Campus Design for the 'Net Generation

Collegiate teaching and learning has traditionally taken place within the physical classrooms on college campuses. However, a new type of student proves to expand this idea into the outdoors. In“The Net Generation Goes to College,” a recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson discusses the idea of the“'Net generation,” a new type of student and their alternative approach to learning. The 'Net generation, also called the “Millennial Generation,” is the demographic of people born between 1980 and the mid 1990s who grew up in the digital age. According to Carlson, millennial students are bright but impatient and expect results immediately. They attack learning with a plethora of high-tech gadgetry and “expect to choose what kind of education they buy and what, where and how they learn.” Thus, millennial students take learning into their own hands and develop unconventional means to learn course material in unconventional locations.

Recent advances in distance learning and the development of “course casting,” the ability of a student to download lectures and discussions, has grown in recent years and increasingly has become a preferred learning method by millennial students. The popularity of course casting has created new paradigms for teaching and learning by allowing spaces beyond the traditional classroom walls to become preferred learning environments. According to Peg Tyre in a recent article in Newsweek, students enrolled at Purdue University have downloaded more than 40,000 lectures in a single semester. Other universities (Duke, Stanford and the University of Washington) also have courses available for downloading, suggesting many academic institutions are embracing the new millennial student learning style. As a consequence, university officials recognize that more and more learning occurs outside built labs and lecture halls, and suggests that classrooms are no longer just spaces inside buildings.

Researching the Value of Open Spaces

Richard O’Conner and Scott Bennett support this claim in the June-August 2005 issue of Planning for Higher Education and further argue that “fact gathering” happens in the traditional classroom, but studying and learning course content occurs elsewhere as wireless technology beams educational possibilities into the outdoors. Thus, any space on campus can become a learning place. In a 2004 survey conducted at the University of Georgia, the office overseeing technological improvements on campus asked students what they would like to have enhanced on campus. The overwhelming response to this question was expansion of the wireless network, or Personal Wireless/Walkup System, known as PAWS. Through WebCT and other academic software applications, students increasingly can access course notes, listen to lectures and watch experiments via their laptops and iPods at any time, in any place.

In Campus: An American Planning Tradition, Paul Turner writes, “The American campus has experienced major changes in its form which reflect not only evolving notions of architectural planning, but changing educational and social principles as well.” Arguably, Turner’s comment suggests that campus planning and its subsequent built form evolve and change with innovations in education and other social advances. Thus, the link between campus design and planning, combined with the goal of enhancing learning opportunities, introduces the question of how campuses can be designed to best facilitate that activity. What does a preferred outdoor learning environment look like? How does it function? What types of landscape elements are desirable learning magnets?

Existing research points to a few ideas. Research identifies that people tend to gather at the edges of campus open spaces and suggests that campus planners need to articulate the edge to provide “anchor spots” where people can gather and feel welcome. Following these lines of thought, fixed landscape objects such as trees, columns, planters, stairs and low retaining walls, are magnets for people and serve as places to learn.

In a more practical approach, another suggestion is that campus outdoor spaces can be programmed and equipped with data ports and electrical outlets, thus assuring online accessibility and abundant power to run electronic devices.

Programming Favorite Spaces for Learning

Studies that identify favorite campus spaces point to ideas about how campus form and configuration can encourage student learning. Several surveys suggest that campus “favorite space” is directly related to the ideas of “green and natural.” For example, a survey at the University of California, Berkeley indicates that people identify natural elements, such as trees, shrubs, grass and creeks, as major campus attractions. My own survey of favorite spaces conducted at the University of Georgia found a similar response. The top three favorite spaces, identified in 82 percent of the surveys, were the three main campus quadrangles, which are all characterized by open greens with mature trees and meandering walkways. These quadrangles became the focus of my design studio, where students mapped the behavior (position and activity) of other students as they occupied the three main campus quads. The behavior-mapping studies produced results that show students study and/or read while occupying these areas nearly 64 percent of the time. Currently, the wireless network (PAWS) at UGA beams into these areas, and students are taking advantage of this.

The curious finding related to the behavior-mapping studies centers on where in the quadrangles students tend to position themselves while studying. Often, enclosed areas — specifically, spaces under trees and near building walls and overhangs — proved to be ideal study spots. Thus, the configuration of space, its size, proportion and enclosing properties appears to be a significant design criterion for determining ideal study spots. Consequently, designing and building more sheltered spaces, such as enclosed courtyards and terraces, may prove to encourage learning outside the classroom.

Some of these design strategies are already being implemented. At the University of Georgia, the Office of University Architects has successfully designed and implemented projects that turn asphalt roads and parking into campus places. The recent conversions of DW Brooks Road and Herty Field into new green quadrangles are two examples. If student behavior and study habits remain constant and true to earlier findings — aging trees and increases in the amount of shade and enclosure — DW Brooks Mall and Herty Field will become preferred learning environments on campus. Thus, meandering walkways and shaded quadrangles have become more than just aesthetic clichés of campus design and now can become preferred spaces in which to learn.

Shifting the Focus

Understanding where people prefer to gather, combined with understanding the behaviors and learning styles of millennial students, points to the conclusion that campus green spaces can become much more than aesthetic treasures to walk by and can serve as outdoor learning centers. The traditional design focus of universities has been inside the “walls” of academia, but it appears as if the “walls” should also include the exterior building facades that mold campus form into viable campus spaces. O’Conner argues the “power of place” in education is a required catalyst for learning and growth. Traditionally the “place” has been the classroom, lecture hall or library that predominately makes up a college campus. Now, the spaces between buildings, like buildings themselves, can become places that serve as focal points of a student’s education.

David Spooner, ASLA, is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, College of Environment and Design in Athens. He can be contacted at 706/542-0063 or via e-mail at [email protected]