Driving changes in learning space design

We have been hearing a lot in our conversations with institutions about their challenges around creating effective learning spaces. Even before the pandemic we had seen a move by some institutions towards more active or blended learning models. These rely less on large lecture spaces and more on flexible open learning spaces, group work or seminar spaces.

During the pandemic we have seen a need for socially distanced learning spaces. Places where staff or students could participate in online learning. Hybrid classrooms to accommodate mixed mode teaching. Then a drive to return to on-campus and face to face learning. A need to make the campus safe and attractive to all users.

Institution need to think about the convergence of the physcial and virtual spaces, and the directed and informal when considering learning spaces. “Current and future planning must encompass and encourage this convergence by thinking of learning spaces (classroom, informal, virtual) as a single, integrated environment.” Malcolm Brown, Dartmouth College, Educause article on Learning Spaces

Another emerging trend is the cost of living crisis and increase in energy prices reported on by WonkHE. This could encourage students to return to campus for a warm comfortable environment in which to study.

The challenges we are seeing are not necessarily new ones. The last two years have highlighted the need for more flexible spaces and the need to scale quickly.

Flexible learning Spaces

How to create flexible spaces that could meet every changing requirement, today and the future.

There is a particular challenge with legacy spaces that are difficult to re-purpose or update. Even spaces built 10 years ago can be no longer fit for purpose. Active learning can also require more space. This blog post from Event Map on Timetabling for this year’s student intake suggests that “An active and collaborative learning space requires two to three times the amount of space per student than a traditional lecture theatre.”

Instititions are looking to “…reimagine physical classroom spaces in ways that will “future-proof” them and allow them to stand the test of time” Educause The Impact of Learning Space Design on Learner Experience and Collaboration.

There is guidance available although all of this pre-dates the pandemic but it never the less still useful UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit: case studies and the Flexible Learning Environments Exchange FLEXspace created by a collaboration of institutions sharing a collection of learning space designs and ideas.

Both these resources date back to 2018 and although there have been some updates since they would benefit from some revision and updating.

Scaling demand

How to scale demand for specialist learning spaces. It is difficult to scale teaching labs that use specialist equipment and access is limited. Hybrid learning, where delivery is online and f2f simultaneously.

Hybrid requires new spaces to be built or existing spaces to be modified to work effectively. It is essential to provide audio and microphones that allow all participants to take part, video cameras that can capture the learning experience. Managing the learning can require support assistant, technical assistance or team teaching.  Many rooms are not fit for purpose. This leads to a bad hybrid learning experience especially for remote learners.

Learning spaces that have been designed for hybrid work better than adapted spaces. They can be expensive to scale to meet potential demand. Staff will also need training and to be confident using the spaces. One simple request from staff has been for a consistent set-up in digitally enabled learning spaces, with familiar connections and consistent use of equipment etc. Gunter Sanders from the University Westminster in an article in Time Higher  asks …are classrooms fit for purpose… suggesting a “barrier to success can be the nature of the physical classroom space“.

Despite the challenges, there are examples of where institutions have designed learning spaces to support a hybrid model.  They work best when aligned with a strategic change in the learning model. The University of Northampton has continued with their model of Active Blended Learning exploring  Hyflex Learning, Sally Sun says “The new delivery format has satisfied the needs of a certain kind of students… but felt exhausted after the experience“.

Is online learning the answer?

Many have looked to online learning as a way to cope with the demand. You can scale cloud services much easier than the physical estate. Many courses still require an element of on campus learning. Practical labs in science and engineering. Space for creative arts and performance. Access to specialist equipment or software.

Although several studies during the pandemic have shown a majority of students prefer a blend of online and in person teaching (The Student Futures Commission  and Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 the recent guidance from the DfE has seen many institutions move back to in person learning and teaching. As institutions take time to reflect on their recent experience of remote learning and consider what next. One positive might be that institutions now recognise the benefits of investment in the digital estate.

Principles for learning space design

What would a set of principles for flexible learning spaces or hybrid learning spaces look like?

Learning space design can be dependent on the location and culture. For example

  • campus based vs city located spaces
  • commuter vs locally resident students
  • course requirements that require more or less time on campus
  • access to learning resource centres
  • remote or distance learners, etc.

The following are requirements that many institutions are considering in designing new learning spaces.

  • spaces to support and encourage active learning (not just being taught).
  • buildings that attract students to make the effort to travel to the campus.
  • spaces that are flexible, in purpose and design.
  • spaces where teaching can be recorded and delivered online.
  • buildings shared with the public allowing universities and colleges to create closer links with the community.


In the last 2 years, I started to wonder if institutions would continue to need so many teaching spaces.  A switch to remote learning showed instititions could manage without large lecture spaces. However, they seem to be emerging from the pandemic with an even stronger focus for in-person learning and teaching. It has strengthened the need for learning spaces that provide flexibility and are designed to be adaptable. That also support digital learning and remote engagement.

By Paul Bailey

Head of co-design, part of a research and development team

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