University of Helsinki: Learning environments are changing

The campus of the future will be a little like an airport for books or a conference centre for the mind, an old-fashioned Italian piazza where you can sit down to sip a coffee and walk in peace, or that can serve as a trading hub for exchanging knowledge. Digital information and knowledge affect all aspects of learning

Learning environments are undergoing continual and rapid transformation initiated by the worldwide digital leap taken due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Three options now and in the future
“Soon it will be two years since university campuses across the world were closed. At the time, three future scenarios were offered,” says Professor Andrew Harrison, who spoke at the kick-off seminar of the University of Helsinki’s Learning Environments project on 2 November.

The first one, a return to campus, is the most traditional of the three. People wish to get back to their workplaces, and keep their homes and jobs separate. Members of the academic community wish to feel physically part of universities, and again be in direct contact and cooperation with colleagues and students.

According to Harrison, the second scenario, a changing environment, is based on reshaping the culture and environment of work. Home can be a good place to work from, and digital tools make it easy to keep in touch with colleagues. Employees are agile, and they have the capacity to work in different places. Providing a personal workstation on campus is no longer essential. Instead, the focus is turning to shared spaces in support of collaboration and interaction, both on site and over remote connections. Libraries will become a place for work shared by staff and students.

In the third, ‘no return’ scenario, the significance of physical campuses is reduced. Post-pandemic pedagogy is founded on remote instruction and the utilisation of digital applications, which help meet students both as individuals and in groups. The campus learning environment is primarily composed of special facilities, such as laboratories, studios and workshops. Work environments are places where employees drop by when they happen to be on campus, as most of the interaction and collaboration take place online.

Best results achieved by a combination of the three scenarios
While none of the above scenarios will be realised as such, Harrison emphasises that digital information and knowledge will likely affect all areas of learning and teaching. Students will become both consumers and producers of information. A new kind of access to data warehouses will alter classroom practices.

Moreover, such change will make it possible to reach a range of different audiences. Learning and teaching digital fluency is a key task at all levels of education: students must be provided with the opportunity to employ digital tools and platforms for critical communication, creative design, well-grounded decisions and problem-solving.

Towards a hybrid learning environment
The global digital leap in education and work has given us the opportunity to choose how, where, in what kinds of facilities and when we work. Harrison believes this change will become even deeper once we genuinely understand the impact of digital information on the production of knowledge both at universities and in society as a whole.

According to an article published in
Forbes
, the amount of data generated each year will grow to 175 trillion gigabytes by 2025, compared to 33 trillion in 2018. This will affect work and learning environments as well as campuses in an equally significant manner: we can assume that data visualisation as well as augmented and virtual reality will become the new norm for learning environments.

Overall, teaching facilities will support a wider range of pedagogical and technical solutions, increasing their interactive nature in the process. Laboratories, studios, research facilities and other special facilities will include more shared spaces, centralised support facilities and support for the multidisciplinary exchange of information and innovation. Staff will have novel work environment concepts at their disposal, while libraries are currently transitioning from passive book warehouses to hubs of learning experiences and social learning. Special facilities will be replaced by flexible and shared spaces.

New uses for campus facilities
Not everything has to be immediately remodeled to serve a new purpose. Instead, the new ways to use campus can be invented together with the users. The return to campuses opens up new possibilities for experimentation – facilities should be adaptable to hybrid practices step by step. For instance, in the Main Building, technology is subservient to cultural values and academic tradition, which contribute to the soul of the University community.

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