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Designing the Space: A Conversation with William J. Mitchell

Syllabus interviews William J. Mitchell, Dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, about the design of technology-enhanced learning spaces. Active on both academic and research frontiers, Mitchell is also head of the Media Arts and Sciences Program at the MIT Media Lab.

SYLLABUS: I’d like to explore your ideas about learning spaces for higher education—particularly any design changes that we’ll see as we move forward with digital technology and new forms of communication that change the way we work and interact.
WILLIAM: I think there’s a fundamental change going on right now. Over the last couple of decades there have been a lot of attempts to create high-tech educational spaces that have all sorts of technology built into them, like computers and video projectors—very complex, specialized facilities to support education in various ways. With the emergence of portable wireless technology, that’s becoming less and less necessary. What we’re starting to see is the emergence of spaces that are designed around human rather than technological needs. The spaces are pleasant and have a nice ambience to them, and you can just use your wireless laptop there or whatever you may need to use; but the space is not built around that because it d'esn’t have to be. That’s a very interesting and exciting development.

S: Do you see collaboration being important to this change?
WJM: Certainly. Two types of collaboration, both synchronous and asynchronous. We’re going to see, particularly as greater bandwidth becomes available, more and more use of video conferencing and other collaboration technologies, just as a matter of course, to integrate remote participants into discussions. Incidentally, I see that as much more of an import technology rather than an export technology. There was a lot of interest for quite a while in using video techniques to beam out lectures to wide audiences. I never found that very interesting. What’s much more interesting is to bring a remote guest into a seminar, to bring resources into a classroom, to bring collaborators into a process in ways that hadn’t been possible in the past. So that’s one important part of it. Another important part is just being able to quickly access accumulated online material in context. One of the exciting things I find in seminars now is that students all come in with their wireless laptops, and in the course of the seminar they source in and pull into the conversation material that’s relevant to the discussion at hand; and that can be very exciting.

S: And that’s something that they could perhaps act on and change dynamically with the media that’s available?
WJM: Exactly. All of this comes down to the point that the high-quality education, high-quality learning, face-to-face situations remain enormously important. The architectural settings to structure face-to-face interactions are very, very important indeed, and we can enrich those settings by overlaying them with digital technology.

S: You mentioned collaboration as an import technology with the idea of importing guest lecturers or experts to add to the experience that the students are having. Do you see this also as a way of democratizing education for students in general?
WJM: Yes, very much so. There are all kinds of complicated resource constraints that exist in the educational world that are not educationally beneficial. For example, I frequently teach design studios, and an important component of the design studio is to be able to have eminent architects to act as critics in the studio. The problem with that is that eminent architects have demanding practices that take them to the far corners of the world, and it’s very difficult to get them physically in the studio at a particular moment. But if you can establish a remote connection, then it becomes possible to access a whole lot of people and make use of them in ways that simply have been infeasible in the past; so it absolutely expands the availability of human resources. Now I don’t mean that as a substitute for the face-to-face; I mean that as an augmentation and a way of expanding the community.

S: How do you assess, when you have designed a space, the degree to which it will be strong or weak in supporting a particular educational process?
WJM: Really the only way you can do it is by observing it over time. It’s something that is actually relatively rarely done just because of the way spaces get made. I think you tend to build them and put them into use and go on to the next thing, and there is not as much systematic evaluation as there should be. But I think one of the really important things is going to be, as new technologies keep moving into learning spaces, to do systematic evaluative work to figure out how they work—not just immediately, but over the long term, because architecture is a long-term thing.

S: Based on your experience, are there some case studies or other sorts of models or information that would suggest that particular kinds of spaces that are good and effective in supporting specific kinds of teaching? Could you point to some outstanding examples at various institutions?
WJM: Let me go back to the point that I began with. I think the spaces that work well over the long term are spaces that are built around very fundamental human needs like comfort, natural light, operable windows, good social ambience, nice sort of quality, views out the window. All these sorts of things are immensely important, and because people don’t change very much, those things remain important. If you build space around specific technology, it very rapidly becomes obsolete because technology changes very quickly, and it’s also the wrong priority. You really want to build space around the people rather than technology. We’ve seen it with computer technology. It’s very interesting if you look back over several decades. It used to be that spaces for engagement with computers were very much dominated by the needs of the computers—specialized computer rooms and computer labs that had lighting conditions and air conditioning and so on—really those spaces were aimed towards the care and feeding of the computer, and people in the space just had to tolerate that. Then with personal computers, machines became more robust and more distributed into everyday working environments, but they were still at fixed locations and so you got stuck in your cubicle like Dilbert because you had to work with your machine. Now what’s happening is, as technology becomes more portable and robust, and much less demanding in its environmental requirements, you don’t build a space around a laptop; you just take a laptop to a space where you like to be.

S: D'es that make the design of the spaces less challenging then?
WJM: No, it makes it actually more challenging, because the hardest thing is to make good humane spaces that people are excited to be in and stimulated by and that really support their work. It’s fairly easy actually to design a space that meets very specific technical requirements and take that as a kind of excuse for not addressing other architectural issues. It’s actually much tougher to focus on the fundamentals of architecture.

You really can’t separate the issues of technology
and the space that accommodates it at this point—
you have to think of the two of them together.

S: If you were designing a teaching space today, would there be any design strategies that you would be especially enthusiastic about or any that you would be careful to avoid?
WJM: I’ve said the rigidity of building space around particularly technologies is certainly to be avoided. Then design strategies of as much flexibility as possible, as much accommodation of unexpected interactions and learning strategies as possible is really what you want to go for.

S: Is there an example of some of that flexibility that you could give me?
WJM: Let me give you an example from the design studios of MIT, which is pretty close to home, and I’ve been observing them very closely as they’ve evolved over the last few years. A few years back when we did some big renovations, we of course wired up the studio and provided networking at every student desk and power supply at every student desk, and that turned out to be an effective thing for its time. We put a lot of desktop computers into the studio. That worked pretty well, but it did have the disadvantage that if you wanted to look at student work you had to go to their computer. At the same time we also put in a little café right in the heart of the studio space with lots of café tables. What we see these days is a huge amount of the real learning action is actually taking place at the café tables rather than what’s formally designated as workspace. Students sit there, have discussions; they have their portable technology with them so they’re not disconnected when they go to those locations. So there’s really been a very powerful shift from these kinds of highly specialized, fairly rigidly organized spaces to ad hoc grouping and much more flexible space use in spaces that you would not even have thought of as workspace before.

S: You say that the students seem to sort of gravitate towards that café space. Do you suppose that’s because of the novelty or because that particular architect hit on something that works?
WJM: Well, it’s a nice space to be, and people do tend to vote with their feet and gravitate to nice spaces if they don’t have something constraining them to somewhere else. There’s always the possibility of novelty effect, but that’s why you have to look at spaces to see what happens over the long term.

S: In the facilities planning process at higher education institutions, who would ideally be included in the input? And in reality, who would normally be included? In other words, is there adequate and appropriate outreach to the ultimate users of these spaces?
WJM: It varies enormously from project to project and from institution to institution, but I think in general there’s probably not enough direct engagement of the end users, particularly the student end users, in the process. It’s challenging to structure a process that really accomplishes that. Also, you have to keep in mind that students are a relatively transient population and administrators and faculty members have to be able to deal with the situation over the long term. Nonetheless, I think real effort at much more serious engagement of the end users is always a good thing to do and something that is often neglected. The other thing I’d say is that at this point you really have to put architects and technology people together at the very beginning of the process. They have to really interact with each other so that each group understands what the other has to say. You really can’t separate the issues of technology and the space that accommodates it at this point—you have to think of the two of them together.

S: Are academic institutions as a rule really all that much ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating future needs for instructional spaces?
WJM: No, I’d say they often tend to be very conservative and relatively unimaginative about these things.

S: What could they do better? What kind of advice could they take from you in terms of planning a little better?
WJM: I think you have to do experiments. We’re in a period of extremely rapid change. It’s easy enough to speculate about what might work, but there’s a difference between speculation and evidence. I think is extremely important for academic institutions to do, wherever they can, lots of small-scale, adventurous experiments and really monitor the results and try to build up a reliable experience base rather than depend on preconceptions and prejudices.

Technology is going to become simultaneously
more sophisticated, less obtrusive, and less visible...

S: Do you think campuses are in fact likely settings for these kinds of experiments? You’d think that the environment of education would be just absolutely the prime kind of place to experiment. Do you think that’s the reality of it, or do you think campuses are going to continue to be conservative?
WJM: I must say, there has been a lot of experimentation at MIT in the last few years, and I think that’s the right direction. We have learned a lot from the experimentation, and I think we’re not alone in that. So yes, some campuses are beginning to experiment. But there’s a factor that works against it—buildings are expensive. People want to minimize risk in construction projects and so may get organized in a very bureaucratic way. It’s risk minimization rather than experimentation. That’s in fact very shortsighted, and it really is important to be more adventurous and experimental.

S: Do you think wireless technologies are going to lessen the risk because you may not have to lay wired connections?
WJM: We’re always going to have a combination of wired and wireless infrastructure. As you know, what wireless really d'es is to connect you to the nearest point of fixed infrastructure, and the fixed infrastructure usually takes it from there, so the wired infrastructure in fact d'esn’t go away. And wired infrastructure is always going to be more reliable. I think the need to accommodate wired infrastructure and to invest in it and to provide things like wiring closets and conduits and network drops and all of those sorts of things, that’s not going to go away. Wireless is not a substitute for that. What it d'es is provide flexibility in space use on top of that, to remove some of the rigidities in space use, but I don’t think it really reduces very much the need to invest in a basic wired infrastructure.

S: In general, are campus learning spaces now being designed more for multiple uses, and do you see an effort to serve a range of instructional formats, especially in the light of technology-enabled classrooms?
WJM: It’s hard to generalize but yes, I think there’s a growing realization that flexibility is important, that the new technologies allow much more flexibility, and yes, one ought to try to take advantage of that.

S: What changes will we see in learning spaces on campuses in the future? How will new forms of digital communication, interaction, and information delivery impact choices about the design of physical spaces?
WJM: Technology is going to become simultaneously more sophisticated, less obtrusive, and less visible. It’s going to kind of disappear into the woodwork and into very unobtrusive portable devices. Actually I think what we’re going to see is not a kind of scenario of very fancy specialized high-tech instructional spaces. Quite the opposite, we’ll see spaces becoming more and more simple in a way, human-oriented. We’ll see things like outdoor space, in the right climates anyway, much more utilized. If you can get wireless reception outside under a tree on a nice day, there isn’t any great reason to be in the classroom anymore. I think it’ll be the amazing disappearing technology basically, so it’ll be omnipresent and supporting learning activities in a very flexible kind of way, but it won’t be dominant and it won’t be highly visible.

S: Do you see any particular technologies being really key? I know you’re talking about technologies being so integrated into what we do that they tend to be invisible, but are there any that will in fact stand out that will be important to everyone?
WJM: I think it’ll be a mix of things. Obviously Web-based, asynchronous, ubiquitous provision of learning materials is going to be one important thing, along with telecommunications for very flexibly establishing synchronous links. I think things like remotely operated sharable laboratories are going to be extremely interesting and a new way of thinking about resources. I think we’ll see increasingly sophisticated audiovisual capabilities being used. I don’t think that there are any great surprises in any of that, but I think we’ll really see all of those things developing and merging and defining a pretty seamless broad-based electronic learning environment.

S: What would you say is the main thing to consider about the design of future instructional spaces?
WJM: The fundamental point is that learning technology shouldn’t dominate. It should be unobtrusively and ubiquitously supportive and it should enable us to re-humanize learning spaces rather than make technologically oriented spaces. And one should allow an enormous amount of flexibility.

S: And is there a particular bit of wisdom about designing learning spaces that you always keep in mind?
WJM: The incredible unpredictability of the engagement of technology with culture is the lesson that comes out over and over again, which means you’ve got to be incredibly sensitive to the way technology and culture come together and ready to rethink assumptions and develop new experiments and transform the way you do things. You’ve got to be able to turn on a dime.

[Editor’s note: William Mitchell will be the opening keynote at the Syllabus fall2003 conference in Cambridge, Mass., December 9, 2003.]



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