The Future Connection

An explosion of information in the last decade has sent waves of change through just about every aspect of our culture. This phenomenon and the momentum it has created will, more than any other force, have a dramatic influence on the educational environment.

As a new century begins, school designers are confronted with the task of retrofitting solid buildings that were designed and constructed as many as 100 years ago, while at the same time designing prototype schools that will last-and function efficiently-for another 100 years.

Architects and designers spend a lot of time observing the educational environment, looking for what works and what does not. We also look for signs to help us anticipate change and find creative solutions.

By creating design solutions to meet these challenges, and talking with educators, administrators, parents, engineers, planners and builders, we have developed a vision of schools for the new millennium.

Plugged in Computers will be present throughout a school, and today's state-of-the-art raised floors to accommodate wires and cables will gradually be replaced by wireless technology.

Access to information-management systems and communications technology is already beginning to both alter and support the relationships among students, teachers and formal learning. In schools of the future, students will be more self-directed and hands-on in their search for knowledge; teachers will become facilitators instead of instructors or lecturers; learning will be multidisciplinary and focused on higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills with group and individual participation.

Flexibility and adaptability will become the key to these new environments. Multilingual, multicultural and specialized programs-including those considered as "universal design" for special-education purposes-will demand these characteristics.

Specialty programs with low student-teacher ratios dictate smaller rooms. At the same time, the omnipresence of technology and more individualized study patterns of students may require varied floor plans instead of traditional fixed-capacity classrooms. There also will be a need for flexible space to accommodate student interaction for group problem-solving and hands-on exploration of the physical world in a learning laboratory or studio format.

Independent study will transform the classroom into a mini-resource center linked to the electronic world of knowledge. As bound volumes are transferred to electronic format, the shelves and stacks of books in today's library/resource centers will be obsolete. In their place we may find a large, multimedia seminar room devoted to discussions of information retrieval or the sharing of ideas.

As students pursue knowledge, mixed-age groupings may replace the traditional "grade" classrooms. Spaces for groups to assemble for social activities will be critical to balance the isolating tendencies of this highly individualized learning environment. The school setting may take on the appearance of some offices that feature a combination of private carrels and open studio space, where pupils can roam and interact with facilitators.

The costs of technology and communications equipment for schools will continue to challenge planners to be economical in their choice of building materials. Low-maintenance, long-lasting materials, such as steel frame, masonry, burnished block and terrazzo have proven themselves in school construction. They are likely to move us into the future with finishes and detailing that reflect the diversity of the users. Environmental concerns will lead to the use of alternative mechanical systems to save energy.

Sharing resources The isolation of schools will end as schools evolve into learning centers linked electronically to other institutions across town or on the other side of the world. This virtual connection will be paralleled by a literal connection at the local level. Schools will become identified as community centers, providing access to information technology and spaces for performances, meetings or athletics.

Communities all over the nation are embracing the concept of designing buildings that can function as schools and community centers. Public funding is likely to remain scarce, as schools compete with a host of other public priorities.

Merging schools and community centers has economic and social advantages. In urban areas,where land for school construction is scarce, not all schools will be able to provide fully equipped facilities for competitive athletics, dance, swimming or other physical activities. However, neighborhood schools could share a state-of-the-art neighborhood fitness/athletic site with the community at large. While community residents may benefit from the availability of communications resources at the neighborhood school, students may reap the social benefits of interacting with young adults on the community basketball court.

Bringing schools and their communities together will be increasingly important as we usher in a new millennium. As we use technology to connect ourselves and our children to the rest of the world, we must be careful to provide the opportunity and appropriate settings for maintaining the person-to-person connections that make us human.

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