Integrating Technology and Space

Virtual Education Still Needs Physical Places

Virtual Education


When a partnership between San Jose State University and online learning platform Udacity shut down in 2013, critics gleefully proclaimed the death of the MOOC — the Massive Online Open Courses that promised an Ivy-quality education, via the Internet, to millions of people around the world. But this high-profile flop masked a larger shift that shows no sign of letting up.

That is, education is no longer a didactic, one-directional transmission from teacher to student. Instead, the future of learning is a knowledge network. This is evident in long-established trends such as (in addition to MOOCs) team-based learning, flipped classrooms, Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) and student-centered active learning environments (SCALE). Under many of these models, students virtually attend a lecture, but then later interact with their peers in a team-based classroom, applying their learning through interactive exercises.

Although these trends aren’t new, what often goes unremarked is the direct relationship they have on a university’s space needs.

The Lecture Hall

The biggest impact? Technology-assisted learning theoretically renders the lecture hall obsolete. No longer is a 250-person auditorium necessary for teaching. Instead, universities might need a series of small team-based rooms, where students can learn via video or do interactive exercises. Depending on the course, a classroom might not be necessary at all — team space might be enough, perhaps in other areas of campus like residence halls or the student union.

This is incredibly liberating. It frees universities to use space in new ways, when they aren’t hindered by lecture halls that are utilized only a few times each day. Instead of building five lecture halls, universities could replace them with 20 classrooms. For instance, MIT’s new Sloan School of Management building has very few lecture halls but 40 four-person rooms for team-based work. And they’re almost 100 percent utilized. As any higher education planner or designer knows, that’s a huge shift.

Furthermore, existing lecture halls can be repurposed, converted into places for active learning. If this allows universities to construct fewer buildings, the benefits can be extensive:

  • Universities spend less money on fewer projects.
  • Adapting existing facilities is inherently more sustainable than building new ones.
  • Activity remains in the campus core instead of in distant buildings on the periphery.
  • When the ground floor isn’t occupied by static lecture halls, it becomes more active, making it easier for students to engage, to put learning on display or even to create retail space.

Classroom Sizes

The shape of the classroom changes too. In our higher education projects, we’re seeing fewer large-scale classrooms and — interestingly enough — less of a range of sizes. At Virginia Commonwealth University, for instance, we’re looking at rooms sized 450 square feet and 600 square feet. Not much of a difference area-wise, but the smaller room can break down into four team environments, and the larger has even more options for subdivision. So virtual learning is creating less variety, but more flexibility, in classroom space.

Campus Amenities

Technology-assisted learning also has a bottom-line impact on students’ presence on campus, as it forces a reallocation of spaces devoted to housing, parking, dining and other amenities. We have always balanced these functions, but now we must rethink the complexion of those spaces for each institution.

Staffing and Scheduling

How does this change staffing? It could require more graduate assistants to manage the proliferation of team-based activities. But more important is scheduling. Most classrooms (except for specialized spaces like laboratories) will not be “owned” by a department, so they will need to be reserved in a centralized database. To prevent conflicts over scheduling priority, sophisticated space assignment and management systems need to be in place, to be used by both the university administration and student teams.

Next-Generation Teaching

One final consideration matters for those universities with strong degree programs in education. That is, these colleges teach students how to teach the next generation of kids. Their facilities are themselves teaching instruments. When we think about next-generation classrooms, how are kids going to learn 10 years from now? These technology-assisted learning trends will only continue to expand, so education facilities must begin functioning now as simulation suites for the next generation of teachers.

Surprisingly, distance learning makes physical space even more important: when information is widely available online, what differentiates a university? The experience. Going to Stanford, or Ohio State, or Sarah Lawrence, is about a lifestyle, about living amongst like-minded people from different backgrounds and sharing an experience of which learning is only one part.

And when universities free up space that was formerly devoted to lecture halls, they can devote more resources to those experiences — both in and out of the classroom — that their students seek.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Andy Snyder is a principal at global design and architecture firm NBBJ ( This essay is republished with permission from NBBJ’s thought leadership platform, nbbX (