Rethinking spaces – Learning beyond the classroom – Full article

Thanks to the forward march of digitisation, laptops, smartphones and tablet computers are more or less standard student kit today. 91% of the undergraduates surveyed in one study possess a laptop and 92% a smartphone, and many own multiple devices (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, pp. 13-15). While this ECAR¹ study focuses on students in the USA, the situation in Switzerland is probably similar (see the Media Use Index, 2015²). In tandem with this development, “a student-centered approach to education has taken root, prompting many higher education professionals to rethink how learning spaces should be configured” (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 12).

The omnipresence of internet-capable devices and the orientation towards student-centred learning are having an influence on teaching and learning. Didactic concepts such as the flipped classroom are attracting more and more interest (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 12; Lambert, 2012). Universities are also increasingly deploying a “bring your own device” strategy, with the aim of getting students to use their own devices in the classroom (Johnson et al., 2016, p. 36).

To ensure the sustainability of this transformation it is becoming necessary to re-think the design of physical and digital learning environments. Traditional lectures are morphing into collaborative sessions, teaching is increasingly taking place outside of the classroom, and new learning environments are being thought up which actively foster collaborative learning, particularly that in the flipped classroom context.

In the following the authors outline two ways to rethink spaces : the development of physical environments to promote more collaborative and flexible learning, and the use of mobile devices for situated and location-based learning.

Physical environments for more collaborative and flexible learning
In the flipped classroom setting students prepare for class outside of the physical classroom using digital materials and activities such as online syllabi, teaching videos, discussion forums and self-testing (LET, 2015). Classroom sessions can then be used more effectively, e.g. for group work, case studies, direct feedback and the answering of questions. The flipped classroom has various implications for the design of the physical learning environment.

  • Teaching rooms: To facilitate flexibility in classroom constellations, room equipment should be as mobile as possible. An example is the “flexible auditorium” opened by ETH Zurich in 2014, whose furniture is on wheels (Hardmeier, 2014). The transformation of traditional lecture halls also has further dimensions. According to Johnson et al. (2016, p. 12) “university classrooms are starting to resemble real-world work and social environments that facilitate organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem-solving.” In these redesigned spaces students can apply their skills to try out and realise their ideas. This increases their motivation and their academic success (LET, 2016). At ETH Zurich this development is currently becoming reality with the creation of the Student Project House (ETH Zurich, 2016).
  • Library spaces: Bookshelves are giving way to spaces where students can both work individually and discuss study materials (Johnson et al. 2016, p. 12; Carriuolo & Reis, 2015). Here mobile and flexible furnishings also play an important role. The ETH Library is addressing this need with the Team Working Spaces project, started in 2015 (Grenacher & Lienhard, 2016).

Situated and location-based learning using mobile devices
Because nearly all students have mobile devices, these need not only be used to access digital learning environments; they can also be actively integrated into teaching. This makes it possible to conduct teaching sessions situatively outside the classroom. At ETH Zurich this happens in two ways (among others)³:

  • GISsmox: If students can collect real data on location during field work this increases their motivation. For this reason department D-USYS offers excursions which “among other things intend to involve students with interdisciplinary themes on-site so that they learn how the content of various courses is related. […] The former didactic scenario had students prepare by studying the literature and then collect deeper information in the field. Here their involvement with (situated) data frequently remained superficial.” […] The mobile App GISsmox (GIS supported mobile outdoor experiments) “is [thus] based on the idea that active involvement with spatial structures by recording and visualising solidifies and deepens knowledge.” (Niederhuber, Trüssel & Brändle, 2014). Using the GISsmox app students collect and process data on their smartphones or tablets via the mobile network. After collection all of the student data is pooled and analysed directly on-site.
  • OMLETH: “Courses in many study programs at ETH Zurich feature learning content which is related to places in the real world. This applies especially to Architecture, Civil Engineering, and System-Oriented Natural Sciences. Teaching this content in the classroom often remains decoupled and distant from the typical working environment of the respective discipline. From research on Location- and context based mobile Teaching and Learning it is well-known that teaching such content at the respective location with mobile technologies can improve the learning effect by complementing conventional didactical methods.” (Raubal, 2013). The OMLETH app enables students to take part in various location- and context-dependent learning activities via their smartphones or tablets. Motivation is also primary here: “Learning outdoors can motivate, engage and improve learning” (gis@ethz, 2015).

Didactic concepts and our digital world are changing constantly. We are intrigued by how they will affect the development of learning environments in the future. ETH Zurich is determined to keep up with these trends and design its learning spaces accordingly.



¹ 50,274 undergraduates from 161 institutions in 11 countries and 43 states in the USA took part in the survey. The statistics cited are based on a representative cross-section of 10,000 participants from US institutions (Dahlstrom et al., 2015, p. 7).

² “The Y&R Group Switzerland has investigated the Swiss population’s information behaviour and use of media annually since 2009. In the process it conducts a representative online survey of 2000 persons in German-speaking Switzerland and the Suisse Romande.” (Y&R Group Switzerland, 2016)

³ A further example is the iÖ-App, which is currently under development by the ETH Zurich Chair of Architecture and Building Process (Menz, 2014).

Further reading
Brown, M. (O. J.). Learning Spaces. In Oblinger, D. G. & Oblinger, J. L. (edd.), Educating the Net Generation. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Niederhuber, M., Trüssel, D. & Brändle, U. (2014). Auf Exkursionen neue Wege gehen: Der Einsatz von Smartphones und Tablets zur Erfassung, Visualisierung und Analyse räumlicher Objekte, Strukturen und Phänomene. In Rummler, K., Medien in der Wissenschaft, Band 67: Lernräume gestalten – Bildungskontexte vielfältig denken.


Carriuolo, N. & Reis, T. (2015). The new role of librarians and libraries. Removing the silence signs. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Dahlstrom, E. et al. (2015, ). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology. Available online at [08.07.2016].

ETH Zürich (2016). Student Project House. Available online at [08.07.2016].

gis@ethz (2015). OMLETH – The platform for location-based mobile learning. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Grenacher, R. & Lienhard, C. (2016). Using prototyping for creating learning environments – Design, evaluation, lessons learned. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Menz, Sacha (2014). IÖ-App, Smartphone-Applikation für Immobilienökonomie. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Niederhuber, Trüssel & Brändle (2014). Über GISsmox. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Hardmeier, M. (2014). Flexibles Unterrichten an der ETH Zürich. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Johnson. L. et al. (2016). NMC Horizon Report: 2016. Higher Education Edition. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Lambert, C. (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Available online at [08.07.2016].

LET (2015). Flipped Classroom. Full article. Available online at [08.07.2016].

LET (2016). Fostering student motivation – full article. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Raubal, M. (2013). OMLETH. Eine Plattform für ortsbezogenes mobiles Lernen an der ETH. Available online at [08.07.2016].

Y&R Group Switzerland. Media Use Index 2015. Available online at [08.07.2016].