The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) just wrapped up their 51st annual conference in Vancouver, BC. The event drew in large numbers of campus planners, architects, and consultants from across North America looking for knowledge and exposure to emerging issues and trends impacting higher education and campus design.

At BrightTree Studios we are committed to designing technology that complements and drives student collaboration, innovation, engagement, and pedagogy and attending a conference that aligns so well with our areas of expertise was not only insightful but incredibly eye-opening as well. Below are a few key takeaways that I wanted to share:

Virtual Reality Is Happening

We’ve known this for a while, but it’s incredible to see the ways in which Universities are embracing this technology and the numerous ways it is being deployed to revolutionize the ways we teach and learn.  For example, The University of British Columbia’s School of Law created an experimental virtual reality classroom called Project Oculus. Professor Jon Festinger taught a 4th year law course to seven students who “attended class” remotely by using Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets. Jon simultaneously taught a classroom full of students in-person. When asked to summarize the experience, he shared: “What became clear is that immersive 3D devices have the potential to really work in an educational context. Before this experiment, such a future seemed like pure science fiction. It does not anymore.”

To read more on this VR classroom experiment and the student’s reactions, please visit:

The University of Toledo has also embraced this technology and created an Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center which houses a virtual, cadaver laboratory. The professors have saved over 200 teaching hours per year by selectively creating experiences such as the dissection of a virtual corpse.

Online Learning for Accreditation

In 2014, I wrote an article on “Online Learning and the Future of Higher Education” which considered how universities should leverage online learning technology to provide accredited degrees. At SCUP, I learned that Arizona State University has partnered with EdX to create a “Global Freshman Academy” that allows any perspective college student across the globe to take any ASU freshman class online for free. Once this accredited class is successfully completed, the student will receive full accreditation for the course at ASU. That means a student in Australia can complete their entire freshman year of course work through online learning and then start their sophomore year on campus. I think this is a beautiful model with numerous advantages for both the student and university.

Pedagogy Models Need Updating

If you were to compare an image of a typical classroom with one from the 1800s, you’d find many striking similarities. Too many. It’s a painful reminder that while much has changed in the last two centuries, our learning environments have been slow to adapt, evolve and respond. With younger generations learning to use an iPad before they can walk—why aren’t we changing our learning environments to respond to this? Technology is in every facet of our daily lives and it needs to be part of the learning experience.

That isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom, circa 1816. In fact, I had the opportunity to discuss some of the novel ways universities are modifying their approach to teaching and grading; collecting feedback and data; organizing semesters and length of degree programs; as well as space planning. Below are some of the captivating highlights:

Stanford’s Open Loop University brings an end to the culture of generating alumni in favor of lifetime students. Instead of devoting four years to higher education between 18 – 22 years of age, studies suggest students should receive six years of learning over a lifetime. This allows them to study at a range of ages, using knowledge obtained across classroom and practical settings to enrich campus life and themselves. It also provides support to seasoned adults seeking to pivot their career with long-standing relationships within the academic community.

Cathy Davidson of CUNY Graduate School and University Center shared an anecdote with me suggesting that assigning grades is an outdated model of recognition and achievement that we should abandon. She cited the government mandate to use a grading system to certify cuts of meat. The meat industry concluded that a grading system was a “gross oversimplification” of the product. And she’s right. Standard grading does the same disservice. Rather than assigning letter grades, she’s advocating for recognizing students for knowledge areas, skillsets and expertise. For example, instead of receiving a B-, the student would receive “badges” that are accumulated to show the student’s actual strengths across all courses. Anyone a GoT fan? Consider the individual links of a Maester’s chain and you get the idea. Mozilla’s Open Badges is a good example of this style of recognition. Stanford University’s Axis Flip also promotes the idea that students should be recognized for skill development rather than knowledge in a particular discipline.

Research shows that students consider long, hand-written critiques from professors as negative. However, if the same information is shared through an audio file, the student feels decidedly empowered. When asked, “why?” a student stated that the audio file “felt like the professor is over my shoulder helping me.”This use of simple technology creates a positive behavioral change for students receiving feedback and we should think about how other small, technological modifications can enhance student life.

Bill McIntosh
President | BrightTree Studios