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College/University Walls of Varying Heights

What if the on-campus/off-campus distinction were not binary but rather a continuum?

Photo of Dan Ryan
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Many institutions of higher education are surrounded by walls that serve as a brilliant metaphor for how they function: you are either in or out, on campus or off campus, enrolled or just a passerby (footnote: there are also lots of institutions that do not follow this model - this post is, in part, an exhortation to recognize the difference and a suggestion that some institutional learning and innovation might be in order for those that do).In the 1970s the architect Oscar Newman wrote a book called Defensible Space about the design of public housing. One element of his model was the idea of a hierarchy of publicness/privateness: bedroom - living room - doorway - hallway - lobby - sidewalk.

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Residents have more control/privacy/ownership at the bedroom end of the spectrum than they have at the sidewalk in front of the building end.  Newman advocated for designers to signal and facilitate these gradations in the physical design of spaces. 

The core of this idea is that spaces can have a broad range of access options and being more accessible and more open does not mean eliminating the traditional model which we know works well for many folks.  Being open to the community does not mean you can't have a research library or labs where students and scientists work "behind closed doors." It just means that we consciously and deliberately and to mutual advantage have a lot more doors open.

An example of this hierarchy can also be seen in, say, a city restaurant where we see a 

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gradation from back-of-the-house kitchen and offices to dining room to seats by the window to al fresco dining area separated from sidewalk by planters to a take-away window to the public sidewalk where people pass by. Such an establishment has the infrastructure to feed diners who approach it in a wide range of ways.

What if we conceptualized the educational offerings of our institution in a similar hierarchy? At one extreme we have casual learning opportunities on the "drop ins welcome" model. Then events such as concerts and shows.  Next might come one off weekend workshops. Then short run, non-credit evening courses, then maybe single credit night classes. Next we'd get part-time and continuing ed classes. Eventually we'd arrive at the other end of the spectrum: full time, perhaps residential, traditional degree programs.

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The smart institution can make this part of a financially sustainable model by recognizing that it has re-usable learning resources and that there is a long tail in the market for learning.  If we focus our innovative imaginations on building the infrastructure - rules, protocols, marketing, technology, etc. - that would support this then "disruption" does not need to be a threat to conventional higher education. Instead, it can both save it and enhance its capacity to serve society. 

Specifically, please check all that apply:

  • A group brainstorm

Tell us about your work experience:

Professor at InnovationLab@Mills College in Oakland, California.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Focus on building institutional infrastructure that facilitates real innovation rather than just on another product or service.


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Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Dan!

Thank you for another great post. It reminds me of Melissa Castro 's post on Colleges Connecting with Communities . 

I wonder how an increasingly more 'open' design could be achieved with current Universities at low cost.

Photo of Dan Ryan

Good eye, Kate! I was inspired by conversation with Melissa the other day in our innovation in higher education class.  

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