Higher education: blended teaching and new spaces

11 juin 2020

The impact of the pandemic on education and the design of its facilities.

The pandemic puts higher education face to face with major changes, not just in teaching but also in the organization of spaces. The acceleration of recent months can offer an opportunity for strategic reflections on new furnishing solutions and more flexible, interactive facilities.

Politecnico di Milano, Campus Candiani


Italian universities are opening their doors, in a safe way. A concept that has involved more than a few difficulties, where compliance with protocols to protect students and staff, the functional efficacy of classrooms and services, and the free circulation of individuals are the factors to enable schools to continue to be places of interaction and exchange of knowledge.

Safety, however, is not the only challenge for universities, since it is joined by the economic crisis triggered by the health emergency: estimates indicate a drop of 35,000 new students, implying loss of income for schools amounting to 46 million euros (source: Osservatorio Talents Venture). The universities most badly hit are those where most of the students are not local residents or belong to fragile socio-economic contexts. In the case of Milan, forecasts call for enrollments diminishing by 4.9% at the Milan Polytechnic, 4.1% at the Università Cattolica, and 68% at Bocconi University, with over 2700 students not residing in Lombardy. In this regard, Università Bocconi (number 7 in the QS World University Ranking in the fields of Business & Management) has created a Covid19 fund of 3 million euros to assist students in difficulty due to the pandemic, over and above the 30 million euros set aside each year for financial assistance.

Nevertheless, the emergency situation can stimulate visions for the future that go beyond mere responses to contingent issues. This would imply rethinking of teaching methods, for the moment in mixed approaches covering online teaching and physical presence, and the design of holistic solutions capable of bringing diversification to the way the university is experienced today: from layouts to furnishings, materials to technologies, behaviors to protocols.

Georgetown University - School of Continuing Studies, USA. © Bruce DamonteGeorgetown University - School of Continuing Studies, USA. © Bruce Damonte

I “Blended” teaching

So-called “blended” teaching, or a mixed model of online instruction and physical presence, could continue for a long period of time. “Remote teaching will move forward, with the aim of ensuring the right to education for all those who cannot be physically present – there are many in Lombardy – or cannot attend classes due to geographical factors. This is a very important message. But there also has to be a return to the classroom, the laboratories, the libraries, to take part in activities of practice and lectures,” said the Minister of the University and Research of the Italian government Gaetano Manfredi, at the start of September.

Online teaching and study, the schools say, will have to be utilized for activities that can be conducted in a remote, asynchronous way. At the same time, offline methods should be applied to foster  interaction, discussion and learning in the field. At Bocconi University, precisely due to the high level of non-residents, about 90% of the students have chosen the blended teaching model, which makes it possible to organize 50% of the program in terms of physical presence, while all the activities of individual or group study are regulated by a reservation system via app. The teaching calls for theoretical lectures available to the entire class online, and practical activities conducted with the physical participation of 50% of the students at a time. All the classes are in any case available in synchronous and asynchronous streaming.

Bocconi has invested over 3 million euros to equip lecture halls with technologies that also enable online students to take part in classes in an immersive way, to sanitize spaces, to increase medical facilities on campus, while taking various measures for safety and social distancing. "Life on campus is fundamental for a full experience of the university, but we also have to make use of digital systems to improve teaching, for more effective learning and to develop a new didactic model for the future," says Rector Gianmario Verona [source: Repubblica, 31/08/2020].

As for remote learning, it is hoped that its most positive aspect – namely making education more inclusive for people with problems of physical access, or with disabilities – can be further encouraged and implemented.

Università Bocconi, Milan

II Space, the third educator

Almost all schools have enacted protocols of safety and protection for students and staff: plexiglass barriers in offices open to the public, seats in lecture halls and services reserved via e-mail or app, wayfinding systems traced on the floor showing correct paths of circulation to encourage distancing, thermoscanners for temperature control and dispenser for hand sanitizers.

Classrooms have been reorganized to operate at half capacity. Nevertheless, the need for distancing can also be an opportunity to think about the relationship between space and teaching: about space as the “third educator.” The way space is furnished and utilized has an influence on interpersonal relations, making them more hierarchic or more direct, with an impact on the quality of reciprocal listening and working methods. Every subject taught should have its own spatial configuration, suited to the content of the teaching.

Though in relation to different levels of instruction, these factors have been emphasized by Maria Montessori with her school furniture, by Emma Castelnuovo in the 1950s and Nora Giacobini, founder of the Cooperative Education Movement in Rome in the early 1960s. All these approaches share the idea of teaching in flexible spaces, with configurations of the furnishings that are not necessarily frontal or orthogonal. Therefore, precisely in the outlook of “blended” teaching it is misleading to imagine that innovation is linked only to technological equipment or the methods of online instruction. In the “new normal” of the post-Covid era, the activities involving physical presence will also have to be revised, through product design and the architecture of spaces.

Arper CilaGo, H-Farm, Treviso. © Marco CoviArper CilaGo, H-Farm, Treviso. © Marco Covi

III Furnishing solutions

In spite of the urgent need for distancing, and in general for the reduction of density of people inside the spaces of schools, the question of the reorganization of education facilities can be seen as a design opportunity: to think about layouts and the arrangement of furnishings, shifting from the emergency into visions of the future.

The reconfiguration of collective spaces and education facilities balances the need to comply with safety regulations with the desire for free circulation of individuals. Reduction of the density of human presence in classrooms leads to the idea of smaller classes, and of managing the space in front of lecture halls in a more efficient way, with new open areas for group meetings, utilizing furnishings in flexible arrangements and mobile screens to create boundaries. Spaces of passage can be reconfigured by maximizing the use of fixed walls, set up with blackboards or screens; the spaces become portions of new lounge areas or temporary study zones.

Flexibility and reconfiguration of furnishings – from desks to seats with writing surfaces, from freestanding sound-absorbing panels to mobile partitions – can become ingredients for spaces that adapt to the needs of training and study involving physical presence. In this area, the configuration of desks in classrooms does not necessarily have to be done in a parallel or face-to-face arrangement, since diversified directions can reduce the need for physical barriers.

Looking to the future, materials for furnishings that permit easy cleaning and disinfection without deterioration over time will become the new standard. The quality and durability of materials and fabrics, together with design that facilitates maintenance, will become the criteria of choice. 

As for technology, which is inevitably more incorporated in “smart” buildings, the hope is that from an initial phase of detection of temperature or presence, systems will move towards aspects more closely related to wellness.

Milan Polytechnic, Campus Candiani

IV Interview with Luisa Collina,
Dean of the School of Design
of the Milan Polytechnic

From a closer perspective, what have been the choices in the case of the Milan Polytechnic, the school in sixth place in the QS World University Ranking for the subject area of Art&Design and the leader among Italian design schools? “We have had to change our strategy,” says Luisa Collina, Dean of the School of Design of the Milan Polytechnic. “Before Covid we had launched a pilot project to experiment with new places, outfitted with more immersive technologies and more flexible furnishings, to permit a more ‘nomadic’ approach to teaching, for example with projectors aimed in multiple directions. The idea was to give studies in design, architecture and engineering more appropriate and engaging teaching methods. Due to Covid19 the project is on hold, and the resources have been shifted to the technological outfitting of the lecture halls, to facilitate mixed teaching through the Cisco Webex platform, utilizing a video camera that follows the teacher in the vicinity of his or her desk.”

What are the main problematic issues of remote teaching?
“To guarantee quality for those who cannot be present, and to limit the heterogeneity caused by the mixed formula. Teaching in physical space is undoubtedly more enriching, also considering the interaction among people that happens not just in the classroom but also in all the spaces of the campus, from break areas to corridors. Nevertheless, remote teaching makes it easier to have international guests, and this enhances the experience.”

What has changed most in post-Covid education?
“The work of the faculty has become almost ‘televised,’ with planning of contents as in a broadcast, using shorter lectures and a greater variety of contents. Teaching, along with its spaces, shifts from a unidirectional, passive dimension to a more active, engaging formula. For example, in the case of a design workshop with physical presence it is necessary to have a flexible space in which to organize teamwork and moments of lecture-style explanation, with alternating rhythms of work that cannot happen with the traditional arrangement of fixed tables, seating and projectors. Nevertheless, the response to change is not just a matter of sophisticated technology, but also of the design of an immersive, engaging physical environment. Which should not be confused with the amusing spaces with table soccer games we are used to seeing in international creative studios!”

© Adrià Cañameras

V Interview with Jeremy Myerson,
Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design,
Royal College of Art, London

The Royal College of Art (first place in the QS World University Ranking for the subject area of Art&Design) is also experimenting with a model of blended teaching, a wayfinding and space management system to control the flow of students.

Some departments, such as the Helen Hamlyn Centre, involving PhD students and researchers, have not reopened, in order to allocate the space to classes conducted in physical presence. But what impact will the blended mode of teaching have on creative subjects like art and design?
“Education in these areas is collaborative, contagious,” says Jeremy Myerson, Professor of Design at the Helen Hamlyn Centre, “based on face-to-face contact, workshops, seminars in a physical space, with close contact between students and professors. It is not like teaching literature. Our main problem, at the moment, is how to regulate access to design workshops with their facilities, which are a fundamental part of learning. Unfortunately, at the moment art school is becoming a ‘programmed’ space, limited to interaction between people in the same ‘bubble,’ a place where there is less serendipity and relations are less spontaneous. Since there are more online lectures, that relationship, that ‘human capital’ is weaker, because it can only be constructed in the presence of classmates and faculty. I count on the fact that students will find a way to have new encounters, perhaps off campus, in public spaces, cafés, a bit like what is happening in the case of smart working, where people find temporary solutions, closer to their homes. Then, perhaps, the university will be able to find new educational formats.”

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