How Higher Learning Spaces Are Changing in the COVID-19 Era

Flexibility and agility are keys to creating adaptable spaces that can conform to current academic needs, as well as potential future issues. “There is a need to implement mode shifting ability, using generic meeting facilities and group spaces for mock studios fitted for broadcasting interactive sessions,” explains Carsten Primdahl, lead design architect at CEBRA Architecture. “We also need the ability to create social study bubbles during the pandemic while maintaining social interaction at a distance. This involves activating all kinds of idle space to distribute activity.”

Discussing the need for design that works within the framework of a hybrid method of learning, Stevens says, “We leaned towards asynchronous learning as an overarching vision for the design, with the aim of enhancing accessibility and equity—thinking about the possibilities that come from a space that can accommodate an in-person classroom one day, but also be equipped with the technology for a lecturer to host a class digitally the next day for those who physically can’t come to the actual instructional space.”

Construction of this state-of-the-art new academic building will begin next year, taking into account all strategies necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with completion slated for 2023.

Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD)

As a result of COVID-19, Harvard GSD has shifted entirely to virtual learning for the fall semester, so rather than redesigning brick-and-mortar spaces, the administration was required to “rethink existing teaching practices,” says Lisa Haber-Thomson, Ph.D., the architecture faculty member who has been leading the Innovative Task Force (ITF)—a group formed to spearhead the virtual transition and GSD’s overall digital teaching and learning efforts. “We have worked to reconsider the essential elements of pedagogy—readings, crits, group discussions, guest lectures—and consider which elements benefit from or depend on a full class being plugged in all at the same time versus which can be broken up and scheduled accordingly. This question of synchronicity versus asynchronicity inspired many of us to examine what we teach, and how.”

Harvard GSD students enrolled in the first-term core studio in landscape architecture received tool kits by mail. 

Harvard Graduate School of Design

The ITF has developed the Guidebook to Virtual Learning and Teaching, a living document devised to help prepare GSD faculty for this unprecedented school year that will continue to evolve as long as distance learning is happening. “The Guidebook frames more general questions of pedagogy side-by-side with corresponding technical and logistical information, thus underpinning the idea that pedagogical issues are always interwoven with technological concerns,” Haber-Thomson offers. “Even simple ways to leverage technology can make a difference in the classroom. For example, using the ‘live polling’ feature of Zoom allows instructors to build in moments of interactivity in a lecture setting, thus helping to keep students engaged in the material.”

While several common learning tools are proving challenging for the 2020–2021 school year, GSD is devising solutions. “We inverted the placement of site visits, with students and faculty conducting intensive research on a site before engaging with it, and then using digital site tours to expand and color-in an understanding of site and place,” Haber-Thomson explains. And since building access is restricted across campus, GSD’s Fabrication Lab has created and shipped toolkits for fabrication and model-making to students so they’d be prepared for hands-on learning. Haber-Thomson notes, “One of our landscape architecture studios included leaves from Harvard Yard in their toolkits in order to help students mentally transport to campus and our Harvard landscape.”

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