Chapter 14. Learning How to See

Chapter 14. Learning How to See
Diana G. Oblinger


"We spend a lot of time trying to change people. The thing to do is to change the environment and people will change themselves."1

When thinking about colleges and universities, what do you see? First and foremost, you see learners—students, faculty, and staff. You see learning—active, experiential, reflective, and collaborative. You see places—classrooms, laboratories, libraries, cafés, and virtual spaces. And, you see technology—computers, wireless networks, digital learning resources, search engines, and analytical tools. Yet, when asked to describe a learning space, we often revert to a mental image of the classroom—technology enhanced, perhaps—with all seats facing the lectern. If we are committed to transforming learning, perhaps we should practice Da Vinci's saper vedere—knowing how to see.

What should we see?

We should see that space is important. Colleges and universities care about learning spaces, not just because of their function but because they embody the institution's philosophy toward teaching and learning as well as people. Space can attract potential students or dampen their interest. Two-thirds of the respondents to a 2005 national survey indicated that the overall quality of the campus facilities was "essential" or "very important" in their choice of a college.2

You probably see construction on campus. We are in the largest building boom higher education has ever seen. In the United States, spending on new or renovated facilities is estimated to exceed $18 billion in 2007; approximately 70 million square feet of space will be added to colleges and universities each year between 2005 and 2010.3 You also see renovation. Buildings outlast all the components inside them. Estimated lifetimes are:

  • 3 years for software systems
  • 5 years for computer hardware and communications systems
  • 10 years for cabling
  • 15 years for furniture
  • 25 years for mechanical and electrical systems
  • 75+ years for building structures4

You might also see the impact of technology. The Internet has changed notions of place, time, and space. Historically, the place where faculty and students came together for formal learning was the classroom. Space is no longer just physical, however; it includes the virtual. Wireless networks, virtual worlds, mobile devices, and digital learning resources have become part of the environment. "Technologies used in learning are altering the experiences and aspirations of learners."5 Driven largely by technology, the notion of a classroom has expanded and evolved; the space need no longer be defined by "the class" but by "learning" unconstrained by scheduled class hours or specific room locations. As a result, the notion is emerging of the entire campus—not just classrooms—as a learning space.

Design is a way of seeing things.6 How you think about a subject depends, in part, on your culture, your experiences, and your expectations—how you see things. When most of us think of a "learning space," we think of a classroom with a professor at the front of the room and maybe blackboards, projectors, or interactive whiteboards. The presumption is of information delivered in a lecture format.

What if you "saw" something different? What if you saw learners rather than lecturers? What if you saw chatter rather than silence and action rather than stillness? What if you saw learning as something social rather than something cerebral? What would be different? Expectations? Learning spaces? Learning?

In the collection that follows you will find many examples of learning spaces that began with seeing things differently. The assumptions were different—there is no front to the room, and learning doesn't happen at fixed times. The focus was different—often on groups rather than individuals. And the desired outcome was different—successful learning rather than teaching.

This content collection is offered to help others "know how to see." As you review the examples, it will quickly become apparent that these learning spaces have a positive impact on people. Words such as learning, engagement, interaction, and excitement come to mind, but you will see patterns as well:

  • Space shaped by learning rather than by instruction
  • Socially catalytic space
  • A shift from classrooms to learning complexes
  • Service philosophy
  • Technology integration
  • Experimentation and innovation
  • User involvement

Space Shaped by Learning

Historically, learning spaces were designed around teaching or maximizing the number of students in a room. The presumption was that good teaching results in learning—a presumption that focuses on the instructor. What if the focus shifts to the learner and learning? Student-led sessions result in greater discussion and more complex learning outcomes, for example.7 Group problem solving works better than individual problem solving.8 And students develop technical skills more efficiently and use them more readily when they have learned them as needed during ongoing projects.9

We are learning to put pedagogy first. Ask what learning activities will lead to the desired learning outcomes, not which projection system to install. Many of those effective learning activities are experiential and collaborative—and often IT-enabled. Using digital archives, databases, and the tools of a profession allows students to engage in first-person learning. Rather than being told the conclusions, students build their own understanding. Spaces that encourage first-person learning may involve project rooms, network access, or videoconferencing.

Classroom designs are moving away from a focus on the front of the room (and the instructor). In some cases students sit closer to the instructor or at small tables such as star clusters or circular tables. Small group conversations are encouraged, which improve learning.10 SCALE-UP at North Carolina State University (see chapter 29) is an example of a space reconfigured for group activity using round tables and multiple focal points. Even lecture halls can be designed to accommodate interaction, as LeBaron Hall Auditorium at Iowa State University (see chapter 22) illustrates.

Spaces that facilitate peer-to-peer and group learning such as information commons, learning resource centers, or cybercafés are valuable.11 The Information Commons at Northwestern University (see chapter 30) or the USITE/Crear Computing Cluster and Cybercafé at the University of Chicago (see chapter 40) are examples. Small group spaces, such as Flyspace at North Carolina State University (see chapter 28), encourage learning as well.

Movable furniture and space that can be reconfigured for different learning modes is increasingly common. For example, many of the spaces at the University of Dayton (see chapter 3 and chapter 4) are reconfigurable thanks to movable furniture. This is true in classrooms as well as in informal spaces.

Emerging patterns include:

  • Creating multiple focal points in classrooms, not just a single focal point at the front of the room
  • Grouping or clustering students rather than seating them in rows
  • Establishing informal group work spaces
  • Providing movable furniture
  • Building reconfigurable space

Catalyzing Social Encounters

People learn from other people. If the environment limits random encounters, discourages conversation, or provides no comfortable place to sit, learning opportunities are lost. Many campuses have designed "socially catalytic" spaces.12 According to a Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) guide to designing learning spaces, "Well-designed social spaces are likely to increase students' motivation and may even have an impact on their ability to learn."13

Information commons (see chapter 7) provide spaces for interaction and exchange; silence is not required. Atria or cafés, such as MIT's Steam Café (see chapter 27), promote visibility and accessibility so that casual conversations can occur. Other institutions, such as Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (see chapter 21) or the University of Dayton (see chapter 3 and chapter 4), have found ways of creating social space in hallways. External spaces equipped with tables, chairs, and wireless can become informal learning spaces used by individuals or groups. Not only do these types of spaces make interaction possible, they also provide students with space to work or relax between classes.

"If catering facilities, common rooms, even corridor space, are reconsidered as social meeting and group learning environments, institutions could…make a statement about their vision for learning as a pervasive and inclusive activity based on social interaction," advised JISC.14 When wireless enabled, these spaces are not "set apart from learning."15

Emerging patterns include:

  • Making people visible to each other using atria, cafés, or windows
  • Providing movable furniture so that small groups can form spontaneously
  • Offering wireless access
  • Displaying artwork, artifacts, or research

Shifting to Learning Complexes

Learning is continuous; it can occur in any place at any time. There are different ways of learning, although most learning styles can be categorized as doing, conversing, or reflecting. Different types of spaces are conducive to specific types of learning.16 (See Table 1.)

Table 1

With no single learning time, style, or space to guide planning, many institutions are shifting from classrooms to learning complexes where learning ebbs and flows depending on the need and circumstance. In learning complexes, informal spaces are adjacent to classrooms. Eating spaces and atria serve as gathering spots. Group spaces are interspersed with areas for individual reflection. Faculty offices and support desks are often nearby. Technology is a ubiquitous enabler.

Buildings like Torgersen Hall at Virginia Tech (see chapter 43) link a three-story atrium, an electronic study court, classrooms, and informal spaces—making it a learning complex. Information commons are self-contained learning complexes. Multiple types of work spaces are integrated in the Information Commons at Northwestern University (see chapter 30), the University of Chicago's USITE/Crear Computing Cluster and Cybercafé (see chapter 40), Duke University's Perkins Library (see chapter 17), and the Peter H. Armacost Library at Eckerd College (see chapter 18). Students move from one space to another, depending on the need. In its Center for Integrated Learning and Information Technology, Michigan Technological University (see chapter 25) is linking its formal and informal learning spaces, not only to provide a seamless learning environment but also to protect students from harsh weather. The Smeal College of Business at The Pennsylvania State University (see chapter 33) and Sir John Cass Business School, City of London (see chapter 15), integrate classrooms, study areas, trading floors, and faculty offices in a complex designed to bring people together. At the University of Dayton (see chapter 3 and chapter 4), a learning center called Marianist Hall adjoins a residence hall.

Emerging patterns include:

  • Interconnecting multiple types of spaces, such as individual and group space, or formal and informal spaces
  • Clustering formal and informal spaces, such as computer labs or cybercafés near classrooms
  • Locating faculty offices near student spaces
  • Paying attention to passageways that link people, not just hallways

Developing a Service Philosophy

Learning involves researching, writing, thinking, critiquing, and conversing. Learners are pressured and time-constrained. Institutions that have reconceptualized spaces and services from a user perspective are developing a service philosophy manifest in an integrated support structure. Having all the tools—and people—readily accessible enables learner success.

Information commons (see chapter 7) and places such as the Cox Hall Computing Center at Emory University (see chapter 8) have integrated space, service, technology, and support. Whether users need assistance with research, writing, or a new application, help is readily accessible.

Faculty are critical to student support. Many institutions have made faculty offices more easily accessible, ensuring that answers to questions about courses or careers—or just casual conversations—are never far away.

Support also is being designed into classroom buildings. If a faculty member encounters technical difficulty during class, a quick solution is vital. Institutions such as Arizona State University (see chapter 12) have relocated support personnel to classroom buildings to ensure readily accessible support. Stanford University (see chapter 36), for example, takes service a step farther, training support staff in pedagogy and technology.

Emerging patterns include:

  • Integrating service centers
  • Locating faculty offices near student areas
  • Offering in-house IT support
  • Training staff in pedagogy and technology

Integrating Technology

Technology has become part of the higher education landscape. Ubiquitous wireless access is increasingly common—and expected. Classroom technologies range from projectors to audio and video capture. Tools such as student response systems or wireless keyboards and mice allow students to become active participants and presenters.

Virtually all disciplines rely on technology tools. These tools are finding their way into learning spaces. For example, the Smeal College of Business (see chapter 33) and the Sir John Cass Business School (see chapter 15) have trading rooms.

Technology is integrated in the operation of the buildings as well. Hamilton College's Science Center (see chapter 20) features a display that not only explains many of the green features of the Science Center but also allows learners to monitor internal and external environmental conditions, as well as the operation of the geothermal and heat-recovery systems.

Outside class, wireless networks allow almost any space to become a learning space. Whether in a hallway, an outdoor courtyard, or a café, students sit with their laptops, working and socializing.

New types of applications may promote greater student learning. Stanford's GroupSpaces (see chapter 35), for example, make it possible for members of a group to share control of large displays, enhancing their ability to collaborate.

Emerging patterns include:

  • Providing ubiquitous wireless
  • Using disciplinary tools
  • Offering group and collaborative tools

Designing for Experimentation and Innovation

Institutions are designing places for experimentation and innovation. Depending on the learning activity, a different combination of pedagogy, space, and technology might be optimal. Learning innovations that have improved student success, such as SCALE-UP (see chapter 29) and the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech (see chapter 42), resulted from experimentation. Others, such as Stanford's Wallenberg Hall (see chapter 36) and the Ohio State University's Digital Union (see chapter 31) set aside space for prototyping and experimentation. The presence of movable furniture, screens, and wireless controls makes it possible to experiment with just about any space.

Locating different disciplines (for example, fine arts and technology) in the same space can catalyze innovation and experimentation, as in the case of Denison University's MIX Lab (see chapter 16). In other cases, such as BOX at the London School of Economics (see chapter 23), the innovation comes from colocating academic and business personnel. Joint projects and problem solving encourage innovative thinking.

It is increasingly common—and necessary—for institutions to integrate experimentation into the overall design process. Years may pass between the time space planning begins and a facility's completion. In that time pedagogy and technology will change. And, with the lifespan of a facility exceeding 50 years and the half-life of many technologies being one to two years, flexibility and renewal must be an ongoing part of the design process.

Emerging patterns include:

  • Setting aside space for experimentation
  • Colocating different specialties in the same facility to stimulate innovation
  • Displaying art work, exhibits, and artifacts to stimulate interest and creativity
  • Using a portion of the budget for technology experimentation

Involving Users

Increasingly users—students, faculty, and staff—participate in learning space design. User perspectives are critical, as architects or facilities personnel may view space design quite differently. "In fact, 'expert' decisions are not necessarily better than 'lay' decisions," asserted Henry Sanoff. "Given the facts with which to make decisions, users can examine the available alternatives and choose among them."17 Completing the facility is not the end of the process, however; it must be adapted to changing needs. Sanoff concluded that "Those most directly involved with the product—the users—are best able to assume those tasks."

Users' involvement in ongoing maintenance and management might also be valuable. This involvement could be directly on committees or indirectly through surveys or interviews, such as at the Manuel Pacheco Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona (see chapter 37).

Emerging patterns include:

  • Getting input from students on different types of spaces, such as through photo surveys, rather than through committee appointments
  • Involving users in creating new designs
  • Forming user councils that involve facilities, IT, academic affairs, faculty, and students


Learning space is a means to an end. Perhaps the focus on learning space will help us know how to see learners and learning more clearly. If we look carefully, active, social, and experiential learning happens continuously on our campuses and in the virtual spaces surrounding us.

Ultimately, the goal is to improve learner success. As Buckminster Fuller reportedly said, "Reform the environment. They will reform themselves if the environment is right."


  1. Les Watson, pro vice-chancellor, Glasgow Caledonian University, quoted in Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), Designing Space for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space Design (Bristol, U.K.: Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2006), p. 24, <>.
  2. David Cain and Gary L. Reynolds, "The Impact of Facilities on Recruitment and Retention of Students," Facilities Manager, vol. 22, no. 2 (March/April 2006), pp. 54–60.
  3. Mark Maves and Martin Sharpless, "When Space Becomes More Than a Place," presentation at the 2005 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, Orlando, Florida, October 19, 2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. JISC, op. cit., p. 2.
  6. My thanks to Marvin Malecha, dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University, for helping me understand this definition of design.
  7. Tang (1998), cited in Spaces for Learning: A Review of Learning Spaces in Further and Higher Education, Scottish Funding Council, 2006, p. 23. Tang's study was originally reported John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000).
  8. Evans (1989), cited in Spaces for Learning: A Review of Learning Spaces in Further and Higher Education, Scottish Funding Council, 2006, p. 23. Evans's study was originally reported in the John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000).
  9. Edward Allen, "Second Studio: A Model for Technical Teaching," Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 51, no. 2 (November 1997), cited in Spaces for Learning: A Review of Learning Spaces in Further and Higher Education, Scottish Funding Council, 2006, p. 23.
  10. Spaces for Learning: A Review of Learning Spaces in Further and Higher Education, Scottish Funding Council, 2006, p. 7.
  11. Ibid., p. 8.
  12. Kathleen Manning and George D. Kuh, Student Success in College: Making Place Matter to Student Success, Occasional Paper #13 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, 2005), <>.
  13. JISC, op. cit., p. 28.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Alexi Marmot, "Spaces for Learning," presented at the Scottish Funding Council Seminar in Glasgow, Scotland, October 28, 2005.
  17. Henry Sanoff, Community Participation Methods in Design and Planning (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 13–14.

About the Author

Diana G. Oblinger is a vice president at EDUCAUSE, where she directs the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). Previously Oblinger served as the vice president for information resources and the chief information officer for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system and as a senior fellow for the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR). Prior to that she was the executive director of higher education for Microsoft Corporation and led the Institute for Academic Technology for IBM. Oblinger was on the faculty at Michigan State University and the University of Missouri–Columbia, where she also served as an academic dean. Oblinger has authored and edited numerous books and publications, including the award-winning What Business Wants from Higher Education and the first EDUCAUSE e-book, Educating the Net Generation, with James L. Oblinger.