The Learning Commons Model:
 Determining Best Practices for Design, Implementation, and Service

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Information Commons and Learning Commons Site Visits

 
Site Visit: University of Massachusetts, Amherst - W.E.B. Du Bois Library
 
Contacts: Anne C. Moore, Ph.D., Associate Director for User Services
Emily Alling, Coordinator, Learning Commons & Undergraduate Library Services
 
Web Site: http://www.umass.edu/learningcommons/
 
Organizational Structure: The Library and Information Technology Departments are NOT merged
Date of Visit: February 16, 2007

Overview

UMass Amherst is the largest research institution in the Massachusetts University System.  It has an enrollment of 19,823 undergraduates and 5,770 graduate students and employs 1,169 faculty members.  The library staff directory on the web  lists over 130 staff positions. The W.E.B. Du Bois Library, designed as a research facility in 1972, is a 25 floor tower in red brick and is immediately recognizable from anywhere on campus and beyond.  Built as a tower, it has a central elevator that takes users to collections and services throughout the building.  Library or Academic Support offices and services are located on every third floor.  Some of these services include the Learning Resource Center, Computer Classrooms (managed by O.I.T.), Reserves/Media, Media Viewing Rooms, Special Collections & University Archives, and Library Offices.  The entrance floor is home to the Cafe, Circulation, and Information Referral Desks.  The Learning Commons is located on the Lower Level and occupies 23,000 square feet.  Primarily, it was designed to meet the needs of the undergraduate population and serve as the campus facility for Academic Support.  Usage statistics indicate a 70% increase each month that the LC has been opened.

The UMass Amherst Learning Commons opened in September 2005.  Using Information - Collaboration - Community as their motto, this Learning Commons environment seeks to partner with a variety of student support services, making the Library the go-to place on campus.  Once inside, students will find all the resources and services they need to be successful in their academic career.  The building is open 24 hours a day, 5 days a week.  On Friday and Saturday it closes at 9 p.m.  The LC offers a variety of study and social spaces - individual workstations, two- to ten-person workstations, lots of group study rooms, tables with laptop ports, comfortable seating and more.  The idea was to create spaces that were accessible, appealing, comfortable, convenient, and flexible and then infuse those spaces with centrally located and student focused support services.

Although the main home for the Learning Commons is on the lower level of the Library building, services supporting the Learning Commons Model can be found throughout this tower structure.  These partnership services are discussed in further detail in Description of Services and Facilities and Collaborations and Partnerships sections of this web page.

Description of Services and Facilities

When you first enter the library you are at the entrance level.  First and foremost are desks for Information and Referral, Building Operations - Maintenance and Safety, and the Procrastination Station Cafe. The Cafe is open to 1 a.m. - but students are asking for longer hours.  The Cafe reports a 432% increase in usage from 2005 to 2006. Off to one side are computers at standing height for quick look-up and on the other side is a small reading area with new books.  Circulation Services have been placed toward the rear of this floor behind the main elevators.  Placing Circulation away from the front door has help to alleviate traffic congestion and noise.  Express Self Check-out stations are located near the building's exit and handled about 40% of the library's total circulation.  In the future, they hope to install a large display monitor where they can post announcements about events and new databases and services.  Stairs on either side of this entrance level lead down to the Learning Commons.

Procrastination Station Cafe Stairs and Signage for Learning Commons

Because of the building's layout and inflexible tower structure, the only place to house the Learning Commons was in the footprint on the lower level of the building.  Higher floors did not offer the space to create cultural and group study areas for students.  The card catalog and index tables were moved out of this space to make room for the Commons.  In order to create this space, the services of an architect were not needed because they only had a limited footprint to work within.  Instead they consulted with OFI Contract Interiors, their Herman Miller dealer, to design the modular work spaces.  The floor plan for the Learning commons is available at http://www.umass.edu/learningcommons/floorplan.html . Products included in this facility include Action Office System, Ethospace System, Resolve Sysetm, Caper Chairs, Equa2 Chairs, Avive Table Collection and Meridian Storage Cases and Bookcases.

The main Learning Commons area offers five service desks:  Reference and Research Assistance, Learning Commons & Technical Support, Academic Advising & Career Services, the Writing Center, and the Assistive Technologies Center. The Reference Desk and the Learning Commons support desks are stationed at either end of the the large public computer area; Academic Advising is centrally located amidst the student login workstations; Assistive Technologies and the Writing Center are located on the periphery of the Commons area.

Reference Desk Learning Commons & Technical Support Desk
Academic Advising & Career Services Writing Center

The Reference Desk is staffed by one or two professional staff librarians at a time and operates as a traditional reference service point.  The office located directly behind the desk is used for one-on-one research consultations.  The Learning Commons & Technical Support Desk is a hub of activity which may be staffed by five or six staff consultants at any one time.  It has staff from three different groups working at the desk simultaneously: the library, academic computing that helps with instructional technology support issues, and O.I.T. "techies" that help with network and account issues. It takes 3 shifts to staff this desk 24 hours a day/ 5 days per week. They receive all types of questions related to computer software and hardware, questions about printing and copying services, and even directional type questions.  It is easy for the staff at this desk to recognize queries requiring the expertise of a reference librarian and they readily make that referral.  The Academic Advising & Career Services Desk is staffed by Academic Advising staff from Pre-Major Advising Services and helps students explore the academic programs and opportunities offered by the university. Career Counselors are also available at this desk to help students learn about internships, resume writing, and offer individual career counseling. 

Although not on the main Learning Commons floor, but certainly an important service of the Learning Commons is the Learning Resource Center. The Learning Resource Center, located on the tenth floor, provides peer tutoring and supplemental instruction for many first and second year courses.  It is not a remedial service but rather a course support service. The Center is open both day and evening hours and has a posted schedule so that students can readily see if a tutor or supplemental instruction is available for their course.  The supplemental instruction is built around individual courses.  A student who has already taken a course is paid to work with the instructor and retake the course so that he/she can offer scheduled drop-in review sessions to currently enrolled students.  The LRC also houses the Office for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship that lists research opportunities and internships and helps to match students to these programs.  For more information, see their web site at http://www.umass.edu/lrc/

Learning Resource Center LRC Group Tutoring Room
LRC Study Room with Laptop Port LRC One-to-One Tutoring Room

Throughout the Learning Commons, students are offered a variety of social and study spaces.  In total, there are 164 multi-purpose workstations (PC and MACs) and 400+ laptop ports.  58 of these workstations are freely available for public use and are arranged in rows between the Reference Desk and the Learning Commons Desk. These computers are under the Library's operation and  have Microsoft Office & Web browsers that allow access to library and internet resources.  The rest of the computers in the Learning Commons require UMass student login and are managed by the Office of Information Technology.  In addition to Microsoft Office and web browsers, these computers have web authoring software - Dreamweaver, Frontpage, Flash, Photoshop, statistical applications such as SPSS, SAS, Minitab, and Datasets, ADA software, multimedia, GIS software and spatial data. For a complete list of software in this area see http://www.oit.umass.edu/classrooms/software/   These computers are arranged in three different configurations.  The Pods, arranged in a kidney shape are the most popular because they offer plenty of room for spreading out.  Within each configuration there are additional ports for laptop use.

Public Computer Area O.I.T. Computer Work Areas
Pod - Kidney Shaped Work Areas Computer Workstations mixed with Comfortable Seating
Mac Work Stations in LC - about 17% of Computers are Macs Ceiling Wiring Cage that houses Cabling for Computers

There are also comfortable seating areas for reading or meeting with friends and modular tables with removable power strips that can be moved if space is needed for an event.  The tables are designed for wireless laptop use.  All of the tables and seating can be re-arranged as needed.  In the center of this space is also room for exhibit cases.

Modular Tables with Center Modular Power Strip Social Space and Reading Chairs near Table Area

Conveniently located near the computers is an Office Supply Vending Machine from which students can purchase items such as headphones, markers, kleenex, CDs, pens, etc.  This area also has a Cell Phone Booth-- a sound proof booth that students can use to talk on their cell phones.  There are three of these Phone Booths for cell phone use throughout the building.

Office Supplies Vending Machine Cell Phone Booth on Lower Level Cell Phone Booth on Upper Level Floor

In addition to the open areas the Learning Commons also has 15 individual group study rooms.  These rooms have glassed in walls and are designed for 3 or 4 people.  They are available on a first come, first served basis.  Individuals may use the group study rooms when not being used for collaborative study.  Each room has one computer workstation with additional ports for laptops and a white board.  At the far end of the LC is the Calipari Room designed for  Library Instruction.  When not being used for instruction, this room is freely available for student use.  The Calipari Room has 20 student workstations and an instructor's module.

Group Study Room Calipari Room for Library Instruction

One one side of the Learning Commons you will find the Microform Collection (which is in the process of being relocated), Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery, the Reference Collection, and an Meeting or Events Area with projection equipment.

 
Meeting/ Events Area  

On the second and third floor students will find work spaces for quiet study.  These spaces have laptop ports and are wireless. There is no talking allowed in this area.

 Additionally students may borrow one of 16 Tablet/Laptop PCs from the Reserve Desk to use within the library.  Loan periods are for four hours, there are no renewals and no reservations.  With the Tablet PC they can also borrow a Stylus Pen.  Each time a tablet PC or a stylus is borrowed, the user must sign a loan agreement.

Newly Designed Quiet Study Area on Third  Floor Quiet Study Area


Governance and Strategic Fit

The Learning Commons at UMass Amherst is the result of a grassroots effort to enhance student support services on campus.  A faculty member observed a similar student support center at another university and began to explore the possibilities at UMass Amherst.  The Library quickly saw the Learning Commons Model as a way to bring student services together, increase library usage, and enhance both student retention and student success. Forming a group of interested parties, people from across campus worked together to plan the facility and achieve buy-in from the provost and eventually the Chancellor. Once funding was allocated for the project, things began to move fast.  Within a four month time span they built the Learning Commons facilities on the lower level of the Library.  Weekly meetings between Office of Information Technology (O.I.T>) and the Library helped staff to prioritize service needs and work collaboratively.

In terms of University Strategic Planning, The Learning Commons is an important component goal of the University's Campus Diversity Action Plan and is referred to as "A Portal to Success" (http://www.umass.edu/campusdiversity/pdfs/042905_finalplan.pdf).  Usage statistics do indeed indicate that ethnic groups are the most frequent users of the Learning Commons.

The Learning Commons is Coordinated through the Library's User Services division.  Although the Library and the Office of Information Technology are not merged, there exists a strong partnership between the two departments.  Staff from the Library and O.I.T. work side by side on the Learning Commons and Technology Support Desk.

Collaboration and Partnerships

Collaboration and partnerships are key to the success of the Learning Commons at UMass Amherst.  As noted above, they have built strong relationships with Office of Information Technology and several other Academic Support Units.  See their web page (http://www.umass.edu/learningcommons/ )for a complete overview of the partnerships they have built to provide an array of student services within their building.  The Coordinator for the Commons is the liaison to all of people providing services in the Commons.  She coordinates all the activities and the services, making everything work together for the benefit of the students.

One successful new partnership has been with Academic Advisement. They have actual advisors working in the library and are open in the evenings as well as during the day.  Having this service located in the library, brings students in to the building and has enhanced the library's role in the academic achievement process.  The Library has help to introduce students to academic support and has revolutionized student orientation.

Staffing and Training

Weekly meetings with OIT facilitates opportunities for cross training.  The Coordinator for the Learning Commons facilitates training, communication, and services.

Impact on Collections

The largest impacts have been on the Reference and Serials collections.  Reference has been weeded by 60%, with many of their titles being integrated into the regular stack collection.  Titles that had online equivalents were discarded.  The bound scholarly journal collection is integrated into the stacks in proper call number area.  In the past, the current periodicals had been kept separate, but they are now being interfiled with the rest of the bound journal title.  A small collection of 50 titles and current newspapers will be kept separate and displayed in the new popular reading area.  Microforms, which consume a large area of the lower level are being moved to an inaccessible location.  They will be retrieved for patron requests through a paging system.

Virtual Environment

The Virtual Learning Commons is accessible from their web page: http://www.umass.edu/learningcommons/.  From this web site you will find plenty of information about their services and links to the Library web site and virtual reference service. They participate in both IM reference and Question Point. Their web space also offers information about User Behavior Policies, a News feature and a place to offer comments and feedback.

Assessment

Joan Lippincott has said that UMass has the best assessment tools for measuring the success of their Learning Commons. Joan's powerpoint presentation is available from their assessment page. In fact, all of their assessment activities are readily available from the Libraries Web Page in the About Us section. (http://www.library.umass.edu/assessment/learningcommons.html ) They have conducted observational surveys that compare usage in Learning Commons areas during Fall 2005 and Spring 2006 with observational surveys completed in 2001, prior to building the LC.  In terms of data collection, they have it all possible areas.  They have collected data about use of their partnership services -- the Writing Center, the LRC, the Cafe.  They have average hourly use and typical week charts, daily and hourly Learning Commons usage figures and Learning Commons Computer use counts, gate counts, and more.

Focus group sessions and individual interviews concerning the Learning Commons were conducted in April 2006. Results of these sessions are available at http://www.library.umass.edu/assessment/LCFocusGroupReportApril2006.pdf

They also completed a Learning Commons Usage Survey in November 2005 and did a formal survey of the Library and Learning Commons in March 2006 that was designed and conducted by a student from the  Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  The 24 page analysis of this survey done by Student Assessment, Research, and Evaluation Office (SAREO) can be found at http://www.library.umass.edu/assessment/SAREOAnalysisLCSurvey06.pdf

Additionally the Library is participating in LibQual for the second time in Spring 2007, has completed the Cycles Survey 2004 that measures levels of satisfaction with student services, and has a formal Library Assessment Committee and Assessment Librarian.

Lessons Learned

Empowering people to work together and share information is what is needed to make things happen.

Relationships with O.I.T. have grown tremendously over the years just by being flexible, working toward a common goal and meeting together with a common agenda.

A grassroots effort can be powerful and successful if people are committed to the project.

Having a Coordinator to facilitate communication and coordinate services helps everything run smoothly.

Partnerships with other Academic Support Services are important for not only the success of the Learning Commons Model but for the success of students.

Utilize as many assessment tools as possible since it will help to justify ongoing and future funding.

Meet, meet, meet  ---- Communicate, communicate, communicate

Observations Informing Best Practices

A separate service desk for Reference and Technical Support works well.  The nature of questions is vastly different and requires different expertise, space and levels of conversation.

Campus Partnerships and collaborations are essential to the success of the Learning Commons Model.

Based on user feedback, spaces, training initiatives, and services are constantly adjusted to better suit the needs of the user.  Weekly meetings help to prioritize needs for services.

The Library and Information Technology do not have to be merged organizationally in order to work together successfully. Seeing each other at weekly meetings helps build trust and stronger working relationships.

The Cafe is an immensely popular spot on campus.

Removable power poles that plug into floor outlets are very flexible and can be easily removed and repositioned as needed.

 

 

Maintained by Susan McMullen, Roger Williams University, Sabbatical Project - Spring 2007