Across the country, typically boisterous campuses have all but closed to allow students, faculty and staff to retreat to their homes to safely practice social distancing. With students rushed off campus, dining halls, dormitories, classrooms, stadiums and research labs are all eerily silent.

The vast majority of colleges and universities have migrated their instruction online since social distancing practices began in the U.S. in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The retreat from campuses and pivot to teaching remotely presents a unique opportunity for us, as a higher education architect and a higher education design strategist, to contemplate the value of the physical campus. We are curious to use this time to explore what enabled institutions and students to quickly shift to virtual learning, the unrecognized benefits of online learning and uncover how we can improve campuses in the future.

Technology has the power to bridge physical distance, and online instruction may have benefits related to flexibility and convenience. Yet, as we live, work, learn and play from home, we are all discovering that virtual chats and video calls are not a one-for-one substitute for in-person connection and collaboration. As designers, we believe that place matters. Without access to a physical campus, students are missing a number of factors that set them up for long-term success.

Face-to-Face Interaction

Campuses offer experiential learning opportunities such as maker spaces, science labs and simulation rooms that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate online. One discussion of the shift to virtual simulations was a webinar titled, “Transitioning to Online Interprofessional Education (IPE) in a Pandemic,” led by the National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education (NEXUS). While COVID-19 pushes institutions to embrace virtual instruction, it is an opportunity to translate critical “hands-on” learning, leading us to develop improved experiences that will continue to benefit students when they are back on campus.

In addition to applied learning, these spaces encourage chance encounters and casual conversations with students or faculty members from different departments, potentially broadening each learner’s academic or career trajectory. Students on campus are more likely to participate in informal peer-to-peer learning and to be involved in faculty-led research projects. Students on campus are regularly presented a plethora of spontaneous social opportunities from meeting a friend in the dining hall to joining the student-run radio, and from taking part in intramural sports to volunteer and club activities. Face-to-face interactions help students build professional networks and friendships that last a lifetime. Will the relationships students build online be as rich, diverse and long-lasting without in-person, on-campus experiences?

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