Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Learning Commons Turning Libraries into blended learning places

Learning Commons: Evolution and Collaborative Essentials by Barbara SchaderOn my way back from the University of Canberra Learning & Teaching Week, I dropped in at their library, which has an excellent selection of books on teaching. Amongst the new books on display was "Learning Commons: Evolution and Collaborative Essentials" by Barbara Schader (Chandos Publishing Oxford Ltd, March 27, 2008). I have been searching for a year for details on how to redesign university teaching spaces for blended and e-learning. This is the best book I have found so far.

The book is edited papers from a conference, so it approaches the problem from several different perspectives and there is some overlap and contradictions. However, it contains very valuable material, including floor plans of actual facilities built.

Since attending a seminar at ANU on MIT iCampus in July 2007 I have been looking at how university classrooms could be redesigned to incorporate computer systems for learning, including classroom room and furniture design. One frustration has not knowing exactly what to call this. Initially I referred to flexible learning centers then blended learning in those centres. While I could find much on the design of courses and e-learning I could find little on the design of classrooms specifically for this. What I did discover from looking at actual learning institutions was that the librarians seemed to be the ones who had the best idea of what to do.

The book is from the point of view of university and other teaching institution librarians, who have already evolved their libraries into "information commons", which provide information not only in book form, but electronically. It suggests taking another step in this evolution and bringing the formal and informal learning into the library with the "Learning Commons". This is something I have seen first hand at libraries across Australia (UQ, UNSW, RMIT, USyd, Concord) and as far a field as Malaysia in the last year (also at Hawker Primary School in Canberra). Also I have looked at classroom design, design documents from Flinder's University, and UK designs. But this is the first time I have seen it set down as a coherent strategy.

The book provides examples of learning commons at universities, mostly in the USA, with the different room layouts designing for different learning activities and how these relate to each other. Typically a library will have facilities ranging from traditional silent individual study, group work areas, discussion tutorial areas, mini-lecture rooms, and cafe style.

After speinding many hours searching for floor plans for "flexible learning" I find that all I had to do was instead look for "floor plans learning commons". I thought perhaps this was a new term, but only 39 of the 746 web pages found with a search are less than a year old. An image search found about 50 floor plans and photos of a delighted eclectic collection of curved desks.

The book covers much more than just how to lay out curved desks, including an overview of software, facilities planning and promotion of a learning commons. It is likely that different readers will find different sections of interest (I found the sections on promotion and planning of least value).

Now that I know I am not the only person obsessed with fitting curved desks with computers on them into a space, I can look at how such spaces might be used. One approach of particular interest is flexible, but fixed, designs. Several of the designs in the book are intended for desks to be rearranged for different learning styles. However, this is difficult to do, particularly where the desks have computers on them. It also assumes that one learning style will be used for one lesson. In computer assisted courses I have run, the learning style changes every twenty minutes or so, and it would not be feasible to move the furniture or change rooms this often.

The hidden agenda for university in consideration of facilities such as learning commons is to reduce costs by eliminating lectures, lecturers and lecture theatres. Advocates of the US "cabaret" style teaching, including the MIT TEAL, suggest that mass lectures can be replaced with a sort of mass tutorial/workshop. A room holding one hundred or more students has a main presenter in the middle (somewhat like a cabaret singer in a nightclub) and several roving tutors (like waiters at the cabaret). This approach also argues that mass machine marked multiple choice tests can be used, supplemented sometimes with students marking each others work. None of this sits comfortably with a research lead institution, like the ANU.

What perhaps will sit comfortably with institutions is a blended approach. This could eliminate large dull lectures, without creating the large cabaret tutorial. One approach would be to have small lectures for about 25 students. These lectures would be recorded and made available to the students, along with the same computer based materials used in the room. Students could choose to attend the live lecture, or view it online. They would be given the same interactive exercise to do regardless of if they came into the room or did it remotely.

Based on my experience of the effect of audio podcasts on lecture attendance, I expect only about 25% of the students would choose to attend any particular lecture in person. So the rooms used would need to hold only 25 students, for a class of 100. Rather than use cabaret as the metaphor, this format would use a "live" TV variety or game show with the students as the participating studio audience. This would provide for a more lively performance, than where a teacher pre-records a lecture sitting alone in a small booth, on in a darkened lecture theatre in front of hundreds of invisible students.

If only 25% of the students attend an average lecture, such a system would deliver similar savings in staffing and space to other computer enhanced teaching formats. Existing tutorials rooms could be equipped for this format, without having to move walls. Standard office buildings could be converted to and from teaching spaces, unlike lecture theatres which require specially engineered buildings. The cost of equipping each room with an interactive white board and a computer for each student are dropping, whereas the cost of buildings and land tend not to.
Summary: This book examines successfully planned and implemented Library Learning Commons at several different academic institutions around the world. These case studies provide a methodology for effective planning, implementation and assessment. Practical information is provided on how to collaborate with campus stakeholders, estimate, budgeting and staffing and determine the equipment, hardware and software needs.

Also provided are memoranda of understanding (MOUs), planning checklists and assessment tools. This book reflects a unifying focus on both the evolution of learning commons to learning spaces and the collaborative aspect of co-creating learning spaces. Key Features: Unique case studies representing very different types of Information Commons, Learning Commons, Faculty Commons and other Learning Spaces International breadth and depth is assured through inclusion of case studies from Canadian, New Zealand, Australian and European institutions in addition to six in the United States

Practical checklists of planning and implantation considerations, as well as memorandum of understanding(MOU)templates, form the appendices Readership: Librarians, administrators, faculty and other educators in both public and private academic institutions will find this book helpful in developing learning spaces in their institutions. They will learn how to adopt and adapt these spaces for their institutions. Graduate library science faculty will also use this book as a text. ...

From's summary of "Learning Commons: Evolution and Collaborative Essentials" by Barbara Schader (Chandos Publishing Oxford Ltd, March 27, 2008).


  1. Introduction - Barbara Schader
  2. From information commons to learning commons and learning spaces: an evolutionary context. Mary M. Somerville, Assistant Dean, California Polytechnic State University. Describes the evolution of information commons to learning commons to learning spaces with references to key literature and implementations/installations. A subchapter covers Library 2.0.
  3. Beyond facebook: thinking of the learning Commons as a social network. It presents characteristics of the current generation of students and implications for collaborative learning spaces. Jill McKinstry, Director, Odegaard Undergraduate Library, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
  4. Supporting the learning commons concept in the real world. Jenn Stringer, Associate Director for Educational Technology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, California, USA
  5. Transforming service delivery: Teaching and learning within the information commons. Shahla Bahavar, Information Services Coordinator, Leavey Library University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA
  6. Engineering student success through critical partnerships. Crit Stuart, Associate Director for Public Services, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Georgia, USA7. Susan Beattie, Head, Information Commons, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
  7. Improving student life, learning and support through collaboration, integration and innovation. Hester Mountifield, Assistant University Librarian, Information Commons & Learning Services, The University of Auckland Library, Auckland, New Zealand
  8. Evaluation and assessment
  9. Conclusions and predictions


  • planning collaborative spaces in libraries
  • planning checklist (checklist with sections on preliminary planning, project kick-off, project definitions, space planning, personnel, budgets, collaborations, service considerations, marketing, pre-launch analysis, launch, post-launch analysis)
  • templates for Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) to be used when entering into collaborations with other institutional entities
  • floor plans, diagrams and pictures of current successful learning spaces.

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