How to ‘future-proof’ the use of space in universities by integrating new digital technologies

Robbert J. Duvivier | Medical Doctor | University College London


This paper examines how digital technologies shape the use of space in universities with a particular focus on the implications on organisational level. In order to maximise the potential of new technologies, I argue that universities will have to reconsider their use of space. This includes addressing the impact of new technologies on pedagogies, on facilities and on students. This paper discusses seven organisational consequences, with an aim to guide estate planning and strategic investment in campus buildings and facilities.

KEYWORDS: Technologyestate planningcampus


Over the last decades, technology has radically changed the world, and indeed higher education. In particular, advances in wireless Internet and portable devices have allowed ‘students to be more flexible as to the time and place of learning in ways that were unimaginable ten years ago’ (Shabha 2000). This quote, however, is from the year 2000 – before the rise of the iPod (launched in 2001), YouTube (created in 2005), e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle (2008), and ubiquitous Internet access through mobile broadband such as 3G (first launched 2003). To put these advances in perspective, in 1995 less than 1% of the world’s population had access to the Internet, today around 40% has (Internet Live Stats 2017). The number of Internet users has increased tenfold from 1999 to 2014, with the milestone of first billion users reached in 2005, the second billion in 2010, and the third billion in 2014 (Internet Live Stats 2017). Furthermore, the use of mobile Internet has exceeded desktop use worldwide (StatCounter 2016). This move towards mobile web access has accelerated since 2007 with the rise of smartphones (such as the iPhone), and since 2010 with the rise of tablet computers (such as the iPad). The increased functionality and affordability of mobile devices, greater broadband network penetration as well as increased access to (free) Wi-Fi networks are all contributing factors to this evolution (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2015; Deloitte 2016). The importance for higher education is threefold, and partly influenced by other changes that have impacted the sector:

  1. The impact on pedagogies: this rise of new technologies allows for and creates new ways to work with knowledge. Students may use digital media to ‘discover and construct knowledge that is meaningful to them’ (Ellis and Goodyear 2016) even though their levels of digital literacy and learning styles may vary.
  2. The impact on facilities: facilities available to students have to keep up with technological developments. Students are coming to university expecting wider, perhaps even ubiquitous, access to Internet and educational resources.
  3. The impact on students: technology allows students to take a significant proportion of their learning off-campus. With the composition of the student body becoming more diverse, partly because of widening participation initiatives (Shah, Bennett, and Southgate 2015), students may enter university with a broader range of needs and expectations. This may include a greater flexibility to fit other parts of their lives such as work and family commitments around study (Crozier et al. 2008; Reay, Ball, and David 2002).

These changes form the background to this Perspective, which will examine how digital technologies shape the use of space in universities with a particular focus on the implications on organisational level.

The use of space in universities

The narrowest definition of ‘space’ relates to the physical elements of a university, that is, its buildings and surrounding campus. However, as Ellis and Goodyear argue, ‘the term “space” is used heavily in educational and social research, with a wide range of meanings’ (2016). In their conceptualisation of different models of learning spaces, they focus on ‘material spaces and their virtual/digital counterparts’. Most of the literature in this area does not distinguish between ‘space’ and ‘place’ and often these terms are used interchangeably. A full appraisal of the distinction (and relationship) between these concepts goes beyond the purpose of this Perspective, but I consider it essential to point out that ‘place’, not ‘space’, is often used to describe people’s experiences with(in) a physical environment, for example, in the fields of architecture, anthropology, (social) geography and urban studies. Or, as Ingold states – ‘places are created, furnished, reconfigured, personalized and made meaningful as people go on with their lives’ (2009). In his aptly titled ‘Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge’ he argues that

of all the terms we use to describe the world we inhabit, it [space] is the most abstract, the most empty, the most detached from the realities of life and experience. […] When we are at home, we are indoors, not in space, and when we go outdoors we are in the open, not in space. […] Space is nothing, and because it is nothing it cannot truly be inhabited at all. (Ingold 2009, emphasis in original)

Another view, grounded in the daily reality of estate managers, considers ‘space’ in terms of spatial metrics, such as gross floor areas, occupancy rates and space norms (Boys 2010; Temple 2008). This view probably matters most to university leaders, trying to shape physical ‘space’ in pursuit of the educational, financial and strategic goals of the institution. This entails, amongst other things, understanding ‘how the affordances of available space map onto educational needs at task level, course level, programme level and faculty level’ (Ellis and Goodyear 2016).

For the remainder of this Perspective, I will attempt to combine this abstract understanding of ‘space’ from a management and planning perspective, with the ontologically quite different nature of ‘place’ which cannot be left out since university spaces such as lecture halls, cafes, offices, libraries, laboratories take on much of their character from the presence and actions of the people within them (Temple 2009). Without the staff and students inhabiting these buildings, they would be nothing but aesthetically pleasing structures of glass, concrete, steel and stone (Coulson, Roberts, and Taylor 2015; Edwards 2014).

How then is the use of space affected by the rise of new technologies, in terms of the impact on pedagogies, facilities and students?

The most extreme implication of new technologies is that they may render the university in its current form obsolete. Indeed, some commentators have questioned the wisdom of further investment in the physical campus, considering the costs associated with maintaining the estate and existing infrastructures (Shabha 2000; O’Donoghue, Singh, and Dorward 2001). The online learning (e-learning) hype around the turn of the century initiated debate in the sector; whether universities should be investing in ‘clicks’ rather than ‘bricks’ (Taylor 2001; Selwyn 2007). Proponents of such a strategic re-direction predicted the rise of ‘virtual universities’ – individual organisations appearing only on the Internet, with no physical locations aside from administrative units, which deliver courses solely through information and communication technologies. These have yet to materialise in any meaningful form – with the exception of institutions like the Open University, but one could argue they have existed long before the Internet and are merely adopting new technologies to deliver courses they used to deliver by mail. Certainly, many more universities are now offering distance learning as a way to reach working adults and increase revenue. In other countries, however, institutions such as the Virtual University of Pakistan and the University of the People in the US have been established that brand themselves as being ‘online’ yet rely on a network of physical locations to support students with modern computer lab and Internet access facilities.

Most bricks-and-mortar institutions provide some form of online learning as part of their catalogue, either as courses that are partly delivered online (hybrid or blended learning), or as stand-online programmes (which would be more akin to distance education).

Given the current state of affairs, with online-only universities yet an unrealised prediction, it would seem there is currently still a need for on-campus experiences. Defenders of the university in its physical form have argued that indeed, ‘online learning cannot replicate everything that is of value in the face-to-face, on-campus experience of learning’ (Ellis and Goodyear 2016). Arguments include the ‘need to have hands-on experience with scarce, expensive equipment’ and the ‘value of interacting directly with leading scholars’ as well as ‘the serendipitous benefits of mixing with a random collection of peers in the social as well as the academic spaces of the university’ (Ellis and Goodyear 2016).

It is worthwhile to note, that however plausible these arguments in favour of a physical university might appear, there is limited research to support them (Phipps and Merisotis 1999). While a wholly digital university is indeed probable, albeit with distinct implications for managing such learning processes, this Perspective represents merely a stage on the way towards such presumed obsolescence of physical universities.

Nevertheless, despite the fear displayed in the literature – e.g. ‘will the university as we know it be able to exist at all’ (Shabha 2000) – universities continue to spend on new buildings (Morris, Adams, and Ratcliffe 2016). For example, total investment in new buildings across the UK in 2016 increased 43 per cent compared to previous years (Financial Times 2016).

Now that we have established that universities will remain physical entities (at least for the foreseeable future), we can consider how to best ‘future-proof’ the estate to deal with technological advancements. I will focus on the organisational consequences that derive from the three main implications highlighted earlier; pedagogies, facilities and students.

Impact of technology on pedagogies

Current best-practice approaches to teaching and learning emphasise the importance of student engagement in the form of active, meaningful involvement in the learning process (Graetz 2006). Simultaneously, physical environments ‘are increasingly recognized as the “containers” that give context to group interactions’ (Milne 2007). Traditional classrooms and lecture halls do not encourage engaged learning, with static seating arrangements, for example, that do not allow students to turn their seats around thereby limiting the success of techniques for engagement such as interactivity, discussion and group work. Long and Ehrmann argue that students who are taught in face-to-face lecture halls take up a ‘broadcast-model’ of learning (Long and Ehrmann 2005), highlighting how ‘the physical learning environment becomes an integral part of the learning process and is capable of influencing students in powerful ways long after the physical learning space has been left behind’ (Thomas 2010). Of course, this does not mean that engaged learning cannot happen in such spaces, but rather that they are not designed to actively encourage such engagement. Therefore, designing physical learning spaces and learning environments (as well as their furniture and lay-out (Graetz 2006)) would benefit from direct involvement of students and teachers as legitimate partners in the process (Lomas and Oblinger 2006) (organisational consequence #1).

With regards to the design of learning spaces, an influential report by the Joint Information Systems Committee (2006) states that the kind of learning that allows for active, meaningful involvement in the process requires learning spaces to ‘promote innovative ways of thinking’. The report states that upon entering a university campus, students should be filled with ‘a sense of excitement about learning’. One way of achieving this, from an organisational perspective, is to recognise the ‘scholarship of teaching as an integral part of the planning and use of such spaces’ (Long and Ehrmann 2005) (see organisational consequence #1). The report, however, goes further and calls for learning spaces to become ‘a physical representation of the institution’s vision and strategy for learning’. Or, put differently, ‘learning spaces impart a feeling of the campus culture to students. But is the culture they sense one of a previous era or one that meshes with their habits’ (Lomas and Oblinger 2006). Such a physical representation that is aligned with students’ habits can be expressed by designing spaces that are

flexible, to accommodate both current and evolving pedagogies

future-proofed, to enable space to be re-allocated and reconfigured

bold, to look beyond tried and tested pedagogies

creative, to energise and inspire learning and tutors

supportive, to develop the potential of all learners

enterprising, to make each capable of supporting different purposes. (Joint Information Systems Committee 2006)

The overriding principle here seems ‘flexibility’ – as Shabha stated, as the relationship between an organisation and its buildings is becoming more changeable, it thus necessitates more flexible design layouts to cope with different patterns of change in the functional, organisational, managerial and IT requirements (2000) (organisational consequence #2).

As early as 1978, Fawcett argued that campus design required flexibility, in order to take into account the uncertainty and changeability of the relationship between activities and space: ‘the probability that a building will not become obsolete, and it is a subjective probability based on the state of knowledge about the activities that might occur in the building’ (1978). The key design notion, from a pedagogical perspective then, embodies the move from designing spaces for specific requirements or specific users, towards more general and indeterminate use (Maclure 1984). In other

Another consequence that flows from this attention to social spaces is that of integration. Increasingly, ‘students’ comfort with the Internet means it isn’t “technology” to them – it may be a way of life’ (Lomas and Oblinger 2006). Therefore, students seem to progressively blend the physical and virtual world, ‘moving seamlessly between living and learning environments’ (Lomas and Oblinger 2006). Universities can facilitate students’ integrative behaviour by designing spaces where students can mix classes, group work, and study, with social activities, eating and sleeping. Providing multi-use spaces, or repurposing previously unused between-building space for student use, integrates services and brings together different elements of students’ life to better serve their needs (organisational consequence #4).

Another consequence of students inhabiting a world that ‘is increasingly digital, connected, immediate, social, and participatory’ (Lomas and Oblinger 2006) is that this requires access to a wireless network at all times. Such ubiquitous access puts certain demands on available infrastructure, in particular ease of connectivity, bandwidth (to stream videos and audio), and prevention of network congestion and outages (especially during peak periods and at busy locations). Another area of concern relates to cyber security, in particular regulating use of software and applications on the network, and mitigation of increased risks of hacking and malware. This requires sufficient investment in hardware and software, budgeting for appropriate maintenance, as well as the right mix of staff to develop and support such a network (organisational consequence #5). Some institutions have copied business practice by appointing a Chief Technology Officer, or Chief Information Officer, at executive level whose job it is to oversee the ICT strategy and policy.

Impact of technology on students

With laptops, mobile phones, tablets becoming more affordable and ownership of these devices increasing, institutions will have to find ways to deliver information and services in a variety of formats (organisational consequence #6). Convenience is a priority for students, who are used to a wide range of services being accessible from anywhere, anytime, such as food delivery, entertainment and online shopping. Ensuring students can access course information and library resources from off-campus locations, and from mobile devices, allows any space to become a learning space – bus, beach or bedroom.

Interweaving the material and virtual world opens up new possibilities for students to fit other aspects of their lives around study, such as paid work and family responsibilities. An implication of such increasing flexibility is a potential danger of fragmentation – with learning experiences being spread across ‘fragments of time and different location, as well as across multiple devices and media, and in interactions with different groups of people’ (Ellis and Goodyear 2016). Similarly, shifting the emphasis of learning and studying away from the university and onto the home might be problematic for those students whose home environment is not conducive to the learning process, e.g. because of family demands.

Moreover, there is a downside to these developments as increasing reliance on IT for delivery of education or access to learning resources has the potential to increase the financial burden on students to purchase laptops, and mobile devices. Additionally, with changes in IT as rapid as they currently are, people might need additional training to catch up with the latest developments. This might make it more difficult for certain groups (low socioeconomic status, mature aged, those with learning disabilities) to enter and participate in higher education (Shah, Bennett, and Southgate 2015).

From an organisational perspective, there might be a need to (re-)train staff and students to increase digital literacy and comfort levels with new technologies in order to maximise the benefits in educational practice (organisational consequence #7).


In this Perspective, I have argued that, in order to maximise the potential of digital technologies, universities will have to reconsider their use of ‘space’. I have discussed the implications from an organisational perspective, in particular the need to:

  1. include students and teachers as legitimate partners in the design process of learning spaces;
  2. create spaces that are flexible and can be reconfigured easily to suit different needs thereby allowing for changes in the patterns of use;
  3. facilitate connections between students and staff;
  4. integrate different elements of student life and university services;
  5. allocate sufficient resources to the development and maintenance of a wireless Internet network that is reliable, fast, and easy to connect to;
  6. deliver information and services in a variety of formats, ensuring students can access course information and library resources from mobile devices and off-campus locations;
  7. offer opportunities to familiarise students and staff with new technologies.

Notes on contributor

Robbert J. Duvivier is a medical doctor with a background in international health professions education. Currently in post-graduate training to become a psychiatrist, he holds academic appointments at Maastricht University, the Netherlands and the University of Newcastle, Australia. Robbert has an MD and PhD in medical education from Maastricht University, and he recently completed an MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, University College London. This perspective results from his involvement in the MBA, and Robbert wishes to acknowledge Dr. William Locke and Prof. Claire Callender for their mentorship and encouragement.


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