Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Designing a Learning Commons

The University of Canberra is remodelling one floor of its library into a Learning Commons. This is to provide more access to computers and facilities for group work. The library users have been asked for input and plans will be on display in June. As a user who has made a study of such learning commons, I thought I should put in some comments:

Some thoughts on a design
  1. Movable furniture is not necessarily flexible: Many of the designs I have looked at use movable items of furniture, on the assumption this makes the space "flexible". In practice the furniture rarely gets moved, after the initial novelty of being able to move it wares off (apart from when the students get playful and use it for furniture sculpture). Where computers and data access is used having movable furniture become very expensive and creates a large maintenance bill. I suggest instead having fixed, low cost furniture with built in wiring, which and be used in different ways, but without having to be moved. Expensive proprietary cabling systems and modular furniture are not needed: cheap laminate will do. The University of Queensland Ezones have a good arrangement with custom made curved desks with wire baskets under the desks to hold the cabling.
  2. Mix laptop and desktops: One trend has been to provide separate areas for laptops and desktop computers, with the laptops tending to get less space. Instead I suggest mixing the two. An example would be to furnish every second workspace with a desktop computer. This would allow for people with laptops, or for people who don't need a computer. It would also allow space for a group of students to cluster around one screen when working together.
  3. Keep some books and magazines: It is a little depressing to go into a library and not be able to find any books or printed periodicals. I suggest retaining some of these.
  4. Movable walls: While moving furniture is difficult, having movable walls is comparatively easy. The University of Queensland Ezones have a good arrangement with training rooms having sliding glass wall, so they can be opened up to the common area when not in use for a class. The space and computers in these rooms then become available for general use.
  5. Thin Clients: More space and less clutter is possible if very small computer processor boxes are used. There are computers available fitted into the screens, but this limits the range of models available. Most computers provided do not require DVD/CD drives.
  6. Combined digital signage and instruction screens: Large LCD screens are now reasonably priced. The library envisages using these for digital signage to stream news to the students. Some of these screens could do double duty being available for group work and then switching to digital signage when not otherwise needed.
  7. Green ICT: The library needs to look at the energy costs of what is proposed. The Library already uses low power thin client computers for catalog enquires and should look at upgraded devices in place PCs for most of the commons. Also LCD screens with low power features should be looked at (although these tend to be more expensive).
  8. Food: Provision for food should be made.
  9. Business metaphor: One useful metaphor I read somewhere (anyone see the reference?) was to think of the learning commons like a business, with a reception desk, offices and the like. This might be a better metaphor for the students to understand than the learning commons (which is rather a mixed metaphor anyway).
How to improve the consultation process:
  1. More clearly communicate the project to the customers: The library invited comments, but this was done in a printed newsletter with small print taped to a wall in the library. They could have used a larger sign. The electronic version of the newsletter is not in a format accessible to the disabled, making it hard for everyone to find and read (I have untangled the broken sentances and words below). It would also help to have explicit instructions on how to comment.
  2. Provide some examples: I spent a year going around Australia and overseas looking at flexible learning centers and learning commons at universities, schools and the private sector and so have an idea as to what is intended. The average library client will have no idea and so it would help to provide some illustrations of examples of what has been done at other libraries.
The Library has been funded to transform Level B of the Library into a Learning Commons. Features include:
  • After-hours access to computers and printers (when the Library is closed)
  • A range of flexible furniture to facilitate group work
  • More computers
  • More power for laptop users
  • LCD screens for streaming news
The layout and facilities of Level B are being redesigned in response to stu-dent preferences for Library spaces The Law collection will move to that support collaborative learn-Level D with a new group studying and social networking, integrate room nearby. Training Room 1 will with access to information resources and productivity software, assist with research and roving help with technology. Major work will commence in August to improve these Library environments.

From May to July, preliminary works for the Learning Commons space will improve facilities for quiet study on the Library’s Level D “quiet zone”.

The Law collection will move to Level D with a new group study room nearby. Training Room 1 will relocate to Level A greatly reducing noise from people traffic on Level D. Detailed plans will be on display in June in the Library foyer. During May, students and staff can have their ideas influence the Learning Commons final design by completing a form for the Suggestion Box in the Library foyer or by going online to the Library website.

From: Under Construction! The Library Learning Commons, Library News, University of Canberra, Autumn Issue ISSN 1836-862x

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