Bricks and Mortar or Digital?

Why we still separate these spaces in Universities.

Stephan Caspar
4 min readNov 10, 2017


There’s no lessening in the tension in universities between an identity as a “bricks and mortar” institution and the move into online & distance learning spaces. Recent conversations have lead me to try and unpick this, if not for others, then to aid my understanding.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Universities have been quick to plough money into new buildings and enhance the campus experience in a way that often hasn’t been matched by investment in online learning spaces. In some institutions, this seems to be treated as a straight choice, a new build as an investment in our students right here and now, the right thing to do, that I feel betrays a lack confidence in digital learning.

Learning spaces not teaching spaces

Certain new builds are an attempt to modernise learning spaces, but this isn’t always the case; where some institutions are phasing out lecture rooms, others are still tied to the idea of tiered-seating and a lectern. Some, more forward-thinking, offer opportunities for active learning, for project-based activities, including maker-spaces, collaborative, group work areas. These spaces facilitate digital work at a basic level, with power outlets and charging units; and some go even further to provide space where students can create digital objects, work in VR and AR to fully blend digital and hands-on.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Where there is no digital strategy.

Some universities are investing in digital learning, creating teams to not just support academics in their teaching, but provide the means for an institutional approach to delivery. This requires ambition on the scale of a large construction project, albeit one where everyone needs to contribute, pick up tools and build.

Perhaps in some institutions, the challenge in getting everyone to approach digital together is too difficult? That’s where we need strong leadership and a creative strategy.

Unfortunately, without that, the gap left by a lack of digital leadership is being filled piece-meal by academics who are adopting technologies in a way that isn’t consistent for students. Academics may be trying their best to listen to their students and enhance the learning through technology, they may in fact be making things worse for their students, with frustration over this lack of consistency and university-wide joined up approach reflected in NSS.

Photo by Vasundhara Srinivas on Unsplash

Blended opportunities

I still find it hard to take when I hear people in computing departments tell me that we’ll always be a “bricks and mortar” institution. If the future isn’t more digital then I would be really surprised. Remember too that it isn’t “more digital” without significant challenge in terms of what it constitutes, this is a rich and complex space that needs no less thought and understanding.

Missed opportunities abound in the building of physical and digital spaces. Both can empower, transcend their use and offer experiences that enhance our lives.

Hard hats to be worn

As I walk around the campus and see the cranes building high and posters proclaiming change, my wish is for the same support and investment in the seemingly less visible but no less impactful. A university is a place in both physical and online sense and deserves to be recognised as such. Our students and staff continue to explore these spaces but create without the guidance, safety and standards expected of our new builds.

It’s clear that an institutional, joined-up approach is necessary. Universities with robust digital strategies, that use the opportunity for online and distance learning will be able to provide a better-blended experience for their campus-based students. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.



Stephan Caspar

Rides bikes, speaks French, designs things, thrashes axe, paints shed, films, teaches and learns.