Learning Spaces: Agent for a Smarter Future

The notion of a learning environment is shifting and evolving rapidly. As an educational designer, I am constantly puzzled with how students in the 21st century engage with their learning to ultimately better their learning experience. The movement to web 2.0 applications, social media and social networking sites has shifted the way we view learning spaces. Spaces are transforming and evolving for the future; and thus presents many challenges for universities but also opens up potential opportunities for future thinkers.

Learning spaces? What do we know about them?

How do we define a ‘learning space’ in the 21st century? Does the term suggest a place and space – a lecture theatre, a tutorial room, a library, a laboratory? Learning space can be seen as any environment where learning can and does occur. Is it formal or informal, physical or virtual? Space (physical or virtual) can have an impact on learning – its design can encourage collaboration, interaction, discussion and learning (Oblinger, 2006). “Spaces are themselves agents for change, changed spaces will change practice” (JISC).

Key terms: Physical and Virtual space?

Strange and Banning (2002) suggest that: “although features of the physical environment lend themselves theoretically to all possibilities, the layout, location and arrangement of space and facilities render some behaviours much more likely, and thus more probably, than others.” Physical spaces encompass the campus, classrooms, lecture theatres, corridors, libraries or learning commons, outdoors and the environment outside the University grounds where informal learning takes place. Virtual spaces encompass any interaction in “cyberspace” (or the virtual environment) through a technology medium of some kind, which is not in the physical environment (Vasiliadis and Withers, 2010).

Learning in physical and virtual spaces?

Deep discussions about learning space design have challenged assumptions, provided new ideas, and generated evidence of the benefits of differently conceived learning space, both physical and virtual. (Brown & Long, 2006) suggest, “three major trends (that) inform current learning space design:

  • Design based on learning principles, resulting in intentional support for social and active learning strategies.
  • An emphasis on human – centred design.
  • Increasing ownership of diverse devices that enrich learning.”

Constructive pedagogy

The most widespread and influential theory of learning in Higher Education (HE) is constructivism: the theory that learning is a process of developing meaning and understanding by the student (Vasiliadis and Withers, 2010). The development of both physical and virtual learning spaces continues to be informed by this pedagogy. Facilities that encourage learner participation, collaboration, interactivity and flexibility are increasingly important in learning space design today and for the future.

Human centred design – informal learning spaces

The trend toward human-centred design is embodied in the shift from the (traditional library to) ‘information commons’ to the ‘learning commons’ (Brown & Long, 2006). The Learning Commons movement reflects changes in student characteristics and the way they learn (collaboration, accessibility, constructivism and social interaction), and its goal is to build spaces around people who use them rather than resources it maintains. Changes made to libraries are becoming key drivers of wider changes in learning spaces across most HE institutions.

Virtual spaces and mobile technology devices

 Reflecting as a student in the 1990s and the early millennium, accessing digital resources was really a challenge. Acquiring a computer posed difficulty and only a small minority of students owned laptops. The challenge always for most institutions was simply providing students access. Looking ahead to the 21st century, the rapid pace with which technology has evolved, and continues to evolve, can make information technology decisions taken today, obsolete tomorrow (Brown & Long, 2006). It is challenging for higher education institutions to keep pace and provide a robust infrastructure to support technology needs now, let alone for the future. The affordability of mobile devices in the past 10 years or so, has seen a change from students owning a desktop computer, to owning a laptop, and today more than one mobile device (laptop, smart phone, iPad etc.). It is time to think how this existing technology owned by  students can be supported in the environment and utilised to support learning.

So that’s my brief exploration of learning spaces. It is important for us to critically analyse our designs and implementations. The Green Paper target (2.3.1) for Macquarie University is by 2016 there will be an: integrated plan for the development of spaces and technologies which prioritise collaboration and connection – design for a digital age. To do this, we will need to constantly critically reflect on what we are doing, on what teachers and students are doing, and how the decisions and actions shape the learning experience.


Brown, B. and Long, P. (2006). “Trends in Learning Space Design” in Oblinger, D. (ed) Learning Spaces. EDUCAUSE.

Lippincott, J. (2006). “Linking the information commons to learning” in Oblinger, D. (ed) Learning Spaces. EDUCAUSE.

Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) (2006). Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space Design, p30: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/learningspaces.pdf (accessed 29/05/14)

Oblinger, D (2006). “Space as a Change Agent” in Oblinger, D. (ed) Learning Spaces. EDUCAUSE.

Strange, C. and Banning, J. (2002). Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments That Work. San Francisco: Jossey – Bass, p15.

Vasiliadis, S and Withers. (2010). Learning Futures – Is Virtual the New Reality. Learning & Teaching, UNSW.