Distance learning, micro-courses, AI tutors, shrinking lecture theatres, flexible spaces and micro-campuses: these are all ways in which higher education is responding to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a seismic shift in technology, capability and employment models.
Smaller spaces – fewer large lecture theatres
The University of Northampton is putting active blended learning at the heart of its teaching – to the extent that its purpose-built Waterside campus has no large lecture theatres. Its dean of learning and teaching, Professor Alejandro Armellini, says, “A number of trends are driving this change, based primarily on the nexus of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, internet of things and mixed reality applied to education.”
He calls this Education 4.0, and it uses something called active blended learning. “A module or a program is taught through ABL when it deploys consistent use of student-centred activities that support the development of subject knowledge and understanding, independent learning and digital fluency,” he explains.
“Our face-to-face teaching is facilitated in a collaborative manner, clearly linked to activity outside the face-to-face classroom, which provides opportunities for developing autonomy, what we call change-maker attributes, and particularly employability skills. That is our standard definition of ABL.”
The new campus has just one larger space, enough to hold an audience of 80. The remainder are smaller, averaging 40. Space allocation and timetabling was adapted to accommodate students in smaller teaching rooms. If a distinguished guest speaker requires a larger space, this is simply hired in the nearby town centre.
Flexibility is important
This solution is more flexible and saves costs. Flexibility and space are what students want. “We predict the end of the predominance of the lecture – lecturers will rarely lecture because the new technologies can teach the knowledge better,” says Paul Feldman, chief executive, Jisc, one of a number of service providers that are popping up to support higher education institutions in this transition.
One day in the future, he says, students could be “plugging in and a year or so later, unplugging fully qualified with all their learning managed by machine – life imitating the Matrix”. “Virtual assistants” can understand how each student learns best and adapts to them. “Staff are freed to spend more time with students, to help those in need.”
They can – in theory at least – also be freed from administrative paperwork, as this is automated.
But more near-term, universities are becoming “learning hotels”, helping their students get the best learning from across the world, accumulating credits. We are already seeing moves in this direction.
The Stanford University spinout, Udacity, launched a self-driving car engineering “nanodegree” in autumn 2016, with no academic institutions involved – learners are assigned industry mentors and most of it happens online. Over 30,000 people signed up from all over the world.
Partnerships with the private sector
Udacity actively partners with big companies like Amazon and AT&T to deliver its courses. They promise an “immersive curriculum” with “real-world projects”.
The Education 4.0 trend is being led by Europe and the USA, with China following suit as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”. In Europe, the European Investment Bank – at the forefront of supporting the Fourth Industrial Revolution having invested €18.7 billion in innovative projects in 2018 – has identified the need for €10 billion of investment to design new education facilities.
“If our world is going to be driven by artificial intelligence algorithms, yet huge sections of society are underrepresented when deciding how these are programmed, then we have a problem. This has to change,” says Joysy John, director of education at Nesta, a global innovation foundation.
“Our education system must be multi-disciplinary and based on real-life problem-solving. Students need technical and creative skills.”
The transition to Education 4.0 is a continuation of the trend of alliances between universities and innovative companies and independent research groups.
The revolution is reaching North Africa, which Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, says “has moved away from the teaching university model responsible for producing qualified human resources to the research university model with an emphasis on knowledge generation and entrepreneurialism”.
Are buildings even necessary?
For students and more remote institutions, online education has become an increasingly convenient option and business model, especially when modules can be assembled into bespoke degrees.
Enrolment in online courses has more than quadrupled in the last 15 years in the US MIT and Arizona University offer part or all of the curriculum of the first years of some of their degrees online before students enter the on-campus program.
But Education 4.0 learning should be about more than just dumping a course online to save money. Although digital learning will always provide ubiquitous and affordable access to education, the on-campus experience provides a community to exchange feedback and form relationships.
It’s making university administrators like those at Northampton rethink campus design. “A traditional lecture hall, for example, may sit empty while professors hold court in smaller classrooms that facilitate collaborative and interactive learning,” say JLL higher education practice leaders David Houck and Kevin Wayer.
“No wonder many public and private universities are using space utilisation studies. Why build new facilities when you could use existing space more effectively?”
Outsourcing facilities management is one way to achieve this, which has led to companies like JLL, JISP and Ellucian popping up to meet this need. Some of the best also offer services linked to making the campus more sustainable and healthy, such as environmentally friendly cleaning products, landscaping and energy management.
Net energy producers
At the top end of this trend is the new National University of Singapore School of Design and Environment building, which is designed to produce more energy than it consumes, despite high temperatures and humidity levels. Building conditioning systems accounting for around 60 per cent of total energy consumption, and the building is designed and oriented to maximise natural cross-ventilation. Users can adjust airflow to their personal comfort through individually operated overhead ventilation units. Roof-mounted photovoltaic panels provide renewable energy.
With less space needed for traditional lecture theatres, there is a growing demand for collaborative or trans-disciplinary workspaces, quiet spaces, labs and innovation hubs as well as other types of functional space.
According to building consultancy Arup, there is also “a rising demand for spaces that can be transformed on a regular basis” to suit ever-changing requirements, a demand reinforced by decreasing public expenditure in higher education in Europe and the US. With a need to use space and resources more efficiently and effectively comes the need to design spaces that can be regularly adapted, at different speeds and scales.
At Delft University of Technology, a three-storey structure with a large glass façade and striking, orange interior has been designed by MVRDV architects. It is The Why Factory, a think tank and research institute, with flexible meeting rooms, lecture halls and research facilities.
Stairs and seating at the top level permit the surrounding atrium to become an auditorium. Furniture is designed to adapt for research uses, exhibitions or lectures.
Off-site manufacturing and digital fabrication are being deployed to design these flexible spaces. Since these frequently involve open plan solutions and the impact of noise in these spaces is often overlooked, Arup advises that any client should contract acousticians to help design out this problem, “which is a major cause of frustration and distraction typical of flexible and open plan layouts”.
Building for health and wellbeing
And with the mental health of students being an issue of great concern these days, and increased wellbeing and productivity being associated with proximity to greenery, or biophilia, bringing nature into campus designs can have multiple benefits. Some campuses are leading by taking this even further, involving staff and students in planting, feeding and watering plants.
At the top end of this trend is Milan’s Polytechnic University, whose “Coltivando” is a community allotment owned and operated by the university where anyone can grow their own food, designed by the university’s service design and spatial design practices.
Technology for belonging
Finally, student integration on campus can be speeded up by technology to link them to student services 24/7. Mariana Cavalcanti, Ellucian’s vice president of user experience, says “apps and other technology that allows the non-traditional student to feel a part of the university community” must be deployed by universities in tandem with the Education 4.0 teaching models.
Augmented reality is one of these technologies. AR campus tours allow users to obtain more data about what they’re looking at. For example, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, uses a mobile app to highlight key aspects of campus history around the site.
Ultimately, learning is about the quality of tuition. Any innovation that can demonstrate it maximises the use of the teaching staff’s wisdom to best equip students for the coming world will find its way in to Education 4.0.