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Xavier Magazine | September 20, 2017

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Common Ground

Greg Schaber

Christine Dacey sees her classes connected to a university in Paris. Steven Herbert sees a seamless blending of University services. Kandi Stinson sees revolutionary changes in teaching and learning. Debra Mooney sees opportunities to expand Jesuit spirituality. David Dodd sees a space teeming with students, all working collaboratively. Byron White sees a University more completely integrated with the greater community. As faculty and administrators involved with various University planning committees, the five all see the same thing-Xavier’s future. And the collective picture they paint is of a multi-faceted institution of teaching and learning that’s non-stop, high on flexibility, rich in technology, bursting with possibility and very, very exciting.

With the official kickoff of To See Great Wonders: The Campaign for Xavier on Sept. 29, the University turned the public spotlight on a massive building project that, both in concept and concrete, may well forever change both the way Xavier sees itself and the way the greater world sees Xavier. The James E. Hoff, S.J., Academic Quad is the centerpiece of this vision. An $86 million, state-of-the-art academic complex designed to meet the needs of 21st century students, it features four primary components-a new, multi-faceted Learning Commons, a new building to house the Williams College of Business and the graduate program in health services administration, a renovated University Library, and a fully renovated and modernized Alter Hall.

Beyond the purely academic, there’s also the Campus Village, a mixed-use retail and apartment development at Montgomery Road and Dana Avenue. Each of these components has its own allure, but none is more intriguing than the Learning Commons-the quad’s comprehensive educational focal point. As envisioned, it costs an estimated $28 million to build and encompasses just shy of 80,000 square feet spread over two or three floors, providing Xavier students with a broad range of facilities and technological resources.

Open around the clock, seven days a week, the commons blends services with a social, beyond-the-classroom learning environment reflective of current learning styles. It incorporates-at this stage of planning-the 8,750-square-foot Magis Plaza, which includes a cyber café with a 40-seat computer lab; a 300-seat, 4,500-square-foot auditorium; a 1,000-square-foot art gallery; and four 1,000-square-foot flexible classrooms that can be reconfigured with moveable walls to accommodate demands for larger or smaller class spaces.

“It’s one large learning space,” says Dacey, chair for the department of psychology. “I think it’s going to present a lot of opportunities for students and faculty to start thinking about learning beyond the classroom.”

If there are buzz phrases for the Learning Commons, “flexible spaces” and “learning beyond the classroom” are certainly high on the list. The strategy is deceptively simple: Create the best possible classroom and social environments for learning and teaching, provide wiring and other technological infrastructure that allow students to use today’s-and tomorrow’s-technology, place them all in adaptable spaces that can change with the times, and thus open the door for all kinds of possibilities.

Dodd, the University’s vice president for information resources and chief information officer, says the Commons is designed to reflect recent shifts in the learning paradigm of higher education. “We understand, far more than we ever have, that learning is a very broad activity that occurs within, and to a great extent, beyond the classroom,” he says. “And so what we’re about here is providing the facilities that will really support the learning that occurs beyond the classroom.”

“When you take smart people and you put them in a common space, things come out that you can’t envision,” says Herbert, chair of the department of physics. “And that is one of the primary goals of the Learning Commons. It’s a space where this interaction can take place naturally, without forcing people together.”

With a world of extracurricular commitments, students often begin serious study late in the evening. The Commons addresses these realities by providing around-the-clock access to work areas of varying sizes. Of course, there’s no question that today’s students also expect the best in technology. “They breathe it like air,” Herbert says. And it’s a financial reality that, to compete for the best students, the University must provide the best in technology. Xavier’s solution, however, goes one step further: Instead of merely accumulating computers and other equipment, which quickly become dated, the University plans to provide an infrastructure-including wiring, ports and jacks-that allows the Commons to adapt to changes in technology without requiring renovation.

Specifically, Dodd says, the Commons concept focuses on two types of technology-wireless technology that allows student to use laptops and other devices anytime, anywhere; and space-dependent technologies. The latter technologies include such things as large plasma-screen monitors that interface with student computers and real-time viewing of collaborative work done on several machines at once, rooms equipped with audio/video systems, and video-conferencing equipment that literally brings the world to the University.

Still, impressive as that feat is, it’s human interaction-student-to-student, faculty-to-faculty, student-to-faculty and University-to-community-that is the Commons’ lifeblood.

“I think this really could be a revolutionary change in the way that we teach and interact with our students,” Stinson says. “One of the most interesting aspects of the Learning Commons in my mind is that it brings together those spaces, functions, expertise etc. that support on the one hand faculty development and on the other hand student academic excellence. For the first time on this campus, we’re going to have those things not only in close geographic proximity, but close intellectual proximity as well.”

The proximity Stinson refers to encompasses the Commons’ service components, the first of which, the center for student excellence, provides academic support and services through its own sub-components-the career services center, the learning assistance center and the experiential learning laboratory for math, writing and modern languages.

“The concept is to have kind of a front porch for each of these centers,” Dacey says. “So if a student is wanting to improve himself he might go up to the writing center and then be right next door to perhaps the modern language lab. All of these would all be together instead of like now, where you have to walk across campus to another building.”

Dodd says the center for student excellence is a hallmark of the Commons. When completed, it may well be unique in American higher education: the only university-operated center focused on helping all students-not just those in need of remediation-achieve at their highest levels. The Commons’ second major service component is the center for teaching excellence, which provides professional development for faculty through its sub-components: the collaborative learning studio, the faculty fellows program, the center for interdisciplinary study and several experimental classrooms.

As with the rest of the Commons, its job is to open the door to imagination and innovation.

“I imagine we could be teaching a class and we could be connected with a university in Paris,” Dacey says. “We could connect our class to what’s going on with a speaker in another country. It could really be exciting. In the past we talked about having sister schools. But it’s been a big challenge. Now, as we enhance our technological support systems, we’ll be able to do those kinds of things much more easily.”

Plans call for the center for teaching excellence to be in close physical proximity to two other centers-the center for community-engaged learning and the institute for Jesuit education, a relationship carefully planned to maximize interaction. Dacey got a glimpse of the potential for this type of space during a subcommittee visit to the University of Dayton earlier this year-offices situated around a large commons space that virtually forces personnel from the various centers to come together. “This would bring those three units together in a way to help them kind of capture and enact the vision that we’ve already set for the University,” she says.

For Ignatian programs, this proximity provides the opportunity for an even more thorough integration of Jesuit educational principles into all facets of University life. “We often say we want to braid the mission of the University with people’s day-to-day work,” says Mooney, director for Ignatian programs. “In the new building, we want to expand on that.”

For example, along with broadened versions of Ignatian mentoring and educational programs, Mooney sees an opportunity to expand offerings for spirituality, such as retreats. “There’s an interest there that we haven’t been able to satisfy for faculty and staff,” she says. “We would like to be able to meet that interest, and also meet the interest of the faculty and staff who are desiring to experience the spiritual exercises.”

White, director for the center for community-engaged learning, says the new center, which replaces the old community building collaborative at Xavier, will serve as a coordinating point for a variety of initiatives involving both the University and the surrounding community. “You can see how these three things work together,” he says. “Teaching and learning is the center of what we do. But our values and tradition require us to emphasize two components of teaching and learning.

One of those is Jesuit identity. The other is community engagement. The idea of solidarity that’s mentioned in our mission statement implies that there’s learning that goes on in the mind and there is action that goes on connecting with people. And the combination of those is what shapes us and changes our hearts. This is a physical manifestation of that. It’s saying, ‘You want to come and see what learning looks like at Xavier? Here it is.'”

While some smaller aspects of the Commons’ project may change-and all of it is dependent on securing funding-the concept, focused tightly on student learning, has long been solidly in place. And it’s that very guiding concept that allows so many to see so many possibilities for both the Commons and larger Hoff Quad.

“The scope of the project is one of the things that sets it apart,” Stinson says. “We’re talking about two brand new buildings and major renovations of our central classroom building and the library. And those things are in conjunction with each other. That has allowed us to get more creative in thinking about the relationships between those things. I don’t see how you could not have a major impact when you’re doing that kind of large, really rethinking how we organize learning on campus.”

Dodd, not surprisingly, sees it a little differently. “One of the things that excites me about this is that, if we deliver it as planned, it will literally be a national model of excellence.”

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