As many higher education institutions and colleges embraced remote learning and virtual environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, globalization and the concept of “whole-person” education is putting college campuses at a crossroads of how to deal with this worldwide shift.

Prior to the pandemic, higher education as a business model was already experiencing multiple challenges and COVID-19 made the situation considerably more significant. Remote learning brought limited access to campus resources and students were caught in the crossroads of navigating their own futures, particularly for underserved student populations, for whom socioeconomic barriers to remote learning, including practical, psychological and financial burdens, were heightened.

PCL Construction, in partnership with Perkins & Will, collaborated to publish a white paper, outlining strategies for addressing these education challenges. 

Connectivity proves important for students’ social well-being, mental health and academic development. Students view universities and college campuses as more than an institution; they view it as a physical place that represents education, social connection and belonging.

The ability to engage with others and discuss ideas is central to students’ learning experience and formation of knowledge. Students rely heavily on being physically, socially and emotionally a part of the campus community, which has seen a huge disruption due to COVID and their ability to engage in the learning process. According to the Social Constructivist Model, knowledge is not discovered but socially constructed and based on an understanding shared with others through external engagement in an active learning environment, allowing dialogue with others while exploring ideas at a level of cognitive development.

The repercussions of COVID have affected student life by forcing them to leave school campuses, deal with grade uncertainty and loss of academic experience. This is driving institutions to adapt to new academic environments by exploring alternative approaches to interactions and life-long learning experiences. Interventions are needed to make education technology-based for online and remote learning, but also accessible for all students regardless of their location. Schools are also determining how to maintain ancillary and support services to students, faculty and staff such as mental health and wellness.

In addition to the physical challenges that the pandemic has brought, colleges and universities are also faced with how to address topics around equity and equality – ensuring all students, regardless of their backgrounds, race, gender, etc. are best served by their institution. Campuses are responding to this heightened sense of social responsibility to ensure students have access to technology, laptops and Wi-Fi while prioritizing limited available student housing beds for former foster youth and those at risk of homelessness. They are also ensuring financial aid continues to be available where needed. Addressing these needs allows the education institutions to bring attention to the larger societal issues. However, even with proactive measures, distance learning doesn’t always work for everyone. Learning disabilities, family with childcare needs, inadequate connectivity or Wi-Fi support, and lack of quiet areas are other unforeseen obstacles. Solutions are being explored through additional access to services, information and infrastructure. 

As campuses mobilized faculty and staff to prepare for remote learning and the challenges that arose, the design and construction industry did the same. Even before the pandemic, higher education was rapidly changing due in part to technology and the cognitive science, and COVID-19 accelerated this change.

The higher education community continues to collaboratively develop and implement solutions for the changing environment and weigh in on what is safe and appropriate for each campus. Colleges and universities are more than a state of mind for students; they are physical places that help shape a student’s belonging. Campuses are re-envisioning at an unprecedented rate what student engagement and learning looks like in a virtual world.

The academic setting is typically resistant to change, however when faced with a sudden worldwide pandemic and health crisis, institutions are forced to test and accelerate alternative methods to teaching and learning, while implementing strategies to maintain and promote the culture of campus life.

Through research developed by Perkins & Will and PCL Construction, it was found that the focus on equality and equity did not diminish, but in fact became more deeply rooted in the solutions that these institutions employed to address distant learning. Campus communication structures also became more robust through upgrading and adding Wi-Fi connectivity while providing mobile hot spots and using social media to communicate updates to students. Alternative options to build and maintain real estate assets is also being explored by multiple campuses to ensure deferred maintenance and the safety of aging infrastructure continues to be addressed.

Tackling student engagement, equity and equality in a virtual world while planning for a safe return to the physical campus remains a challenge many institutions are continuing to face well into the next academic year. However, given the ever-changing learning landscape, students, faculty and staff within the higher education realm have remained resilient and continue to exhibit a high level of flexibility and adaptability.