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
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
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
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
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
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.]