Produced by Carmen Mendoza
Following is a transcript of the conversation.
“So we are getting the results we are getting, which are less than good, as a sector. And if you want to get different results, you might want to try different kinds of approaches to get to those results.” —Sukhwant Jhaj
Scott Carlson: Hello, I’m Scott Carlson, and welcome to The Evolving Campus. The voice you just heard is Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement at Arizona State University. Sukhwant was trained as an architect, but much of his career has been spent in innovation and student-success initiatives at Arizona State, and before that, at Portland State University. In this episode, we’re going to talk about how student success, the pandemic, and other challenges facing higher education can be addressed through good design.
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Produced by Carmen Mendoza
Following is a transcript of the conversation.
“So we are getting the results we are getting, which are less than good, as a sector. And if you want to get different results, you might want to try different kinds of approaches to get to those results.” —Sukhwant Jhaj
Scott Carlson: Hello, I’m Scott Carlson, and welcome to The Evolving Campus. The voice you just heard is Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement at Arizona State University. Sukhwant was trained as an architect, but much of his career has been spent in innovation and student-success initiatives at Arizona State, and before that, at Portland State University. In this episode, we’re going to talk about how student success, the pandemic, and other challenges facing higher education can be addressed through good design.
This podcast is sponsored by Perkins Eastman. Halfway through the episode, you’ll hear a bit about classroom space from Josh Jackson, senior associate at Perkins Eastman, along with Brock Read, editor of The Chronicle. Now, back to Scott.
Carlson: Sukhwant Jhaj, welcome to The Evolving Campus.
Sukhwant Jhaj: Well, thanks for having me.
Carlson: So let me ask you, as a designer, did the pandemic expose any weaknesses in the design of learning spaces or how we approach a physical campus?
Jhaj: Absolutely. I mean the pandemic almost offered us a completely new vantage point from where we can look at the functioning of the university, including learning spaces. Now, if you just sort of step back for a minute and look at how we designed a university, we’ve designed them, for the most part, for in-person instruction. And the form that emerged as a result of pandemic was this need for creating hybrid learning spaces. Some of our classroom spaces were designed for it, but not all of them. And clearly there was a gap in terms of a need.
Secondly, pandemic made it very clear to us how much social learning mattered, because it made it next to impossible for the kind of learning that we had designed these spaces for. People were in close proximity to each other, they were thinking together and working together and imagining things, and if you were in art studios, painting and drawing and so on. But all of that work was constrained due to the limits placed by pandemic. So it really forced us to rethink, forced us to look at what we were doing from new vantage points, and how we approach the design of physical spaces on campus.
Carlson: So what are the big changes you see coming out of that, then? What will spaces look like in the years to come?
Jhaj: I think there are a couple of things in play. All right, I get this question all the time: Are we going to need lecture halls now, because we have built this capacity for delivering learning and delivering interactivity online? And there, one must realize that the design of building, the architecture on a campus, is a reflection of the systems that are in place. Now, we have known for a long time that you can have fantastic learning in modes of deliveries other than large lecture halls. But lecture halls persist.
So I’m sure there will be a lot of things that will change as a result of pandemic. But unless there is a structural shift in how we imagine the future of learning as a result of pandemic, I fear we might revert back to the kind of behavior we saw pre-pandemic. Right? So we know what is good for our students, but not all of us are engaged in that activity. Now the kinds of changes I foresee: I believe that there’ll be almost a new form, a new scaling, of synchronous learning. Usually, large institutions delivered large-scale, in-person instruction, and they had footprints in online learning. This in-between space where our work was happening, and learning was delivered digitally, but not in the same place — I believe that will grow. A whole new market, a whole new segment, would probably emerge as a result of it. Secondly, I see an emerging focus on building interactivity and synchronicity in online learning, as well as bringing people into the classroom from locations around the world. I mean, that practice — it just got scaled up in the middle of pandemic to a completely new level, and I believe that is going to continue.
If you look at every sector of the economy, there was a rapid movement from in-person delivery to building capacity for digital delivery across the sector, and that capacity is here to stay in most cases. That is going to have an impact on the academic portfolios, on the kinds of segments of students institutions serve, on their overall strategy, and all of that can then have an impact on the systems that drive really the educational institutions. So I foresee all kinds of changes, particularly in this in-between hybrid space. But large lecture halls, unless there is a fundamental shift and a realization that there is a better way to serve our students, a better way to support their learning, I think they might be still around for a little while.
Carlson: So these big changes that you see coming, how do they interact with some of the other big kinds of impacts that are going to be coming for higher education? What are these other factors that are in play right now?
Jhaj: The way in which universities approach buildings, or just construction in general on campuses, is I think one of the clearest reflection of strategies those institutions are deploying in relation to what’s happening both externally and internally in those organizations. So what are those big things I see affecting higher ed at this time? One, clearly, there’s this talk of enrollment cliff, that we are heading towards a significant period of decline in number of students who are going to be entering college. And as a result, institutions might take a variety of approaches to attract students to their institutions. So that’s one thing.
Secondly, the impact of pandemic is real, it has shifted people’s thinking, it is going to continue to affect the way in which we approach, and we are really not out of it yet. I think that is the second thing that I believe is here and is going to continue to impact the way in which we think and the way in which we work. The other thing that is going to have an impact on the design of universities, their systems, their architecture, and their spaces is responding to this huge polarization that exists in the nation. Universities are one of those few places where Americans who think very differently, who have different political beliefs, religious beliefs, and cultural beliefs come together, they think together, they work together, they create knowledge together.
So clearly, as the country gets more polarized, that is most certainly a place that universities will have to navigate. And they’ll have to navigate in terms of design of its places. I’m curious to see what would emerge. How would the classroom space change to respond to this so we can facilitate new forms of pedagogies that result in people thinking and working together across difference? This is the third big thing I see having an impact on the design of learning delivery and spaces.
And lastly, I think a significant change is going to take place in the nature of work to do emerging technologies: AI, machine learning, others. It’s going to have an impact on the academic portfolio, because the work that students have to do outside is going to change. So the academic portfolios will change, and that would have, in turn, an impact on how learning is designed and delivered. And the functioning that takes place inside the institution will change, because of the introduction of these technologies and how we design services, or how we help students navigate the curriculum, or how a course in itself is experienced. So these four broad areas — enrollment cliff, the impact of Covid, working across differences due to the increased polarization in the nation, and emerging technologies — all will have an impact on the design of college campuses and the student experience within those colleges.
Carlson: So much of what you were just talking about as these challenges add only to the challenge of student success and making students more successful in college, which is something that higher-education institutions have really struggled with. What, in your opinion, is the relationship between design and student-success initiatives?
Jhaj: We face two kinds of challenges that we must deal with simultaneously. So there are these short-term challenges of keeping our organizations thriving and at the same time, imagining for the long-term future. And the administrators and educational institutions must be ambidextrous in their response and must focus both on short-term success while leading this long-term reimagination and transformation of their institution. And here, design is absolutely crucial in both those bodies of work. So in one case, they must understand who the students are today and make sure that they are taking that group of students’ needs into account, because student body is shifting very rapidly, and unless you respond to that student need, you understand it better, you’re going to face existential challenges.
At the same time, they must imagine new design futures. Like for example, an institution facing the demographic cliff might respond in two completely different ways. One might try to attract, from a very limited pool of middle-class students, a larger share by designing exciting spaces. The other might design a completely different learning experience to support students who might need additional academic support. Placing students at the center is an essential contribution, I believe, of embedding design practices and design thinking into the problem-solving approaches of the institution.
At the same time, one of the key things you learn in design school, and I’m going back here a little while, is this idea of reframing. Continue to reframe the problem, to see it anew. The focus is on things that are absolutely timely and critical. And that’s what you have to do for the long run, to see the challenges from a new vantage point. I believe design as a practice, design as a theoretical framework, is absolutely critical for educational institutions to imagine a robust future.
Carlson: We’re going to take a brief break for a message from our sponsor.
Brock Read: Hi, I’m Brock Read, I’m the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’m really happy to be here today with Josh Jackson. Josh is a senior associate, strategist, and design researcher at Perkins Eastman. Josh, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
Josh Jackson: Thanks so much. My pleasure.
Read: So, Josh, we’re talking about classroom space today. Covid has really accelerated the rise of hybrid learning. Professors have had to lecture to students both in the classroom and to students tuning in remotely. Some have loved it, some have found it to be pretty awkward. I wanted to ask you: What type of an impact do you think this momentum around hybrid learning might have on the classroom as a physical space?
Jackson: Great question. It’s also worth noting that hybrid learning has meant some different things over the years, and only really with Covid has it come to mean this mix of in-person and remote learning. So when we think about classrooms that support this kind of hybrid learning, we want to make sure that we’re thinking about making changes and investments that are going to have impacts beyond just this moment and that really have a positive impact from a pedagogical standpoint. Something that we’ve heard about is that this model is very frustrating, and that there’s different experiences and actually some real equity issues versus who can participate in person and who participates remotely. And so again, this is something that we want to be careful about reconfiguring classrooms to reinforce this model.
That being said, there are some things that designers can do with classrooms to make them more effective for this kind of mode of learning. Some of the most important things have to do with screens. In a traditional classroom, you might have one screen in the front of the room, which is sharing presentation materials. We’re really seeing that there’s a need for a secondary screen in the front of the room, so that the students who are participating in person can see the faces of those that are joining remotely and have some kind of engagement.
At the same time, there needs to be screens in the back of the room so that the instructor is not just seeing the faces of the students who are in person, but those that are joining remotely. Similarly there’s a lot of challenges around audio. Boosting audio in classroom is something that’s beneficial from a number of angles, including accessibility. While something like a lavalier mic might have worked in a previous format, we’re seeing a need for ceiling-mounted and even beam-forming systems, which can pick up different speakers from the room, so that if somebody in the classroom asks a question, those participating remotely can hear it clearly.
Read: With that said, let me ask another question in the same vein. The large lecture hall — that’s long been a staple of the campus teaching environment, but of course, it hasn’t made nearly as much sense during the pandemic to be cramming 100 students into one big room. What about that space? Does that have a future? Is the future of that changing?
Jackson: I think there were a lot of us that were seeing the declining use of the lecture hall before the pandemic, and this may be accelerating that trend. That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the campus is — one of the activities is the learning and the formal education, but there’s also a lot of activities and events and conferences that take place on colleges and universities. And the lecture hall, the auditorium, is going to continue playing a role for many ancillary functions on a campus. As we think of the future, and if you can’t get rid of those lecture halls, how can we modulate them or make them more multimodal so that they can work for different kinds of functions?
One of the simple adjustments that we’ve seen as being very effective is — if there is a tiered environment that can’t be removed — to just broaden those tiers so that you can actually have seats that would pivot and turn in, so that there can be a table and chairs, and you can have an alternate mode that uses small-group learning within a lecture hall. So broadening those tiers is one key step. Along with that, you can also put writable surfaces on some of the back of those tiered environments, so again, to support small-group learning.
Read: Josh, are there new types of classroom spaces or new types of learning spaces that are actually outside the classroom that now feel like they’re increasingly important as a result of the pandemic? I mean you mentioned flexibility, and I’ve also heard that students who spent their first year studying remotely missed a whole year of learning how to learn, and they might need some spaces to reacclimate them to that process. What different types of spaces seem to be drawing people’s attention right now?
Jackson: Perkins Eastman actually conducted a research project during the Covid crisis. We called it the Learning Futures Project, where we engaged with academics and administrators and technologists at institutions around the country. Folks were telling us that they were seeing a synthesis of things that had previously been in the world of academic affairs and student affairs, and that the role of counselors and people who are thinking about wellness and the roles of those who had been involved with education and the transfer of knowledge were coming together.
And so what that means from a facility standpoint I think is still being articulated, but it means that there’s going to be student-success centers, different types of environments where students are getting support for a range of different needs, academic and nonacademic, to make sure that they are equipped to learn and that they are equipped to gain the maximum benefit from the educational programs that are offered at each institution.
Read: Josh, this has been really, really fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Jackson: This has been a really fascinating conversation. Thanks so much.
Carlson: We’re back once again with Sukhwant Jhaj. I mean one of the things involved in that design thinking when you’re thinking about how to solve these problems and looking at the problem in new ways, as you just talked about, is to try to see the things you didn’t see before, in terms of what’s causing the problems. When you think about student success, what are some of the overlooked needs that students have? What are the things that administrators are commonly not seeing in the problem?
Jhaj: So in America, and these stats change a little bit, but if you go by income quartiles you find that students who come from the top income quartile are graduating at around 80 percent by age 24, and in the bottom income quartile, the number is 13 percent. And we have made, in the bottom income quartile, maybe 3, 4 percent gain in the last 30 years. So in general, we find that we have made very little progress in serving low-income students on our campuses. It’s not to say that progress is not being made, but much of that progress accrues to a certain kind of students.
To address the need of all the students, we must then design our systems, design our services, design the learning architecture in a way that it is able to meet the needs of all the students. Meet them where they are, and from an equity perspective, then build the scaffolding, the architecture needed to make all of them successful. So one of the things we notice is much of the academic-support efforts that exist in the universities are place-based. Well, Covid forced us to think about it from a completely different point of view.
Much of the support, like tutoring and other services that sometimes students are somewhat hesitant to access, became online in this new modality, and all of a sudden are available to all students from any place throughout the day. They don’t have to drive to campus, they can be working from home. If they’re a commuter student, if they have a different kind of work schedule, they can still access services because of the shift in modality that is taking place. So this privileging of in-person delivery of services — move from that to a hybrid delivery or online delivery, which is a result largely of the constraints that were placed on us due to Covid, is really a positive step in creation of wraparound services that are needed to support all students.
Carlson: So in terms of wraparound services and some of these other kinds of supports that students need, from a physical standpoint, do you think it’s important that these sorts of things are co-located, that they’re in the same place on campus so that students can get access to them together?
Jhaj: I think co-location might be a great strategy for campuses of certain size or certain type. So clearly the critical challenge here is: Students know what the service is and know how to use it. So co-location might be a way in which we get them a quick introduction to what the service is, and then we teach them also how to use that service. Both of them are important, but institutions, if you have a multicampus location, if you are very large and scale, co-location might not be a viable strategy as such. But conceptually, the idea of helping students very quickly identify what their services are and also teaching them at the same time how to use them can result in these services having significant impact on student progress.
Carlson: Higher-education institutions can be kind of hidebound organizations. Is it difficult to implement some of these design solutions if there are already old structures in place at some of these institutions?
Jhaj: Change in general is difficult. So higher education as a sector, colleges and universities, are in the middle of significant change. And if you want to introduce new things, the pressure from the external environment, the need to change creates a right kind of environment for introduction of new kinds of problem-solving approaches, which is what design thinking and introduction of this designerly approaches to problem solving largely are. So we are getting the results we are getting, which are less than good, as a sector. And if you want to get different results, you might want to try different kinds of approaches to get to those results.
So the way in which we have been quite successful, or others who are using design thinking have been quite successful, is by placing students and employees at the core of the problem-solving process, by flipping this process from the design solutions coming from few to the idea of engagement of many through systematic process in advancing ideas. Here, there are certain things which are quite unique to design that might be of interest to administrators and others who are interested in leading change. And one of them is making things visible, so drawing, drawing out, visualization is a core part of design education. And when you do that as part of a change process, you can bring your community together, and you can bring it along, which is the two critical challenges of leading a successful transformation effort.
Majority of transformation efforts fail. If you want to be successful, you need to bring your community along in both problem posing, idea generation, this creating an image, a visualization of the future, and then this collective effort in getting there. We must find ways in which we unleash the creativity of all people who are part of the university. So this is faculty and staff and students, and we really ought to do better here. We do not design problem-solving strategies and methods that tap into the brilliance of hundreds and thousands of people. I think this idea of collective design is something that is worth exploring for educational institutions, and it could be a great way.
Carlson: So is design often a top-down process at most universities, where it should not be?
Jhaj: I think in general, in this sector, I would say it’s very much a top-down effort, yeah. We believe in the brilliance of the few. And clearly we have designed a system that works for people who are capable of being successful in that system, students coming from a middle-class family and others. And we need to design a new kind of system, which will require the engagement of faculty, staff, and students, particularly those for whom the system is not designed. What are their needs, how can we design learning spaces that are responsive to what they need, and how can we design learning systems and support architecture that will make them successful?
Carlson: And what have you found are the most effective ways of trying to pull their voices up into the conversation?
Jhaj: We’ve done variety of things in this case. But first of all, you have to acknowledge that this is real work. This is not something that is an add-on, particularly with students. If you want to have engaged students from all communities to come in and engage with design process, you have to make sure that they are being paid for that effort, just as people, like me, who are engaged in this effort are getting paid. So we have tried to do that in the design efforts that we have led, and as a result, we have benefited from the brilliance of students engaging in the design process and idea generation and helping us advance our thinking.
So I think that’s a fairly important point. Designing new things is real work. It requires time and energy, so it simply can’t be a thing people can do on top of everything else that they are doing. So that’s the leadership obligation in this case: How do you create space and time?
As Lou Kahn would say, architecture creates the occasion for wonderful, great things to happen. I think that way of thinking can be applied in problem solving here as well. How do we create the occasion where our faculty, staff, and students can engage with the design process?
Carlson: Well, Sukhwant Jhaj, thank you so much for talking with us on The Evolving Campus.
Jhaj: It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Carlson: This has been The Evolving Campus, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast, sponsored by Perkins Eastman. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or on your favorite podcast app. I’m Scott Carlson.

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