology has to be easily changed and updated throughout the life cycle of a space.

In adaptable spaces, furnishings are also a vital consideration and must be incredibly flexible, designed to suit the needs of young fulltime students freshly graduated from high school to retirees taking their first computer course. The ability to quickly and simply reconfigure spaces with lightweight, mobile furniture is essential. Furniture that is easy to adjust, whether a chair, worksurface or monitor arm, effectively supports all users.

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Campus growth is a reality: an increase of 1.5 million college students in the next 15 years is forecasted. These increasingly diverse students and advances in technology must be accommodated to ensure successful educations and college experiences. Offering adaptable spaces reduces collisions in campus culture and offers a standard of peaceful and productive areas. Designing spaces that provide easy transitions, adaptable furnishings and integrated technology promotes efficiency, easy upgrades and is essential in creating adaptable environments. Offering these flexible spaces encourages Limitless Learning, preserving cherished campus cultures and tradition while removing obstacles in learning, meeting and working for students and faculty alike.

*Research courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

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