Faculty Focus


The Peculiar Case of Space and its Relationship with Equity in Asynchronous Online Learning

Desk space and study space with numerous items on it

When growing up in India throughout my childhood, my siblings and I were fortunate to have a study desk: A simple teakwood desk with a flap on the side to extend the desk when needed. There was a fixed time and a fixed space for studying. Books were to be respected and never placed at or below one’s feet. Food was never brought to the desk. In fact, as shoes weren’t worn inside the house, hands and feet needed to be well washed before sitting to study. Saraswathi, the Goddess of knowledge, only bestowed her wisdom on those who learned in earnestness, so my siblings and I grew up with a sense of sacredness for the physical learning space.

In terms of space in human experience, Yi-Fu Tuan says this in Space and Place (1977): “In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. ‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” In “Learning Spaces,” Malcolm Brown explores the importance of designing learning spaces (virtual and physical) effectively to enhance the learning of NetGen students. In “Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System (2015), Brown provides tips on designing learning spaces to promote active learning. In “Challenging Traditional Assumptions and Rethinking Learning Spaces,” Nancy Van Note Chism says, “Space can have a powerful impact on learning; we cannot overlook space in our attempts to accomplish our goals.”

Despite these important observations, there are miles to go because of the changing manifestations of asynchronous learning spaces and the resulting effects on modalities of teaching. A formation of space that functions subtly yet powerfully during learning is the mental plus physical space one is in while engaging with the virtual environment. It’s important to address this space because it relates to educational equity. As we all know, many students of diverse backgrounds do not have ideal or reverential learning spaces—spaces that become places of value—and often deal with difficult environments and situations.

It’s also important to remember that for the asynchronous online student, there’s no true equivalent of a physical classroom—though we mostly operate with the idea that a virtual course in a learning management system replaces the common space of a physical classroom. The discussion board, for example, is the space for discourse, the lesson page is a space for lecture, and so on, but this is only that which appears at the surface level. The space that directly and most immediately affects learning is the combination of the mental and physical space a student is in when accessing the lessons of a course. The physical space one is in while accessing a class might be in a moving car while driving, among a crowd while on a bus or a plane, while watching a game, or while waiting in a hospital lobby; the space might be in the kitchen while preparing dinner and supervising a child’s homework; the space could even be the classroom of another teacher. The online learner’s space, which is a combination of the physical and mental-intellectual space one is in, transforms continuously. This means that an online learner’s learning space is fluid, while the course content is the anchor and comparatively static.

Hence, it may not be an exaggeration to say that for many students in the asynchronous online class, there is neither a classroom nor a steady study space; consequently, this begs us to consider the fluidity and the transformative nature of the asynchronous online learning space when designing courses and executing lessons to help foster a better connection with students.

For example, let’s say this week I need students to master three chapters of the curriculum. Now, knowing that my students might access the lessons/materials in a variety of physical and mental spaces, such as while walking or driving, and knowing that my students may not have their full attention on the assigned chapters, I might acknowledge this reality, convey my acceptance of it, and guide them in different ways. This can also contribute to building relationships with students while gently communicating my expectations in different ways.

Examples for prefacing a lesson:

1. Addressing physical mobility when learning asynchronously

If you’re mobile while accessing this learning module, make sure that your device has an app such as voice-to-text to take notes. This will help you grasp the main points and later develop on them as we go along. It will also benefit you to access the lesson again in a still-space where your attention is better focused and not distributed.

2. Addressing the inevitability of daily life’s duties when learning asynchronously

When accessing this chapter, are you experiencing a moment where there’s much to do for your household—for example—taking care of children, parents, or siblings, or even someone who is sick? Is your learning space noisy and difficult to deal with? If so, it’s okay to attend to your duties first. You’ll automatically see time open up for yourself. This will be precious time and deserves respect and attention. In case you’re late in posting on this chapter, I’ll understand, but let’s give attention to the intention of learning, and you’ll see positive results.

3. Addressing fatigue and distractions when learning asynchronously

In case you’ve had an exhausting week with no spare time and are accessing this module while having multiple tabs and applications open, know this:

  • The mental and physical space you’re in is very important for your learning
  • Dedicate 30 minutes of focused time to understand the basics
  • Give yourself the gift of just one thought—learning what’s needed for this week in our class

Questions for a post lesson reflection exercise to help students with learning awareness:

  • When, how, and where did you access the lesson of the week?
  • What kind of mental and physical space were you in?
  • What emotion was predominant at that moment?
  • How did the predominant emotion affect your reading and activities?
  • What space worked better for your learning?

These are a few topics on which to exchange thoughts and inspire helpfulness among classmates.

As you can see, the phrasing possibilities are infinite. The point of this is to help students become aware of the three spaces of online learning: virtual space of the LMS; physical space one is in while accessing the lesson; the mental/intellectual space one is in while dealing with the distractions of the virtual environment. More often than not, the physical space of a moment sets the ambiance for the mental/intellectual space, thus affecting learning; that’s why communicating to students our awareness of the peculiarity of the asynchronous learning space can give them confidence that their professor understands how learning functions in asynchronous courses.

In that regard, the instructor’s voice—a verbal and written space—helps students create the mental-intellectual study desk that can inspire, influence, motivate, and focus them irrespective of race, ethnicity, and other divisions of economics and politics. This study desk space may be subtle but most powerful and valuable as its location is within the self.

Nita Gopal is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College, CA, and has been teaching online since 2006.


Brown, M. (n.d.). Learning Spaces | EDUCAUSE. Educause. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/educating-net-generation/learning-spaces

Brown, M. (2015, February 22). Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/2/seven-principles-for-classroom-design-the-learning-space-rating-system

Chism, N. V. N. (2006). Challenging Traditional Assumptions and Rethinking Learning Spaces. EDUCAUSE. Educause. https://www.educause.edu/research-and-publications/books/learning-spaces/chapter-2-challenging-traditional-assumptions-and-rethinking-learning-spaces

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press. https://www.academia.edu/19846369/Yi_Fu_Tuan_Space_and_Place