It’s easy to take for granted that all learning and teaching, wherever it occurs, has physical dimensions. Whether it’s the hardware and physical infrastructure behind ‘cloud’* computing, artefacts, bodies, or locations, the development and acquisition of knowledge always occurs at a time, in a space, and with tangible elements.

Despite its ready invisibility, at UTS this is formally acknowledged – physicality is built into our learning and teaching strategy. A key part of learning.futures involves the development of ‘innovative learning spaces’, with an emphasis on the face-to-face experiences of blended learning. We’ve opened a range of new teaching spaces that reflect the latest theories in learning design, with more on the way.

Our learning infrastructure is designed to facilitate different configurations of human activity – in other words, a major consideration of our strategy recognises the role of bodies in space. Whoa, right?

Physical learning spaces

If it’s physical, it can be measured. Enter Dr Roberto Martinez-Maldonado, an Educational Data Science Research Fellow in the Connected Intelligence Centre (CIC). Roberto and his team are working on two concurrent grant projects to explore analytics in physical learning spaces. This project aims to transform how we analyse face-to-face teaching, developing tools to measure and reflect on physical practice (view the project overview.)

The project utilises the decreasing cost and proliferation of sensory technologies to open up new possibilities and arenas of inquiry. One such area involves exploring how an instructor moves through the physical space during lessons, with a focus on location-based interactions with groups of students in a class setting. Using tracking sensors that give real-time data on a teacher’s location in the room, Roberto is able to show where and how they engage, and provide that information back to them.

Roberto recently provided a demonstration in the LX.Lab to academics from across the university, sharing a proof-of-concept project conducted with Dr Jurgen Schulte from the Science and Mathematics Education Research and Innovation Team (SciMERIT).

Roberto's session on learning analytics in the physical spaces
Roberto’s session in the LX.lab.

The project so far

Jurgen and Roberto set out to map and compare teacher movements through a range of activities with different learning designs. In these early stages the project is looking at developing the measurement technologies and how to visualize that information, as well as the correlation between design and movement.

These trials are unfolding against two broader considerations:

  • How can these technologies be utilised in the classroom to improve teaching practice? Existing research clearly demonstrates the importance of physical presence in instruction, so how can this be operationalised, and how can it scale?
  • What are the ethical considerations and potential drawbacks to these technologies?

Potential applications discussed include questions of positioning and student engagement, from traditional classroom layouts to small group spaces; opportunities for self-reflection and real-time feedback; and specialised applications, such as studying the movement flows in practices that require physical precision in movement (eg. nursing and engineering).

Floor plan map from Jones's Tools for Teaching
There is a body of research that examines concepts such as teacher mobility and proximity. From Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation (Jones, 2000)

Roberto is keen to emphasise: “It’s not about the ‘X, Y’ position. That’s just the data. The challenge is to give context and meaning to that data. What are they doing? Why are they there? What are the implications?”


The second major discussion point involves considering the shadow side of these technologies: the ethical considerations, and their potential for surveillance.

As one session participant pointed out, these technologies are becoming mainstream. Whether we look into them or not, businesses will inevitably develop spatial tracking tools into products, which we know may be foisted upon teachers in the future. The kind of cutting edge research Roberto is doing is an opportunity to help steer that conversation, and develop teacher-led tools we can voluntarily use to improve what we do, while highlighting and avoiding the pitfalls**.

Roberto’s project is at an early stage, and there are several project design discussion sessions planned, which are open to anyone curious about this new field. If this sounds interesting to you, contact Roberto at to stay up-to-date with project developments and future discussions.

You can also follow him on Twitter @RobertoResearch

PS. The overall project is supported by a grant from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Education and Students). A linked project, High Performance Teamwork Analytics in Physical Spaces, is supported by an Early Career Research (ECR) grant. Speak with your Associate Dean Research for more information!

*A cloud of fluffy grey server farms in an air-conditioned basement somewhere
**Or we could just do what we usually do and let the advertising industry lead the way. I mean, when has that ever gone wrong?

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