As advancements in technology bring about change in the education sector, Architectus principal Ruth Wilson says that building design must also adapt.

University and TAFE have traditionally been very different higher education offerings, attracting students with quite different intentions, interests and expectations. TAFE has been hands-on and real-world while university has been viewed as the bastion of academic endeavour, theory and research.

We are, however, seeing university facilities increasingly reflect a more hands-on, problem-based, industry-connected mentality: industry innovation hubs, simulation suites, maker spaces and object-based learning labs are providing tertiary students with things that TAFE students have arguably always experienced.

On the flip side, TAFE courses are increasingly training digital skills, with IT, cybersecurity, business or digital content production coming to the fore as the fourth industrial revolution advances. As a result, TAFE facilities are evolving from their traditional trade-based workshop roots.

Preparing for AI

Advancements in technology are greatly impacting the higher education sector, causing rapid changes in what, how and where students are learning.

Recent studies predict that 47 percent of employment will be automatable within the next two decades, forcing education institutions everywhere to consider how they can prepare students for this uncertain future.

How to educate a new generation for an AI-led workforce is under scrutiny. What will be the best skills to have in this new world?

From what we are witnessing in universities it is the ‘soft skills’ that are being practised and valued. These are the skills that can’t be replaced by AI.

The ability to work collaboratively, problem-solve as part of a group, link theory to practice, present an idea or concept and be adaptable and resilient are the traits of today’s successful university student. These skills are practised through problem-based learning, hands-on learning and with industry engagement, learning modes which have been historically at the heart of TAFE.

Meanwhile, at TAFE, students are being prepared for the future of AI with enhanced digital skills such as coding, machine programming, digital content production and cybersecurity training.

Now the trade workshops are partnered with computer labs for programming robotic cutting and shaping devices, graphic design is fully computerised, and art is encompassing an increasing amount of digital production. These new learning spaces look more like contemporary university spaces than traditional TAFE.

Virtual vs IRL

Online simulations, as pioneered in aviation maintenance training, are being developed for a wide range of learning disciplines across all higher-ed sectors.

The emergence of ‘serious gaming’ platforms as learning tools is gaining rapid traction and is set to transform the TAFE sector. But while virtual experiences increase for some students, others are being enticed back onto campus with the offer of unforgettable encounters In Real Life (IRL).

In the University of Melbourne’s Arts West, Bachelor of Arts students spend class time in Object Labs surrounded by some of the University’s most prized objects and artefacts.

Research shows that if you take in new information in association with an object, your recall of that information will be stronger and more accurate. It’s easy to see that the first-year history students putting on their white gloves to handle real Roman coins will never forget the experience.

The University has simulated a museum through the design of these teaching spaces and students are learning the cultural practices of curatorship at the same time as learning the history of the objects they are studying. This kind of learning in context is the traditional backbone of TAFE, where the learning settings simulate real-life be it a hairdressing salon, a bakery, or an automotive workshop.

Quality and amenity

With larger budgets and long-term goals in mind, university amenity can attract enrolments and entice students into further study. Large grounds, libraries, theatres and sporting facilities have always been a part of most Australian universities and more recently retail, a wide range of food offerings and medical centres are heightening the experience and amenity on campus and matching the convenience trend which is part of today’s urban life.

Conversely, in the past you were likely to see a more scholastic approach to typical TAFE amenities – one large cafeteria, institutional-type toilet blocks and counter-based student services.

But as university amenities set a high bar, school leavers are demanding better TAFE spaces in which to congregate, socialise and study. Projects like Meadowbank TAFE and Bendigo TAFE City Campus Revitalisation are designed to include social environments that encourage students to build personal support networks and to study on campus.

As online tools become more sophisticated and engaging, particularly with video content being easily made and shared, the ‘flipped classroom’ model has become well established in universities across Australia. The flipped classroom, or blended learning model, sees didactic information transfer happening online and class time saved for collaboration, project work, problem-based learning, debate and presentation.

TAFEs are incorporating this online learning approach too but are still wary of disadvantaging students who may not have access to devices and the internet.

As universities have experienced for a while, TAFEs are now seeing that even minor adjustments to reduce large scale classes result in improved asset utilisation and increased student engagement. The move to a blended learning model has instigated the need for more informal learning spaces in TAFE; spaces to stop and prop between classes, with the ability to log in and recap on on-line content before the next face-to-face session.

Infrastructure funding

Funding, politics and governance set very different environments for these two higher-ed typologies. TAFEs have long been influenced by changes in political focus, the recent government ‘free TAFE’ initiative in Victoria and Queensland a prime example.

The turnaround for delivery of projects after funds have been pledged for TAFE is typically extremely tight and building projects come in waves rather than a steady stream.

In comparison, universities tend to have a much larger pool of their own funds to draw from, allowing development to occur far more steadily in accordance with a long-term master plan.

What will our universities and TAFEs look like in the future?

With rapid advances in both tech and architectural thinking, the education sector may evolve beyond recognition by 2040. But will we end up with a single approach for higher education design? Or will TAFE and university typologies never become entirely miscible?

We can see that TAFEs and universities are learning from each other’s experiences and strengths. Universities are realising the value and appeal of hands-on learning, industry engagement and learning in context. TAFEs are following the lead of the universities and putting content online, at the same time providing better amenity to attract students to socialise and study on campus.

Both sectors are in continual evolution and as digital learning tools become more sophisticated and effective it is easy to imagine an ongoing dialogue between the sectors about content design and delivery.

A cursory view may see universities with more real-world settings and conversely TAFEs with more digital high-tech learning spaces but ultimately, they will remain as distinct entities because they are providing two different kinds of education experience. TAFE holds the position for industry responsive practical experience and skill development while universities will always value theory and research alongside learning.

One thing is certain - all graduates will be operating in a connected and interconnected workforce heavily impacted by AI so both institutions need to help students develop the twenty-first-century skills that will see them thrive in this new world.

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Image: Supplied / Digital learning spaces overlook the traditional trade training floor at TAFE SA Sustainable Industries Innovation Centre.