Tombrarian talks learning commons

Tom Ipri, Tombrarian, UNLV Libraries
Learning Commons : the In in CiL [slides via slideshare]

When relocating from your home to somewhere like Las Vegas, you stop and think about Place in a new way. For example, from his office window he sees a pyramid, and from his library’s top floor you see a 10 story banner of Barry Manilow. What does that mean about his library as place, or our libraries as place?

Every place has its own features, functions, and challenges – this room would not work well for a conversation. It’s designed for a lecture. UNLV has a great learning commons in a relatively new building, with excellent furniture – which is all wired into the floor and bolted together. So the space was designed well, but not designed for flexibility. In part, this is linked to the fact that ten years ago future-oriented librarians and thinkers were predicting the end of the physical library – libraries would become ‘an abstraction’, virtual, or unnecessary. Five years ago future-oriented librarians and thinkers, having remained non-abstract, started thinking about the library as place in a new information environment.

Common characteristics of learning commons: Moveable furniture, wireless infrastructure, laptop support, group study options, multimedia production, rich application suite, laptop loans, large scale printers, white boards, smart boards, tutoring, writing services, vending machines, practice presentation suites. (All of these are designed in support of the need of the learner at any given point in time – not the need of the ‘library’ to be ‘a library’.)

Common Concepts: Flexibility that can be defined and implemented by the learner in a variety of spaces “If you have a tree and a wireless network, you have a classroom”, in support of collaboration, stimulation, and user-friendly human-centered interactions. Libraries interested in being a learning place need to bring together content, services, technology, and environment into one coherent and user-centered whole. Access is not enough; users can access information and teaching outside of the physical library, so the library must be more than access in order to stay relevant.

All of this is a response to the cognitive theory of constructivism – “active construction of knowledge by the learner” – learners construct knowledge by understanding new things and building on current understanding, by drawing on their environment and their trusted experts – which are often their friends.

4 assumptions: Space can hinder or facilitate learning. Environmental effects are moderated by other factors. Space should match teaching objectives, learning styles, and social setting. Space should be treated the same as materials and preparation.

(That last one is a seriously interesting statement. Great services plus great materials plus terrible physical environment = unsuccessful learning interaction. That’s a big idea to unpack in the context of underfunded and neglected physical plant resources. We, in MPOW, have gotten very good at thinking about space, particularly about our space and its strengths and weaknesses, but I don’t think we’ve ever prioritized it as highly as we do our materials and our services. Perhaps we need to be…)

Interesting question: “If our computers are not better than the laptop the students already own, why will they come to use ours? That’s why we include Adobe Creative Suite on our computers” (Value-added computing! Quick, get all those “for library use only” computers out of your libraries, and put in USEFUL stuff.)

Audience question: If you have a small budget and a mandate to make an information commons, what would you prioritize? Tom says flexible furniture and physical resources – move some furniture around, allow them to move furniture around, maybe buy some whiteboards on rollers. (I would add, “get wireless” to that, so the students can leverage the other things you can do.) Another audience member follows up with “leverage campus resources”, and bring the writing center into the library, bring in the tutoring services, etc, to create a learning one-stop shop.

(Awesome bunch of ideas and tips to consider. Lots of thinking for me/us to do on this issue… particularly in light of the whole “not likely to ever get a whole new library” perspective — what can we do NOW?)

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