Physical vs. Digital Campuses: The Tug-of-War

Where people learn is shifting, and the tension between online and face-to-face learning creates new challenges for college planners and marketers. Many factors impacted the physical campus even before the pandemic shuttered campuses and moved classes online. Enrollments were trending downward, forcing colleges to rethink their space needs. Technology has been changing classrooms and libraries to keep up with how students study. And more colleges and universities were already considering changing their physical footprint to shore up their finances for the lower enrollments. Let’s explore how education trends are impacting the “locations” of higher education.

The Rise of Online Higher Education

The idea that in-person, high-touch education on college campuses is more valuable and effective than online courses may be changing. The poor reputation of online education has whiffs of an origin in degree mills and continues to the more recent scandals with fraudulent for-profit education institutions. The taint of a degree that promises more than it can deliver moved from mail-order to online programs, with many for-profit schools being early innovators in the online education trend. The idea that a college might not have a “real” campus caused the public to be skeptical of online education from the start. However, this negative perception has waned as the popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—many offered by well-respected universities—promised to democratize education by bringing top-notch education to anyone around the world who could access the internet.

Before the pandemic, institutions were adopting more online programs for graduate and undergraduate education. The broader availability of fast internet and the rising number of working students who needed schedule flexibility played into this. But a 2022 article from Brookings argues that online classes have inherent advantages over in-person learning now that so many can effectively use Zoom and other synchronous distance learning strategies. In addition, recent student surveys suggest that students like elements of online learning, with 73% reporting that they would like to take some courses entirely online, and 68% desiring a combination of online and in-person classes.

Student Attitudes About Online Learning Shift

As the pandemic changed attitudes about digital learning, colleges may feel free to keep many online components to their educational offerings.

Source: Cengage

Campus Spaces and Hybrid Classes

With the popularity of some elements of digital courses forcing colleges to rethink how they deliver education, there are many new ways to utilize campus space and, indeed, to reimagine the purpose of classrooms. Flipped classrooms, where the lecture is via video and students then come together to work on projects or discuss, make sense for many types of colleges. For example, during pandemic returns to campus, the idea of exposing 500 students in a lecture hall to Covid caused many to shift to video lectures. Students found it more comfortable to be in their rooms, the library, or other study spaces to experience the lesson.

Physical campuses can offer better streaming and technical set-ups for faculty to deliver online education. While professors gave their lectures from home, the settings and technical facilities could vary. Having dedicated online spaces with convenient technology for online delivery of course content would smooth and upgrade the experience of distance learning for students. Then, when it was time to get into a classroom with a smaller group to perform experiments, collaborate on projects, or further the learning physically, smaller classrooms would work better than large, inflexible lecture halls.

Optimizing Classroom Space Usage

survey in 2021 found that higher education institution facilities planners are much more likely to update or adapt existing spaces instead of building new ones, plan to increase online learning, and intend to spend more on technology. The preference for online courses in specific fields like information systems can shift space use depending on the way programs are run. Facilities managers have always needed the flexibility to revamp spaces for new uses, but this trend may accelerate because of the fast shifts in how programs want to operate.

The informal conversations and learning that happen in the five minutes before or after a lecture are missing when courses are online. Using on-campus spaces for more casual interaction can help students who attend hybrid classes to increase the potential for place-based interaction. Designing campus spaces to encourage informal learning can shift much of that interaction into areas repurposed for breakout room study, small group projects, and the interface between social and academic spaces like cafes and lounges.

Offices and Dorms

The closed-door on-campus faculty or staff office seems less of a priority as colleges reimagine workspaces. Just as open-plan offices have been popular in business for decades, universities see collaboration possible in more open areas near offices. Indeed, un-assigned office spaces may make more sense for many departments. The pandemic taught us that many of us could work productively from home, yet collaboration is better in person. However, the arrangement of office space may need to change.

Just as the space for communication and collaboration between individual employees and students is helpful in academic departments, it can also benefit students to concentrate or centralize student services such as tutoring, mental health support, registration, financial counseling, and more. When on-campus space is at a premium, prioritizing student needs and centralizing areas to move staff closer to students makes sense. Departments that don’t need face time with students can move to the margins or even off-campus.

As enrollment drops, dorms and dining facilities may see lighter use. During the pandemic, where possible, it was great to allow students to have their own dorm rooms, and the trend towards singles in dorms may make sense as students continue to have disparate needs. However, the cost of maintaining the same living space for fewer enrolled students may be too much for colleges. Therefore, repurposing residence halls and closing some may be in the future for many colleges.

Transforming Physical Campuses

Facing financial downturns due to decreasing enrollment, colleges with extra space may consider making their footprint smaller. It may make sense to sell or rent some campus buildings to consolidate financial resources and continue to serve a smaller number of students well. But it is hard to downsize in a country that reveres exponential growth. Yet having the proper facilities to suit the needs of students is more important than maintaining a vast physical campus. Colleges will need to continue to spend on renovating and upgrading spaces and technology, and the quality of the space is more important than having unused and poorly maintained property.

Another important trend that started before the pandemic and promises to continue is designing more technological interaction and active learning spaces on the physical campus. Preparing students for the highly technical workplaces of today and tomorrow requires that campus spaces reflect the higher level of interactivity and technological innovation needed in businesses of all types.

The New Normal of Hybrid Campus Identity

With the changes brewing in higher education, there is no doubt that both a robust physical and digital campus environment will best serve students. The identity and brand of colleges and universities rely heavily on physical facilities. Yet more education will be taking place online, which requires a well-equipped and well-designed digital learning campus. Traditional and nontraditional students will all utilize online learning resources, and infusing the ethos and values of the school in digital assets will make the college experience more unified and satisfying for students near and far.

The digital campus can attract potential students from around the globe. In contrast, the physical campus still locates the institution in physical space and gives a facility for in-person learning. The exact mix of online versus on-campus learning will vary across institutions and over time. The flexibility to reimagine learning spaces and communities will continue for the foreseeable future.

Contact us today to find out how we can help your institution level up its digital marketing strategy.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

Parent & Student Survey Whitepaper


The Annual PARENT & Student Survey

Advance Education conducted a nationwide survey to learn what students and their parents are looking for from institutions – and the right marketing channels to reach them.

Contact Us Icon

Let’s work together on your student enrollment strategy.

  • * indicates a required field
  • Hidden