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Xavier Magazine | November 18, 2017

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The Next Frontier

Greg Schaber

The University built it, and they came. Without announcement or invitation. A steady stream of them, says librarian Betty Porter.

As soon as the carpet and furniture arrived in the prototype of the planned Learning Commons, students packed the place.

“They came earlier and stayed later,” says Porter. “They made themselves right at home.”

It was finals week, a full month before the prototype’s scheduled January grand opening, but there they were, packed into the collaborative learning zone—the large, open, technology-laden space that forms about half of the prototype.

Surprising? Maybe. Maybe not. The Learning Commons has been one of the most talked about aspects of the To See Great Wonders capital campaign, and the students spent months watching as the prototype became a reality. The library staff moved all of the books from the first floor in June, and each time the students walked through the building’s main doors they got an update as workmen labored to transform the space into the prototype.

Finally, though, it opened, and that initial positive response brought both a sense of gratification—and a sigh of relief—to those responsible for its success.

“It’s one thing when you think about these things conceptually,” says David Dodd, Xavier’s vice president for information resources and CIO. “But actually doing it is a gamble that your vision is viable. What we’re seeing now is, ‘Oh yes. We’ve got it.’ ”

Of all the components of the Great Wonders campaign, the Learning Commons—a primary cog in the James E. Hoff, S.J., Academic Quad—has been by far the most difficult to define and describe. To get a real sense of the Learning Commons concept, it seems, you have to see it.

Enter alumni-philanthropist Phil Gasiewicz, who provided the lion’s share of the almost $1 million necessary to create the living, breathing, scaled-down model. In fact, much of the furniture and technology found in the prototype will ultimately make its way into the actual Commons. Equally important, the prototype allows the University to fine-tune the concept before building the real thing.

“The Learning Commons will be bigger and will integrate even more services and offices,” says Kandi Stinson, Xavier’s associate provost for academic affairs. “For space reasons primarily, we could only fold three of the components into the prototype.”

Those components are evident just inside the library’s front doors, where visitors first come face-to-face with the Information Resources Center, a large, sweeping desk combining the traditional reference and circulation desks with a technology help desk. It is essentially a one-stop shop that allows students to access resources without disrupting their study.

To the right of the desk is the collaborative learning zone, a quarter-size model of the Commons’ Magis Plaza. A wireless environment, it includes five computer-interfacing, wall-mounted flat-screen monitors, each flanked by a pair of white dry-erase boards, and lots of small details designed to facilitate study. Stinson says the large, open space is designed to promote student interaction, a philosophy reflected even in the furnishings.

“Everything is moveable, with the exception of a couple large stations that are hardwired to allow connections to printers,” Stinson says. “Every table that has a seam can either be pulled apart and/or the leaves can be dropped. In a sense, all the tables are great big jigsaw puzzles that can be quickly pulled apart and put back together again in any number of ways, depending on what they’re being used for.”

Also in the prototype are an experimental classroom and faculty lounge, which correlate to the Commons’ Center for Teaching Excellence. The classroom includes four wall-mounted flat-screen monitors, a Smart Board, multiple ceiling-mounted cameras and flexible furnishings. It’s a simplified version of the three experimental classrooms planned for the Learning Commons, Dodd says.

And, the library garden is gated off, effectively extending these new work and study areas outdoors.

With all of the physical changes, though, the key remains fine-tuning that one unpredictable component: the human element. As Dodd points out, it’s people who ultimately deliver the services. In some cases, that involves bringing together staff members who, while they may have been under the same divisional banner in the past, have never had to work closely together in the ways the new facility requires.

“I think this is essential for us to have this prototype,” Porter says. “We’re getting over some of the growing pains now, which is good.”

Current staffing issues also mean the prototype isn’t open around the clock, as the Learning Commons will be. But whatever the limitations, the students who packed the collaborative learning zone during finals week didn’t seem to care.

“We were a little surprised at how well they responded to it,” Stinson says. “In hindsight, we should have known they would just find it and make it their own.”

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