April 22, 2020

What Remote Communication Tells Us About the Importance of “Place” in Higher Education

Before the coronavirus changed how we learn and work, I had been thinking about the critical role “place” plays in learning—whether on campus or online. As architects specializing in environments for colleges and universities, I’ve wondered how we can inspire broader thinking about online environments and remote learning. That question is even more important now when so much of our lives are happening at home in front of a screen.

The environment plays a role in shared experiences. 

We know that when we experience the world together, we build shared experiences and memories. Those memories are enriched by our environment. For example, when we tell stories around a campfire, the warmth and glow of the fire become part of that memory. The same is true for classroom experiences. Things like views and natural light in a classroom introduce the experience of time, weather, and the world outside. They are part of a shared experience. Shared experience builds bonds between students. In fact, it’s the combination of living, learning, and social experiences that inspires students and creates an energy that is unique to higher education campuses. The campus sets the tone and is the context for everything that’s learned. The sterility of a typical online learning environment seems to be the opposite of the campus places we love so much. Though after working remotely for almost a month, I’ve noticed that my digital environment isn’t all bad. This experience offers insights about how and where we work and gives us a glimpse of the future and the campuses we hope to return to.

What works about remote communication? 

While the pandemic has impacted everything about how we work, through technology, preparation, and effort my own office has continued working together to design successful and strategic environments for our clients. A few key assets of remote communication make this possible and are worth considering whenever we think about how to learn.

  • It values the importance of the individual. Digital tools, whether social media or team-based applications are grounded in recognizing the individual. You’re never in the background of a lecture or silent on a conference call; individuals’ faces are the feature of onscreen meetings and each person has the chance to provide, edit, or comment upon the content being discussed.  
  • Decentralized communication encourages fast and creative thinking. Team members aren’t waiting for answers, but through instant messaging and collaborative online tools reach out to each other to get the knowledge they need, solving problems as they arise. 
  • It shows just how much we’re wired to see and create places for interaction. The gridded photos of a Zoom call have become meaningful and iconic places that will forever be tied to this time.  Colleagues refer to the person above or below them on the screen and each screen offers a window into the lives of team members—whether that view is their home office or a whimsical background image of somewhere not affected by current events. Town Hall meetings and Virtual Happy Hours show how much we want to overlay familiar places of communal gathering on top of our digital environment. 

What does the campus offer to improve online communication? 

Place-based learning can’t ever be replaced, butI think it does offer suggestions for addressing the real limitations of digital communication.

  • Activity and distractions are critical when learning together. An instructor hoping to rely on standard presentation styles to reach their students may find that hard, especially when the online environment is filled with additional media vying for their attention. On campus we tolerate peripheral conversations and unexpected interruptions as part of the atmosphere of large classes, but activities that are a normal part of life on campus are not always easily accommodated online. Allowing space for tangents, side conversations, and embracing frequent changes in media and presentation style can enrich communication and harness activity and distraction towards learning. 
  • Movement and interaction increase attention. When a single screen is your only connection to work, learning, or community, we can feel trapped by our environment. Physical discomfort—eye strain and posture problems—and emotional disconnection are present challenges accompanying online work. Creating activities that can be done using different digital tools allows people to change their location, use their bodies and break routines. Just as learning happens more and more outside the classroom, online learning must provide chances to break away from the laptop and the home office. 
  • Motivation and success are aligned with meaning, not technology. Remote communication and online learning have their own suite of digital tools, branding, and user experience. Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams are just some of the new additions. But these tools aren’t why students choose a  higher education institution, or why I and my colleagues do the work we do. The more the identity of the campus can be highlighted in online education through colors, branding, images, and language, the more easily students can find a connection to the institution. Similarly, highlighting opportunities, people, and places doing the type work classes are preparing them to do can offer additional energy and purpose for the learning. 

In the end, what we’re discovering is what many universities and educators already know. Work, as well as learning, isn’t ever going to happen in a single place or in a single way ever again (if it ever really did). For anyone passionate about learning, we must pay close attention and think creatively about the places where learning happens today, whether those places are on campus or online.


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