Attaining and Sustaining a Dynamic Learning Environment

Stop for a moment and think about this: on any college or university campus, members of at least 3 generations are collectively working together to engage in learning, creativity, and discovery. Too often, we begin any description of higher education with the roles of student and teacher.  Better to think that we are a multi-generational community with a shared objective–hopefully, a shared passion–for learning. Passion both for our own learning, and for supporting a dynamic learning environment.

If we start from this alternate place, this shared objective and this diverse learning community, what would we want to emphasize?  How would we build and sustain a dynamic learning environment? I think we focus on these four things:

  • Personal relationships and connections
  • Intellectual fulfillment and growth
  • Uniqueness of experience
  • Shared Identity

Personal relationships and connections. A dynamic learning environment is interactive, with frequent and high quality interactions among students, faculty, staff, and friends. Of course, many of these interactions are conversations that we probably wouldn’t find anywhere else: engaging and exploring ideas and perspectives in a deep, critical, and thoughtful way. Yet there should also be many more: internships to connect students with alumni and friends, work-study opportunities to connect students with staff, living and learning communities to forge life-long personal bonds with peers, and “applied” instructional experiences outside of the traditional classroom where faculty and students can work closely together to conduct research, teach or tutor, develop creative work, or serve the campus or community.

Intellectual fulfillment and growth. A dynamic learning environment is flexible, where instructional activities and initiatives align and center on the learner. The conventions for delivering higher education instruction are so well assumed that it can be easy for faculty to think of instruction in terms of what happens in their own courses or labs. In a dynamic learning environment, in contrast, instruction is aligned systematically throughout the entire student experience. Units coordinate their curriculum both internally and with other units, instructional innovations are welcomed and studied for effectiveness, and student advising is centered on the whole student rather than on a transcript. Beyond the classroom, institutional resources are also learner-centered–websites, for example, become tools for enrolled students instead of advertising to prospective students.

Uniqueness of experience. A dynamic learning environment is emergent, where the unexpected and unanticipated is welcome. Interdisciplinary activity is encouraged, seeding conversations, courses, events, research, and degrees. Nontraditional students find their experiences and backgrounds appreciated. The institution invests in infrastructure that can capitalize on real-time events, such as funding opportunities to responses to current events, or technology infrastructure that connects campus centers to the world.

Shared Identity. Finally, a dynamic learning environment is vibrant and engaged, where all campus constituents perceive and express a personal connection to the institution. The campus offers multiple shared spaces that are well-designed to be welcoming and so are filled with constant activity from students, faculty, staff, and friends. These constituents share similar understandings of the values and characteristics of institution and, importantly, they see in it a place for themselves now and in the future.

Let’s concentrate on building and sustaining this environment, rather than on one that is careful and planned. We may be less able to predict outcomes, but we’ll be more able to achieve our central mission of learning, creativity, and discovery.