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« Further Exploring Microsoft’s School of the Future

We’re curious: what does the school of the learning demand of us as educators, designers and planners, and community members? And how will it affect the educational facilities and campuses we create?

Consider a child born today in 2006.

They will roughly graduate high school around the year 2024 assuming they continue relatively uninterrupted in a traditional manner. What will it mean to adequately “design for the future of learning” to adequately serve their learning needs over the span of their young lives? How about well after high school graduation, when they enter higher education, professional certification programs, or vocational training spaces? How are we taking into account the classic roles society will require as well as professions not even yet in existence? And will such spaces equally serve their life-learning needs as in a multiplicity of ways across their personal, social, and professional roles?

For many of us, school design and planning in the 21st century now extends far beyond the literal building and campus itself. Long gone is the traditional school house as an icon for learning. Yes, basic shelter and classic ‘lecture’ spaces will forever be valued. But the overall model for school of the past is being replaced with new expectations for learning and society. While the school house image continues to persist, the rational for such spaces becomes less and less vital with each day. Or better said, the ‘purpose’ of the building and campus is changing, and thus inviting new design strategies to support learning in the future.

For some, even the core business of schools is up for grabs in a day and age of ubiquitous information access. When information is available everywhere via the Internet, the very future of the schol building must be explored.

How do we design spaces that engages and sparks collaboration? Provides the ‘just-in-time’ learning resources and spaces needed for tomorrow’s learners? True 21st century learning environments (read: “School 2.0″) demands we frame bold questions and research, seek cross-pollination, embrace new technologies, and expect collaboration as a means to innovative solutions. This is true not only of school design teams, but of the very leaners we’re serving as well.

What do we mean by a school? When will it be used? Who are the learners and teachers? What does learning look like and how do spaces reflect that? Are there any non-learning spaces in the school of the future, or is every square meter seen as potential collaboration space? And how do we build a school/campus that serves the needs of today’s learners while being agile enough to be relevant in the future as well? Is this a square meter and life cycle issue? A space naming and allocation issue? A resource and political issue? Or a deeper paradigm shift?

Look around.

Google and Wikipedia are competing with the traditional library space for your student’s attention. Starbucks and similar “third spaces” are not only supporting entreprenurial and social relationships, but they are becoming a viable model for school spaces in the future — both on campus and off. Hand held PDA’s, cell phones and the $100 laptop program (OLPC) that nobody will be cut off from the Internet, as well as beginning to suggest that computer labs may have to be re-commissioned in time. Possibly not even necessary in the first place. Second Life, Bebo, and MySpace are becoming ad hoc ‘learning environments’ as well as social networking communities for many of our students. The Web2.0 (blogging, etc.) is beginning to re-write the rules of expertise, information sharing, collaboratoin, publication, and learning, thus making the traditional ‘teacher wall’ or ‘front of the room’ an antiquated model for many students. Podcasting means that students no longer have to attend their college classes to be in ‘attendance.’ MIT is giving access to all of their courses for free on the Net. The world, as Thomas Friedman suggests, is becoming very flat and very connected. And information — the prime currency of education’s past — is no longer held as a monopoly by schools and libraries alone. Instead, learning is becoming less and less about getting information, and more and more about evaluating and re-mashing information. This undoubtedly will have an impact on space design and allocation. And what school spaces actually engage learning and learners.

And none of this takes into consideration the growth of homeschooling, virtual schools and districts, early college programs, a re-branding of traditional vocational programs/spaces, political and social demands split between a ‘back to basics’ vs. a ‘the world is flat’ approach to modern education, and the absolute fear that bullying, shootings, and terrorism puts our schools and students at great risk.

In short, the rising generation of “digital natives” and the increasing pressure on school facilities to support vast new ways of learning (on top of the myriad of society’s needs that other organizations are less and less able to serve) challenges us all. We believe that each of us, very school design stakeholder, must re-imagine the very foundations of what educational facilities will mean in the future. This is true in ever corner of the globe whether in Melbourne, Glasgow, Austin, Sowetto, Singapore, Chicago, Jakarta, Oslo, or San Paulo. And we’re just beginning to get our hands wrapped around what a true 21st century learning environment means.

So, once again think of that child born today in 2006. Potentially graduating in 2024. How will the act of learning and the spaces to serve a learning life evolve? And are we prepared to support them based on the facility decisions were making today?

We welcome your answers, suggestions, ideas, and collaboration!

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