Pencil vs. Pixel |


Exploring the future of the classroom.

What will become of the classroom environment, now that (educational) technologies are advancing rapidly? For decades, the actual classroom setting has hardly changed, while possibilities have. Do we envision the educational environments to become more virtual and digital, or do we value tactility and learning through doing? On invitation by art space MU and educational institute SintLucas, Studio KNOL developed a classroom experiment based on this essential debate. We set out to turn this heated discussion of predominantly verbal arguments into an actual spatial, tangible experience. The setup: two months, 25 students, 1 teacher, 1 classroom and a toolset varying from 100% analogue to 100% virtual.

Pencil vs. Pixel is a design research and follow-up of KNOL’s socio-spatial experiment Out of Office at MU last year. Again, responses are monitored while participants are navigating and manipulating a transforming environment. For this project, Studio KNOL defined the ‘educational environment’ as architecture + tools.

The design: a black and white grid architecture, each week equipped with a different range of tools. The space is a physical translation of a 3D-modeling program, including a back-end, front-end and birds’ eye view. The research: an investigation into student’s weekly responses through observations, surveys and interviews. KNOL looked at themes such as attitude towards learning, interaction with each other, the teacher and the space, and bodily use and awareness. The course: Conditional Design; a design method whereby one composes a set of rules that generates an unexpected yet patterned design. For this project, our team collaborated with Augmented/Virtual Reality artists Sander Veenhof and Luciano Pinna of AUGMENTNL.

The project kicked off with a baseline set in the students’ original classroom, representative of their daily learning environment. Think grouped tables, yet fairly individual experiences on laptops; the students spending 85% of the class seated in one place. From the next week onwards, two groups of students passed through the various phases of Pencil vs. Pixel in opposite direction.

for dutch, click here


Let’s Get Physical

Entering phase 1, the students were presented with an environment devoid of technology. Tools for the creation of a conditional design were tiles of various textures and weight – to be physically placed within the grid-like architecture. With its focus on tactility and physicality, students were seen walking – even running – around the classroom while carrying and placing the tiles. As expected, they reported the highest level of use and awareness of their bodies. Slightly surprising: they were not nearly as tired as in their usual classes and scored the highest rates of participation and concentration. In addition, this phase helped most in their understanding of the course material. Most remarkable is that they considered the analogue material tiles as more than a replacement of their laptops and reported to not have missed any other – analogue or digital – tools. Rather, the life-size tangible materials gave them a “completely new perspective”, otherwise unattainable. Also, as they were continuously exposed to each others’ work (rather than working on individual laptops), the students collaborated more in this phase than in any other. A call for more embodied learning?




The second phase added a virtual layer across the space – without losing a sense of physicality. With QRmarkers and an Augmented Reality app, students created their conditional design with virtual buildings blocks, only visible through their smartphone or tablet. This required finding and placing the right QRmarkers across the space to create, duplicate, resize, rotate etc. the blocks. “There were things present in the space that only had meaning in the virtual world”, a student recalls. The setup forced the students to use the classroom in its totality; physicality and virtuality exist side by side as the students are manoeuvring the space while filling it with intangible volumes.

Students found the range of possibilities for manipulation of the blocks slightly overwhelming. This resulted in lower scores on concentration, motivation and creativity. In the teacher’s terms: “They can’t make it their own as quickly…I think that hindered them in learning about conditional design”. Indeed, in this phase, students reported the least mastery on the toolset to create a functioning conditional design. The teacher adds that SintLucas aims to equip students with the competences to approach the new and unfamiliar. This points to two – perhaps opposing – learning objectives. One based on familiarizing with the course content, another based on accepting the unfamiliar. More than anything, students in this phase learned how to relate themselves to unknown possibilities.


3_seen through the headset copy

Not Green, Not Seen

The third or ‘green’ phase was another hybrid, where Virtual Reality intersected with a range of tangible green materials – plants, ropes, lights, clothing etc. The application as experienced through a headset filtered out all materials except for those coloured green. As opposed to the other phases, the students can touch, but can’t see, as much of the space is filtered out by the VR app. The result: an alienating yet entertaining experience. “It went well, except for us bumping into each other but that was actually quite funny”. Students were hampered in their vision, in constant anticipation of touching or being touched by classmates, and had trouble manoeuvring their bodies in the space. As may be expected – yet an interesting paradox – is that this hampering of the senses led to the second-highest levels of bodily awareness.“You, I don’t know, think more about your limbs. Normally you just use them without thinking about it.” This did not stop them from exploring the space in its totality. Within their green reality, one group created an impressive obstacle course, while the second used green rope to mummify the teacher. The overall results show that the students’ appreciation of the teacher as a guide increased as the environment became more innovative and infamiliar. Again, during this phase the students may not have learned as much about creating a solid conditional design. Rather they were taught to make an odd environment their own. Students reported the highest levels of motivation and inspiration during this phase. They mentioned that the addition of colour and natural elements played an important part in this. Something to keep in mind, however virtual the future classroom might become.



Virtual Insanity

In this full-on Virtual Reality phase, supported by IZIVR headsets, each of the students actually became a building block, floating through a 3D rendering of the classroom. In opposition to any of the other phases, students were in no need of their bodies to design. In fact, they completely lose the sense of having one. As an alternative to how VR technology is usually individually experienced, collaboration was ‘programmed’ into this phase. The students wearing headsets were to lay back in beach chairs, while exclaiming verbal commands to fellow programmer-students : “Ok, Taylan, bring me straight ahead. I think that’s y, or no, it’s x” “Who is that pink block hanging above me?”.

The teacher noticed that students started grouping together in order to ease communication. It appears that even as they lost complete sense of their body and visual contact with their peers, physical proximity remains of importance. In an environment designed to create a disembodied experience, levels of use and awareness of the body were expected and found to be the lowest of the four experimental phases.The fact that these levels still outweigh those assessed during the baseline phase, is quite revealing. Appearantly, students are even more passive in their daily educational environment. Finally, students’ assessment of the tools was an exact mirroring of the first, 100% analogue phase. Again, students reported to not have missed any other digital or analogue tools, and again, they claimed that this technology allowed them to do things otherwise inconceivable.


Of course, Pencil versus Pixel – across a curriculum and associated educational environments – is a false dichotomy. It is never or/or, but rather and/and, allowing for an integration of analogue and digital possibilities into a 1+1=3.  Paying due to the future proofing of both the extremes and hybrids, Studio KNOL aimed at transcending the discussion about new or old, virtual or real. The results seem to support the claim that technology brings about a host of possibilities, but also that analogue tools and tactility deserve a space in the future classroom. During a post-project discussion, both students and the teacher vocalized the wish for educational technologies that bring bodily experiences into the virtual environment. MR – mixed reality – is an intriguing technological development that Pencil vs. Pixel has only touched upon but has surely justified.

The translation of a debate into a spatial installation was an interesting and insightful, yet alienating experience for the students. Besides testing a range of educational tools and settings, the experimental nature of the project seems to have responded to an overall educational goal; preparing students to live in a world of continuous change. In which, not to forget, the teacher as a guide is more valuable than ever. Yet, as a studio with a sense of fiction, alternating between art and science, studio KNOL did not intend to provide any golden rules. As a play on opposing arguments, the project aims to give an alternative contribution to this fascinating debate and inspire educational innovators – at SintLucas and elsewhere.

Pencil vs. Pixel is part of the ongoing collaboration between MU Play&Learn and SintLucas:  SCHOOL AROUND. Read more about SCHOOL AROUND and find extensive documentation of the project at and