April 25, 2014

Is online learning a waste of space?

Listen with webReader

What are the implications of online enrollments for space use on campus?

As more and more students enroll in online courses, questions arise as to the implications for use of space on campus:

  • With over one-third of students now taking at least one online course in the USA (Allen and Seaman, 2011), and with 15% of all enrollments in Ontario now online, and with online enrollments predicted to grow by between 30-50% over the next five years, will this mean an awful lot of empty seats or rooms on campus?
  • Does it mean that governments can actually reduce capital spending?
  • Can online learning help ease the perennial problem of parking, and reduce the number of cars coming on campus?
  • If there are savings to be made on physical plant, can they be measured and directly attributed to online learning?
  • Are there any studies of this? Have best practices been defined in using online learning to help with space-on-campus issues?

This is one of those issues that looks a lot simpler than it really is when you get down to it. A colleague of mine has been identifying this as an issue in some colleges and universities, but it is not arising so much as a ‘top-down’ strategic issue, but as a ‘bottom-up’ issue as instructors and administrators try to grapple with large classes, shortage of ‘specialist’ space such as labs and studios, and classroom scheduling with regard to hybrid courses. However, these are not easy issues to resolve.

Hybrid courses and classroom scheduling

One problem identified is that hybrid courses, which reduce but don’t eliminate the need for classroom time, probably need need major changes to the whole process of scheduling spaces, including rewriting or adapting software programs, if the space is to be used to maximum capacity. Classrooms tend to be allocated as ‘blocks’ to certain courses for a whole semester, e.g. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday 9.-10 to Arts 101, etc. Hybrid learning in particular could create a nightmare for schedulers, if for instance the instructor wanted a classroom only the first, middle and last week of the semester, with the rest done online, or even worse, if the classroom was needed only occasionally, say once every three weeks. The administrators who manage classroom space have a difficult job as it is and this just makes scheduling even more difficult. However, although difficult, it is not impossible, but it would need a very strong rationale or return on investment to make the effort worthwhile. It would probably be justified only in institutions facing a severe space shortage.

Access to specialist teaching areas

One area though where hybrid learning seems to offer some real solutions to overcrowding or lack of space and equipment is in respect to labs, operating rooms, studios or other rooms requiring specialist, expensive or not easily accessible equipment. For instance, I know of one institution that had a small increase in science enrollments , mainly because of a growth in international students, but not enough to justify building a whole new lab building. They used virtual labs to reduce the time students spent in the physical labs, thus allowing two shifts in what was previously a single three hour lab session. In other words, online learning can help with marginal increases where the space is already crowded. Whether this approach will work in the long term though depends on whether the marginal increase is ‘once-only’, or will continue to grow every year. Thus there are likely to be step increases in building new facilities. Online learning could though help space out those steps, so that investment in new buildings or equipment is spread out over a longer time.

© Wilfred Laurier University

Impact of online enrollments on ancillary campus services

Another reason sometimes suggested is to cut down on traffic to the campus and to help with the perennial problem of parking. (However, the introduction of express bus services was much more effective in this respect than increasing online courses at the University of British Columbia)! Nevertheless as a strategy for dealing with growth, there are some quite good reasons for looking at the costs of the ancillary services that arise from an expansion of on-campus physical facilities, and the potential savings from going online instead. It is not just the capital investment, but also operating costs such as heating, lighting, ground and plant maintenance, etc. that needs to be considered. On the other side, there is the costs to students, IT infrastructure and training due to an expansion of online learning. So, yes, there are opportunities for space saving through online learning but it would need to be very carefully handled and planned for.

Taking a strategic approach

In order to make measurable savings or cost reductions in physical facilities and services through a planned move to online learning, the institution would need to build in space saving as a key priority or strategy. This tends though to go against the culture – institutions want to expand their physical presence, they want names on buildings, they want to show how big they are becoming. Presidents in particular have an edifice complex. Opening a spanking new building is one of the few tangible measures of their success. In particular, using online learning to cut down on requests for new campus building may be avoided as it may be seen as an easy way out for government to avoid much needed capital spending (given the billions of dollars required merely to upgrade existing infrastructure on most Canadian campuses).

Also it means not looking at campus planning in isolation from plans for online learning. I don’t know of any institution that has tried to look at the costs and benefits of a move to online learning in this way (if so, please let me know!), but a more holistic approach to the planning of campuses and online learning could lead to improved efficiencies and even perhaps improvements in quality of the learning experience at the same time. Now wouldn’t that be nice.


1. Is the impact of online learning on physical space an issue that is appearing or has appeared on your campus? if so, how is it being handled?

2. Do you know of any study that has looked at the impact of online learning on campus facilities?

3. Is this a road worth travelling? Are the benefits likely to prove ephemeral or impossible to measure?

See also: Andrew Creelman: The Changing Campus in his blog, the Corridor of Uncertainly



  1. Kimberlee says:


    I just landed on your blog as I am stressing over just this topic as my potential PhD research here in Florida. Give me a little time and I might have your study :-). I have thoughts of something similar to the 2005 Open University environmental impact study of campus based and distance HE education systems. Then there is follow up project in the works called SusTEACH which has me leaning more toward specifically the environmental impact of blended learning over online or a combination of both. My background is facilities planning and construction and your post has given me more to think about. I’m a bit more excited about my topic, but then back to stressing over your question #3. Now back to work on the pre-proposal! Thanks!

Speak Your Mind