Change. It’s an essential part of any educational institution—and it should be. To succeed today, higher ed must thoughtfully and continually evolve to stay ahead of the opportunities technology now affords. Just as importantly, colleges must anticipate the changing needs of students and their eventual employers. With each of these critical assessments, however, come logistical hurdles and financial burdens.

Now new thinking in flexible learning and collaborative campus spaces, as well as smart re-use of space, is helping institutions become flexible and remain change-ready, effectively creating more efficient teaching and better, more cost-effective, long-range development planning.

So what, then, are some key principles in flexible use planning for the teaching environments of tomorrow?

1. Focus on student needs first
At Dunwoody College in Minneapolis, we’ve seen more change than most. When you’ve been around for a more than a century you learn—and re-learn—about evolving. Over the decades we’ve grown from one of the country’s earliest dedicated technical-education institutions to one that offers a Bachelor of Architecture, and a School of Engineering with four-year engineering degrees, in addition to a core set of offerings.

That evolution has taught us to focus on the needs of the students. How will they be taught? What new cutting-edge technologies are available? Which learning environments and physical spaces on our campus provide the optimal conditions for their success? These and other questions were part of our planning process before we embarked on phase one of a multi-year renovation that is reshaping the campus experience for our students.

2. Re-use and multi-use spaces to manage initial costs
Not every physical change to a campus means building new facilities from the ground up. The best higher-ed architecture partners now seek opportunities to re-imagine current square footage that is underutilized or serving an outdated function. In our case, that meant transforming 12,000 square feet of dormant gymnasium space first built in the 1920s and giving it new life as an open, two-story collaborative Learning Commons and Welcome Center, with double the square feet. Re-use can save thousands in construction costs and re-optimize the functional footprint of your existing campus structure for more modern day needs.

3. People like people: Create interaction through openness
For decades, traditional thinking in campus (and corporate) design has focused on departmental silos, on putting different academic and learning disciplines on different floors or wings of a building. The principle seemed sound: Allow each group their own space to function properly and focus on their own departmental teachings and needs. But in recent years we’ve seen a breaking down of those silos in corporate and educational campuses across America.

4. People like people. Interaction and the opportunity to collaborate bring enhanced learning opportunities and a more cohesive student experience. At Dunwoody, our engineering students mix with architecture and design students, often working purposefully on joint projects and enhancing their learning experience through shared use of the environment around them. Structurally, that has meant designing mixed-use, flexible learning spaces that serve all students. Philosophically, we’re breaking down the silos too.

5. Double duty: From classroom to after-school special events
When colleges are gathering places for the greater community, everyone benefits. To that end, when redesigning a campus or a component of a college, it’s imperative to design spaces that encourage community interaction and engagement. Multi-function, open-event spaces that can bring students and faculty together with alumni or representatives of the local industries they’re training to enter should be a priority in the modern campus.

6. Build change readiness into your DNA
Whether you’re undergoing a physical renovation or doing due diligence research for future change, the key factor to planning, preparing for, and managing campus renovation or redesign is simple. It’s all about a comprehensively change-ready culture throughout the institution; an open readiness to explore new opportunities, to try and test out new ideas and technologies in the real world, and to learn from it as we go along. After all, isn’t that why we’re in higher education?

About the Author:

Richard Wagner is president of Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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