Work & Campus

The Micro Campus: a new typology for distance learning

In this study the Work & Campus workfield imagines a new, hybrid educational typology that adjusts the traditional university campus model to meet the needs of distance learners.

Knowledge sharing is often presented as a universal possibility due to unprecedented levels of access to information we have today. While digital technology is opening new channels of information, it is still widely accepted that certain physical environments provide some of the best support systems to foster innovation.

– ‘Knowledge Matters’, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos

Photo: via Unsplash

Learning is increasingly taking place in digital spaces, but those digital spaces still depend on physical infrastructure. Indeed, universities whose physical environments are based upon the traditional campus model (which clusters teaching, studying and residential spaces in one relatively dense area) remain the dominant support system for fostering education.

And yet, digital educational platforms are undeniably on the rise. Acting as an alternative to, as well as a supplement for, fixed campus-based learning, digital educational platforms, which offer Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are in part responsible for the shift away from the traditional campus model. By 2016, an estimated 58 million people had registered for MOOCs across the globe, according to Class Central. Commercial providers of these platforms are new companies like Pluralsight and, as well as non-profit universities who offer online versions of traditional in-person courses to the public.

The traditional learning space. Photo: Geraldine Lewa via Unsplash

The largest non-profit example of the latter is edX, founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Its open-source platform Open edX seeks to raise the calibre and reach of online pedagogy by providing global access to high-quality courses.

Whilst some universities are broadening their educational reach via digital course offerings, others are replicating their traditional campus model in different educational markets by establishing satellite campuses, like New York University in Abu Dhabi.

Universities are also taking a third step that comes closest to the model this article will propose. Similar to the satellite campus model in terms of international expansion, universities are establishing specialised outposts for research and public engagement in locations far from their primary campus. One example is Columbia University GSAPP’s global network of ‘Studio-Xs’, which aims to bring people from disciplines beyond architecture and planning together for ‘collaborative exploration’. These outposts tend to be small in scale and purposely indeterminate in programme, with few core staff and spaces designed for flexibility.

Whilst the satellite campus duplicates a traditional pedagogical model and MOOCs digitalise and thus despatialise it, these nimbler, experimental spaces give a glimpse of what higher education can be when it is respatialised.

Photo: Tim Gouw via Unsplash

Potential users

Rising demand for workers equipped with skills most easily taught outside of the traditional campus model – specifically computer programming and software development – is responsible for the rise of a new pedagogical model for teaching programming. ‘Coding bootcamps,’ as one example, are intentionally disconnected from a spatial model and primarily rely on internet platforms to disseminate instruction, but could potentially benefit from a model that allows for occasional meetings of students and instructors.

Coding bootcamp students are just one subset of a growing group of so-called ‘distance learners’, whose reduced need for instructional space will in turn result in decreased overhead costs in comparison to traditional educational models. However, this group is also at risk of a loss in interaction between students and faculty, as well as a lack of access to facilities.

A new model

The respatialised, ‘micro’ campus would maintain the personal contact necessary in higher education by embedding and integrating educational facilities deeper into the fabric of cities.

A departure from the community college model common in the US and UK, wherein students can enrol in two-year degree courses in preparation for university degrees, undertake apprenticeships or enter into technical-vocational programmes, the micro campus expands the educational activities offered within a given space beyond those of a single institution.

Separating the ‘campus’ from its space-consuming (and often vacant) components like lecture halls, libraries and dormitories, this new typology would welcome a broad range of learners.

The users of the micro campus can include young adults enrolled in degree programmes, taking courses online and/or in person, as well as adults in continuing education programmes, and non-traditional, new forms of training, like coding academies. Traditional university students would use a Micro Campus as a splinter space of the main campus, accessing resources in a different part of the city or even a different part of the world.

Photo: Obed Hernandez via Unsplash

By providing a wide variety of small scale functions like study cells, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality facilities, meeting/co-working chambers and exam rooms, the Micro Campus can function as an enabler for the world of distance education and work.

With an active event space that hosts symposia, art exhibitions, workshops, lectures and the like, this new typology has the ability to establish itself within a city’s public sphere as a social and cultural hub that stimulates its informal intellectual life. 

Financially the Micro Campus would operate similarly to a modern day gym: it would offer a broad range of subscriptions plans in which one would pay for a seat on a monthly basis, per session, per completed course or per used facility. It could grant users access to all the Micro Campuses in one area or enrolled university students could make free use of the designated facilities as part of their tuition fees. A free zone as the social frontage would host a café and particular events open to the public. Similar to libraries and community centres, the Micro Campus could be sponsored by municipalities, governments, universities or companies that want to spread their brand identity or seek to collaborate on various issues they are facing.

Fundamentally, the Micro Campus would provide a mediating space between educational and professional, digital and physical worlds and serve as a physical amplifier to digitally respatalised modes of learning and working.

Author: Bart Chompff