Beyond the mythical average: Envisioning an equitable campus future

5 ways that learning experiences during the pandemic can impart positive change for the future of education
By: | July 23, 2020
Photo by Tobias Bjerknes on UnsplashPhoto by Tobias Bjerknes on Unsplash

Crisis sparks creative problem-solving.

Education has responded in real-time to the pandemic, addressing tactical challenges of shifting entire campuses online overnight, with innovation and deft speed. In the process, however, systemic inequity and disparities have been exacerbated, disproportionately affecting black and brown communities. By its nature, learning from home relies not only on access to technology and Wi-Fi but on physical space, family support and emotional bandwidth for learning and working.

Meghan Webster, Gensler

Meghan Webster, Gensler

As colleges and universities plan for the near-term, the longer-term impacts pose a broader, existential question: How can we take what we have learned during this time to impart positive change for education—one that ultimately shapes healthier, wiser and more equitable communities? Out of the heartbreak and inconvenience of our global situation, education has a rare opportunity to exponentially advance forward.

Gensler’s Education Engagement Index and Learning from Home Survey has shown that if we are to design for all learners, we must design to the edges. Through surveys and ethnographic shadowing interviews with undergraduate students throughout the U.S., it became evident that each student has a jagged profile that uniquely describes how he/she best engages with learning. Instead of designing to the average and adapting to accommodate outliers, what if we flip the model? By designing to the edges, to the extreme users, we design for everyone in between.

Before the pandemic, adoption of alternative technologies and pedagogies was slow to scale up. The immediate shift to virtual learning and the resulting demand for more engaged experiences has accelerated the development of new digital platforms. With this wider adoption comes an imperative—that each institution look to its evolving practice with a clear focus on creating spaces and experiences, whether physical or virtual, that empower every learner and move beyond the mythical “average.” Here are five ways in which the future campus can support this approach:

1. Personalized learning

The necessity for integrated platforms and digital environments will widen opportunities for personalized pathways that allow students to chart their own learning and set their optimal pace. Many higher education leaders are researching the use of AI to analyze student data in order to personalize learning.

As institutions increasingly employ technology to engage with students virtually, the resulting data can equip educators with the knowledge they need to more easily calibrate virtual and physical settings depending on the individual needs of each learner. As the learning day increasingly blends remote learning activities as well as in-person instruction, spaces on campus will need to enable fluid transition between digital and in-person coursework.

2. Telepresence in education

Online learning, telepresence, and other digitally enhanced settings enrich the learning process by creating remote connections to other students, educators, subject matter experts and context (both real and virtual). The normalcy of virtual learning is breaking down barriers of connecting across continents and cultures like never before, and this poses an expanded opportunity for contextual learning. Beyond academics, the pandemic has drastically increased the need to support the whole person, and the use of telepresence offers an enhanced way to “meet the student where they are” and address mental health, career and academic counseling and homelife.

3. Tactile abstractions through augmented and mixed-reality

The pandemic has posed a major challenge for those disciplines that rely on hands-on learning (e.g. medicine, performing arts, trades-based). Although AR and VR don’t entirely make up for this void, their increasing ubiquity and influence for training and curricula has never been more current. These technologies offer a new level of engagement for students who learn visually or experientially over didactic instruction. Equitability is a key benefit of this technology—not only is ease of access increasing, but this method of learning allows each user to engage in ways that are most appropriate for their individual needs.

As campus leaders are planning post-pandemic, increased use of AR/VR enables instructors to offload some learning activities to the virtual space in order to prioritize classroom use for activities that heavily rely on specialized equipment and in-person interaction.

4. Future-proof with hyper-flexibility

Introducing hyper-flexible spaces that can shift seamlessly between tech-enabled and analog uses will be a key mechanism for supporting personalized learning, telepresence and AR/VR. In tandem, expanding infrastructure—including the technology and staff support—will be a critical investment for future-proofing. By enhancing underlying support systems, institutions will have the ability to expand and contract uses more rapidly.

For example, private offices and huddle rooms might become one in the same as working from home impacts spaces needs; classrooms will continue to vary in allowable density due to social distancing as well as active learning needs; and underutilized spaces may be repurposed for entirely new spaces types.

5. Real-time feedback and rapid iteration

Change has always been a constant, but how do institutional leaders plan for the right balance between virtual and physical learning spaces in a post-pandemic future? Before the pandemic, technologies around machine intelligence and smart tech were emerging in the built environment. Beyond uses for contract tracing in the near-term, intelligent technologies can aid in understanding where people choose to spend their time, how people use space and broader patterns of behavior. As higher ed leaders look to prioritize investment in the face of uncertainty and address user groups equitably, this real-time feedback will be invaluable in adapting space as user needs evolve.

Also read: Empowering faculty, engaging students in the ‘new normal’

Predicting the future of our post-pandemic world is arguably futile, but we can collectively shape the possibilities of an optimistic and agile way forward. The pandemic has drawn attention to challenges around equity and designing for multiple paths to success with which education and our communities have historically struggled. Leveraging what we have learned from this experience can only lead to positive outcomes, evolving campuses to equitably address the user experience and the abilities, pathways and learning process of each learner. Education was made for this moment, and it has all the right resources and people—thinkers, change makers, curious minds, and passionate advocates—to envision and implement what comes next.

As a principal and global education practice leader at Gensler, Meghan Webster helps shape strategic vision and strategy, leverage research, and build client engagement. A frequent blogger and speaker, she has presented at SCUP and SXSWedu, and started the Dialogues with Gensler discussion series, which covers trends in higher education and informs her work in leading a global team focused on the design of innovative learning environments. Contact her at