Our Higher Education Design Studio is exploring how higher education institutions deliver exceptional student experience and education during the pandemic and beyond 

The word deliver is specifically chosen here as innovative higher education institutions are challenging the traditional delivery methods of on-campus versus online. Using retail strategy as a relatable example, they are moving from a unichannel or multichannel approach to that of omnichannel: instruction where, when, and how each student chooses. 

Moving from “on-campus or online” to “on-campus and online”.  

There is a significant difference between these statements in allowing student modality to shift between the two based on students’ needs instead of the institution’s preferences. With omni-education students decide when and where they receive instruction, moving seamlessly between the two.  

Online education options were increasing for years pre-pandemic (According to an Inside Higher Ed survey from fall 2019, 46% of instructors had taught an online or hybrid course.), but the pandemic pushed this growing practice to a necessity as colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes worked to incorporate more online or hybrid courses to promote campus health and safety. Online students and on-campus students were less frequently viewed as two separate groups, similar to how retail no longer views customers as online or in-store shoppers, but both. Students have the flexibility to attend a class in-person, watch it live, or watch a recording of it.

Repositioning for the college experience students need. 

We are seeing evidence that higher education is repositioning itself, as what has worked for institutions for years isn’t necessarily working for their students or faculty today. This recent article from Auburn University’s provost Bill Hardgrave puts this shift in an interesting context of retail strategy. Hardgrave uses an omnichannel retail comparison suggesting institutions align their model to provide the best experience for students no matter how they choose to learn. 

Omnichannel isn’t new, and it’s something we’ve helped other clients in other markets navigate over the years by exploring new channels and developing the spaces for those channels to succeed. For example, we've designed distribution hubs to improve last-mile delivery services which support and enhance the client's other channels. But we’re still in the early days of omni-education and monitoring how it will play out in the months and years to come and how as designers we can create spaces to support it.  

How can we design an exceptional omni-education experience? 

If we see student experience and education as higher education’s primary products, omni-education means delivering student experience and education when, how, and where the student wants it. This theory sounds simple enough, but as our studio realized from a recent discussion, this shift has big implications for many aspects of campus life, including the built environment. 

    • How does the campus environment make one college or university more desirable than another? 
    • How and where do students interact with each other, their professors, and their institution? 
    • How can we facilitate a seamless transition between dynamic and engaging in-person learning to live-stream or a recording? 
    • Have campus spaces been designed for educators to efficiently deliver a high-quality education through various channels?  

As an architecture, interior design, and engineering firm, we’re following this transition closely to explore what kind of physical environment students will need to ensure seamless transitions and integrations for the social and academic experience, both online and in-person. I have a lot more thoughts on the subject and would love to hear what you're thinking about how this year of omni-education will affect students' expectations for their college experience. Send me an email or let's connect on LinkedIn

William Maffett, AIA

Written by William Maffett, AIA

Market Director William Maffett is a fourth-generation architect with a special passion for higher education projects. By using smart design practices and emerging technologies, William creates educational spaces that draw students in, make them feel at home, and allow them to thrive.