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As colleges and universities think through back-to-campus scenarios and their path forward as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is important to consider just what metrics inform the space analytics that are foundational to understanding a campus.

We have asked experts from across our firm to share their thoughts on:

  • Learning Environments
  • Student Housing
  • Higher Education Workplace Environments
  • Schools of Nursing

Q: What factors should be considered when developing forward-looking space metrics?

Three major trends have driven instructional space metrics over the past decade as higher education has shifted toward student-centered learning.

Autonomy: Information is now instant and mobile. Now that content can be acquired fast, free, and digitally, the new purpose of the classroom experience is to explore knowledge. This type of learning environment requires an increase of net assignable square foot per student. An instructional space that meets these guidelines will provide greater agility in adjusting to 6-foot social distance requirements, as well. Flexible furniture also allows institutions to rearrange or de-densify rooms.

Experience: The customization of the educational experience has led students to prioritize experience and hands-on learning. This type of learning often occurs in class laboratories, open laboratories, maker spaces, and research labs. Laboratory environments are rich with learning experiences that cannot easily be duplicated via online courses even prior to COVID-19, and we often recommended that institutions increase the amount of laboratory and maker space on campus.

Porosity: If you strip away the curriculum and the credits, a campus exists for serendipitous encounters between students and scholars where creativity happens, ideas are explored, and learning experiences are created. Porous learning environments allow learning to take place inside and outside the classroom and at multiple scales and comfort levels to create an equitable and adaptable learning environment for all learners. Post-COVID, experiential campus experiences may allow universities to differentiate themselves and offer an alternative to online lecture-based learning. Universities should consider dedicated space for student-centered study, group learning, and gathering space to represent approximately 15-20% of the instructional space found on campus.

Q: How is this affecting students?

Physical distancing in the classroom limits an instructor’s ability to “reach and teach” every student. By distancing students in the classroom and limiting instructor/student and peer-to-peer interactions, the learning environment favors students closest to the instructor. In this situation, a virtual synchronous environment may offer a better learning environment. In the virtual environment, the distribution of students on each screen is random, students appear the same size, and multiple modes of interaction are available via microphones, chat features, and interactive whiteboard exercises. Moreover, asynchronous virtual opportunities give students the flexibility to learn on their schedule. Learning does not compete with other priorities, such as jobs or families. Students can watch material multiple times to take notes and absorb information.

Q: Are there any fundamental differences for student housing during the pandemic?

Schools are exploring how to move forward, and it’s easy to imagine certain scenarios: relying more on single units, including converting traditional doubles to singles, for instance. Many schools, however, have planned and built in swing space for special accommodations that develop during the academic year. The pandemic adds another layer to this complexity and highlights the need for a flexible framework from which to work.

Many colleges and universities plan to start the fall semester at full occupancy, while leaving a certain number of beds or residence halls vacant as COVID-bed surge space. Other institutions are relying on the off-campus market to relieve pressure on their housing stock to best align their bed capacity with social distancing goals. Regardless, many are considering significant operational, policy, and infrastructure measures, such as reducing the occupancy capacity of their residence hall common spaces, more restrictive visitation privileges, providing much more frequent cleaning, or putting locks on common bathrooms to limit the number of students sharing each one.

As students return to living on-campus, schools will have a plan in place in case there are resurgences. Institutions with medical schools and requisite facilities may opt to provide their own testing and care, while others are partnering with their local medical community. While hopefully anything of that nature is only momentary, these measures may need to be in place for some time. When it comes to what makes a successful residence hall, though, the recipe remains the same: community leads to better student outcomes, so it remains crucial to provide the proper balance of outside-the-unit space and manage them responsibly in these trying times.



Q: Beyond physical distancing guidelines, how do we create workplace environments for the campus community that promote a sense of safety, inclusion, and collaboration for both in-person and remote participants?

On average 25% of a campus’ non-residential space inventory is devoted to office space and are part of most buildings’ programs. Small changes to office space metrics can have widespread impact, so it is critical that decision-making be grounded in data. An analysis of the anticipated needs of the workforce and the past utilization of existing space is a good starting point. Employee data and room-by-room space inventories can provide great insight and help identify opportunities to build a program that provides appropriate space per person for individual work, storage, circulation, and collaboration.

Also, consider how remote work, social distancing, and staggered or flexible schedules may impact space needs. Campuses should still be sprinkled with spaces that foster collaboration—both informal, spontaneous encounters, and more formally scheduled meetings. They should, however, anticipate increased virtual participation, both from those working remotely and those on-campus not ready for face-to-face interaction. Technology should be ubiquitous, and capacities and furniture layouts should be reviewed to ensure adequate space per person and good camera sightlines.

Q : What could this mean for offices moving forward?

Faculty-student interaction, which is critical for student success, will require a different setting. Looking forward, I anticipate increased demand for spaces that can safely accommodate one-on-one or small group interactions. In-office meetings already have made some uncomfortable and will likely now make many feel unsafe. I recommend identifying underutilized spaces in academic buildings (ideally in highly visible areas frequented by students) and repurposing them as dedicated, reservable faculty-student spaces.

Q: How are the skills lab and simulation spaces for nursing being altered by COVID-19?

Many schools have taken a detailed look at how to effectively prioritize and use specialized spaces safely while keeping the importance of a rigorous education front and center. After March 2020, nursing programs lost their clinical placements, and as a supplement to clinical practicum, nurse educators shifted to virtual and screen-based simulation through a variety of resourceful methods to supply all of their students remaining clinical learning hours. Immersive simulation using VR and projection is one way to transform any space into a simulation environment offering more utility from existing spaces and facilitating endless simulation scenarios.

For in-person lab courses in Fall 2020, nursing programs must calculate the useable area of their labs, less fixed equipment such as hospital beds and exam tables, to determine the reduced space allowance per student. Students can continue to work within their clinical groups that are normally 8-10 people, except they are spread out into different spaces. Flexibility and adaptability have long been key to designing success health science education spaces, and the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting this importance.    

Q: What kind of methods are being implemented?

Some things are now common in the broader world–smaller groups, temperature monitoring, face masks, daily sanitization of space and equipment—but there are some creative new ideas and methods. Skills and health assessment can be supplemented with customized lab packs sent to students to use at home. The expense of the lab kit can be offset with invention—one schools is discussing 3D printing their own objects and anatomical models for students to use at home. Some programs deferred skills training from spring to fall in hopes to have more hands-on opportunities. Virtually, students have been able to demonstrate skills competency through Zoom break out rooms, after viewing instructor demonstrations. Objective structured clinical examinations, key measures of a student’s competency, can be reimagined virtually as telehealth appointments with simulated patients. Telehealth has seen expanded use during the pandemic, so this has an additional benefit to train students in the way in which they may be working. Overall, some of the new teaching methodologies were found to be more successful than originally thought, and will continue in the fall semester.

Q: What about Nursing, Multidisciplinary Research, and Public Health?

Community based research in nursing has evolved since the onset of COVID-19. Here are some examples of how Duke University School of Nursing is providing outreach and creating partnerships with social work and public health organizations during this pandemic.

  • Homelessness: With the same goal to improve community health, partnerships such as the DCHIPP (Duke Community Health Improvement Partnership Program) is connecting the school of nursing and the community. Students transitioned from their traditional clinical setting of screening patients to working with the Durham Homeless Care Transitions (DHCT) organization that offers temporary housing, a case manager, and access to rapid testing for those who are homeless.
  • Spanish Speaking Populations: Multidisciplinary teams lead by the school of nursing have been established to work with the county health department to inform public service announcements by developing culturally and linguistically appropriate educational materials to the Spanish speaking population.
  • Aging Populations: To assist seniors and the geriatric population, the school of nursing research team is facilitating virtual teaching sessions on effective communication with seniors so that volunteers can effectively communicate and provide reassurance during telephone encounters with seniors.
  • Global Healthcare Initiatives: With global clinical placement trips cancelled, nursing students partnered with Cureamericas contacting hundreds of Guatemalan residents and speaking to them informally about COVID. They are developing a database, referring them to local resources and creating an evaluation plan.

All of these efforts showcase really important work and the power of research and multidisciplinary teams.

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