How “Space” Matters to Learning

In this recent article in NEA’s journal of higher education, Thought & Action, Wyoming professor Chad Hanson explores the role of “space” in learning. Does where students learn matter to what or how they learn? What does it mean to spend time in class in the company of other students? And how might the answer to that question inform the trend to online learning? The following is an excerpt. To read the article in its entirety, visit the Thought & Action website

During the past five years, when asked whether to offer more classes online I have answered, “No,” but when I say that, my colleagues ask: “Why not?” I find the second question harder to answer.

Those who favor face-to-face courses often do so for intuitive reasons. In spite of the technological changes taking place in our culture, some of us appreciate campuses and live people in real classrooms, but we rarely communicate the rationale for such a preference.

In this era, where we scrutinize the outcomes of postsecondary schools, we pay scant attention to the value of spending time within the walls and on the grounds of our institutions. We actually reached a point where we mock the enterprise. We now refer to the traditional classroom experience as “seat time,” and when you reduce education to something that takes place on your backside, it begins to sound absurd. Thus, most of us find it difficult to give thought to, let alone study, what it means to spend time on a campus in the company of others.

Through the growth of online courses and degree programs, we have shrunk the proportion of students who participate in schooling as a real, as opposed to a virtual undertaking. This situation could be a tragedy or it could be acceptable. At the moment we do not know. Because we rarely conduct research on the meaning of the campus experience, we have been left to simply watch it disappear, without the ability to comprehend the consequence of its absence. In what follows, I examine how we came to where we stand today. I also suggest that we shift our efforts in outcomes assessment toward the question of what it means to spend real time with classmates, and a teacher, in the name of education.


In social environments, we develop habits of association. We hone the traits suited to life in a democracy. We learn to listen, speak with clarity, and build bridges between divergent points of view. In the past, democratic nations developed forums and spaces for people to hold conversations, create relationships, and forge identities as citizens. In the words of National Medal of Arts recipient, Ray Bradbury, “The idea is as old as Athens at high noon, Rome soon after supper, Paris at dawn, Alexandria at dusk.” In the 21st century, the college campus stands as one of the last bastions of physical space devoted to meaningful exchange.

The process of engaging others is formative. It may not reflect learning with regard to “content,” but in the process of taking part in the life of an institution, students learn how to function as members of communities. Time spent on campus and in classrooms is a key component of education.

In the article, “Foundations of Place,” David Gruenwald explains that our environment is pedagogical. In his words, “Places teach us about how the world works and how our lives fit into the spaces that we occupy.”11 He goes on to suggest, “Places make us: as occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identities and our possibilities are shaped.”

In his philosophy of education, John Dewey stressed the importance of giving attention to the process that students move through on the way to graduation. He suggested the question of how we teach is, possibly, more important than what we teach. He urged educators to begin their practice by giving thought to their ideal image of society.

For instance, if we wish to live in a nation where people sit quietly and listen, he suggested that schools requiring stillness and silence would help to reach that end. On a similar note, if we wish to live in a country where people stay home and surf the Internet, schools that use the Internet as a vehicle for instruction would create an avenue to that future. But if we wish to live in a culture where people come together in public places to hold honest conversations about the most compelling issues of the day, then schools must allow students to practice those habits.

Today we fix our assessment of students on cognitive outcomes, but education is actually a socializing institution. The environments that we create impact people. In The Great Good Place, Oldenburg describes a scenario where a colleague asked the environmental psychologist, Roger Barker, “How would you explain human behavior?” In response, Barker said he merely needed to know “where the individual in question was located—if the person is in church, he ‘acts church.’ If a person is in a post office, they ‘act post office.’” Apart from a handful of studies, scholars have done little to research what it means to “act college” or university.

We expect students to become certain kinds of people during the course of their education. In particular, we expect them to become the sorts of citizens that are willing to take a critical stance in relation to inequity or injustice. It is not by chance that social movements often take root on campuses: civil rights, anti-war protests, battles for equality, and environmentalism.

Will students who earn their credentials online participate in the movements of the future? The Internet has proven useful as a tool for organizing, but what of online courses, built around lists of cognitive outcomes? Do online classes offer students a means to challenge and change the way they see themselves? Or will the documenting of competence online encourage compliance? Conformity?

As the testing of memory and skill overshadow our efforts at character development, will graduates still take on the traits that we associate with educated people: dignity, idealism, thoughtfulness? As an institution, will higher education continue to serve as a platform from which to address pertinent cultural issues? Will pressing problems, such as our present level of polarization, become more severe as we downplay the importance of students and teachers engaging one another in reality, as opposed to the virtual? I do not know the answers to such questions. My concern is that these questions are currently without answers, but we press ahead anyhow, changing the nature of the college and university experience.


Over the past 20 years, the movement to assess learning became institutionalized. We committed ourselves to approaching cognitive outcomes as a product, our end goal, the one that we assess. Here in the late stages of the assessment movement, we would do well to turn at least a portion of our efforts toward evaluating the actual process that students move through on the journey to becoming graduates.

Not long ago, I stood in front of a chalkboard after class. Three students came up to talk through some of the finer points of the discussion that we were ending. As the conversation lingered, new students began to file into the room. They were coming in early, for a course about to start. Eventually, we had to stop talking to make room for the class scheduled to begin. As I gathered my things, one of the students who came into the room to wait for the next course said something from her chair. She said, “So, this is what I missed.”

I said, “Excuse me?”

She repeated, “This is what I missed.”

I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

She said, “Talking and thinking, together.”

The student told me her name, which I recognized. She explained that she had taken my course—the one that I was wrapping up—online. Of course, she was right. She missed a lot. I think I probably did, too. In some ways, I suspect that we all suffer from the diminishment of education as a place for people to meet and hold conversations. I suspect that many of us feel this way. Unfortunately, the issue resides in the realm of feelings and suspicions.