A new Gensler study* [pdf], discussed in Fast Co.exist (or however one should write that-- the whole project is so typographically challenging the brand become impossible to find among all the pretty pictures and pull quotes), looks at student use of space on college campuses. The big news is that while we assume that today's college students are all like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, all members of a hive mind inaccessible to anyone over 26, they complain most about their campuses not having enough really quiet study space:
Quiet space to work alone, and, in particular, the lack of enough of it on campus, was an issue for the students we surveyed. More than 70% of students we questioned said they prefer to work alone as opposed to in a group. And indeed, students reported spending 44% (by far the largest portion) of their on-campus time “studying-working alone.” But fewer than one-third said on-campus spaces supported their activities effectively. Specifically, their preferred “alone” work space--the library--is not delivering. Students told us they simply aren’t finding enough space and/or enough quiet space there.
Campus 3.0 needs to rethink the real purpose of the campus library in the 21st century and the trend of moving in cafes and even more technology where once there were stacks of research books. Perhaps the space once occupied by academic tomes--now headed for deep storage--needs less coffee klatch and fewer computers and more “alone” study space.
I think we vastly, vastly underestimate the value of quiet and silence. If you're a road warrior, think about how often you need to find quiet space to take or make phone calls, participate in conference calls, etc.. If you're not, think about how much silence can support deep thinking and concentration. So it should come as no surprise at all that "despite all of this connectivity" offered by the modern campus, "independence and study-alone time are the factors that define today’s student experience."
Unfortunately, though, campuses have been pulling up individual study spaces for the last decade, gleefully replacing carrels and other private spaces with collaborative zones, tech centers, etc.. The prevailing rhetoric of laboratory and library design has been that collaboration is everything, that innovation is the product of random serendipitous exchanges in public spaces between people working in vastly different disciplines who would never have met were it not for their standing at the same line at the Korean taco truck. In this vision, students are effectively dumb nodes in a smart network-- or more accurately, it doesn't' matter how smart the nodes are, because the interesting stuff emerges our of the interactions of the parts: intelligence is an emergent phenomena, innovation is serendipity, and whatever we did a generation ago must be stupid and obsolete.
* Now, one should take this kind of report with a grain of salt: after all, Gensler is in the business of selling architectural services, and this report's biggest conclusion is that colleges need… the sorts of services that a firm like Gensler sells, because there's pent-up student need and because "campus design has not kept up with... pedagogical aspirations." Which is a sentence I think could have been written any time between about 1700 and today, and would be true. Campuses are always behind the curve, because buildings are expensive, and colleges usually have more pressing things to pay for than new buildings.