Hybrid learning, smaller physical footprint are trending at universities and for good reason | #education | #technology | #training

The pandemic has forced us to try new ways of doing things, especially when it comes to education. The virtual classroom, for instance, has proven challenging but also rewarding as it has opened doors to learning opportunities among a wider range of students in higher education.

Online learning provides increased safety, more flexible access and equity among students who are immunocompromised or live with disabilities, as well as those who commute to campus and/or juggle multiple jobs to pay rising tuition costs. Faculty members who take care of elderly parents say they prefer having less exposure to contagious illnesses likely to be spread when hundreds of students are seated in large lecture halls — and those sitting in the back are watching a monitor anyway. Students who go online for tutoring sessions at late hours enjoy not having to wait for someone to open a locked building.

Institutions that have chosen to end online learning are now finding students are pushing back for many of these reasons, according to an April 11 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

We can understand and support those who prefer to teach and learn in person for the warmth of live human interaction, but there is no doubt hybrid learning has become part of the lexicon of higher education. At Pace University in New York, for instance, a new online center gives faculty members the technology they need to create video content for their classes and the training they need to increase student engagement online.

Benefits of hybrid learning go far beyond issues of access and equity, however.

Before COVID-19, colleges and universities across the country were already rethinking and scaling back their physical footprints because of the costs of building new facilities and maintaining old ones. The pandemic accelerated this trend of looking more closely at wise use of existing spaces for long-term sustainability. It’s a deviation from defaulting to new construction and expansion in traditional master plans for many colleges and universities.

At the crux of this issue is what The Chronicle of Education calls “The Overbuilt Campus” in its Feb. 11 online magazine article.

“It costs millions of dollars to construct new facilities and millions more to run and maintain them,” the author points out. Every institution is different, but they all face similar questions in the post-pandemic era of whether it makes more sense to repurpose space and even shrink, rather than to build and expand conventionally with bricks and mortar.

Last week, Daily Camera reporter Annie Mehl wrote an in-depth article about the University of Colorado Boulder and its efforts to analyze its wants and needs for physical space in a post-pandemic world. What she discovered was that CU Boulder fits into this trend nationwide of universities facing concerns of a backlog of maintenance costs and making a concerted effort toward hybrid learning.

CU Boulder has a $1.3 billion deferred maintenance backlog. Updating Hellems Arts and Sciences building alone will cost $89.5 million. That is a lot of money by any standard.

It’s great to hear David Kang, CU Boulder’s vice chancellor for infrastructure and sustainability, say our flagship university intends to reimagine its space with hybrid learning, hybrid work and remote work all playing a role in the future of campus life.

“If we can actually use our spaces better, we don’t have to build new (ones)” Kang says. “That’s a philosophy that we definitely embrace. I think that philosophy of how to better utilize existing spaces is more prevalent than it was in the past.”

We think this effort should most definitely include taking a closer look at repurposing staff administrative offices to meet students’ needs. The many layers of CU Boulder’s campus bureaucracy includes offices and buildings that currently house administrators and support staff who could — and may even prefer to — work remotely.

Today’s high school students have learned online throughout the pandemic and will find hybrid learning in college to be quite normal; faculty members who incorporate hybrid learning will find their classrooms freed up for more courses, and fewer commuting students and staff mean freed-up parking spaces on campus as well.

What’s needed most at this point is data. CU Boulder will need to take inventory of its physical space and listen to its students, faculty and staff to gauge their use of and enthusiasm for hybrid learning. The master plan can easily be amended, and administrators may well discover the prudent course is using existing space more efficiently rather than constructing more buildings. If COVID-19 hit us five years ago, CU Boulder may have had to rethink expansion on its South Campus. It still can.

Our university would also be smart to invest in its current enrollment today rather than having plans to increase its students by the tens of thousands in the future — especially given the overflow of students already in need of housing.

Our flagship university is strong and will continue to compete as long as it focuses on its core mission and vision, which is to “be a leader in addressing the humanitarian, social and technological challenges of the twenty-first century.” That may well include enhanced hybrid learning paired with a smaller physical footprint it can actually afford to sustain.

— Julie Marshall for the editorial board

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