The Information Commons and Learning Commons in the Academic Library: How it affects students, the building, and what could be the disadvantages.

The Information Commons and Learning Commons in the Academic Library: How it affects students, the building, and what could be the disadvantages.

Post by: Marissa Mozek

Information commons and learning commons are becoming more prevalent every day. Changing how the library looks and functions is happening with the continual innovations in technology and how they are avidly used in learning concepts. A shift in learning is making the building of the library have to change to fit with these new preferences.

How will this affect the staff, faculty and the building? Will these changes be continuous from now on or will we be able to rest at some point? What are the repercussions or forewarnings of these spaces in the library?

Introduction

Over the past decade, technology has become a critical part of our lives in everyday life and in academics. Researching has changed from the sorting through the card catalog to being able to use a one box search tool on a website and allowing us to pull all books, articles, or multimedia items for the patron quickly. These changes have impacted the library in a number of ways, but the purpose behind them and what they give to the library are interesting.

Academic libraries have been seeing new ways that technology has touched the building and how students’ learning has evolved over time. The library has sought to bridge gaps that have formed over the year with the establishment of both the information commons (IC) and the learning commons (LC). These two terms have been used interchangeably but, scholars argue about their definition of them and if they are alike. For the purposes of this paper, I will explain the differences but the names can be interchangeable because of their sharing of ideas. The key points in this blog are what are IC and LCs, how do they benefit the students and building and lastly what are the disadvantages.

What is the information commons and learning commons?

The information commons and learning commons are spaces within the library that enhance student learning by becoming a space for faculty and students to work together and an area of technology for the students to utilize. There are many definitions, but I will be using Beagle’s The Emergent Information Commons: Philosophy, Models, and 21 Century Learning Paradigms (2012) for the information commons; he states that this space was to help students to understand and move beyond the basic means of retrieving information (p. 520). By using this space, they can explore, interpret, process and manipulate through both physical and virtual means (Beagle, p. 521). The learning commons, however, has a bit more to it. These two spaces, though slightly different, focus on how they deliver information. As Beagle puts it, they are here to realign with faculty and student learning along with restructuring service delivery and how jobs are defined (p. 522). Though the two are quite similar information commons focuses on the technology aspect while learning commons focus on the space and services provided.

What is the impact on the student body?

Students are one of the focuses of any academic library, which makes them the people we should be building for. The spaces we build and the services we implement must grow and change with how the students intake information and work. These spaces have been built from the introduction of technology and how it has changed how many people learn. The library is no longer just the area for books, shushing and somewhat dark spaces. Library spaces have changed to be more collaborative and inviting, including click clacking of keyboards and the hum of computers.

This collaborative setting is both inviting and chaotic to certain students. Those who can work well with others and thrive off that kind of working, a now great number and way students work, while others wish for the old silence and solitary study habits. Each have their place and the information and learning commons is trying to satisfy both. The beauty of this space is that it bridges the gap of virtual and team based studying so now students have a place to be collaborative in every way (Lippincott, p. 542). This type of environment helps with the rising use of social learning but also a new level of noise that normally would never be allowed in the library (Lippincott, p. 544). This collaborative area is helping some with how they learn but also making others not want to go to the library. It will take signage and a new level of understanding from both librarians and students to make these spaces work.

One of the great aspects of these spaces is for it to be not just a learning experience by teaching themselves from books or databases but teaching others. Student workers are an essential group to the library. They can teach others about technology, help students with answers that librarians may not readily known and have a certain camaraderie that students do not normally have with staff or faculty. This kind of employment is shown in the Queen’s University Learning Commons by having them offer technology support and to tell others what other services are in the library (Mitchell & Soini, p. 591). They note the benefits of how peer-to-peer learning has been successful in many cases teaching students about leadership, ease of communication and being able to pick up trends earlier than staff because of closeness (p. 592). Student workers and these new environment are creating new opportunities for both students, staff and faculty that would not have been there before.

How is the building impacted?

There has been a focus on how these spaces have helped students but not many articles go into the building or institution it is associated with. In Barbara Paton & Belinda Moore’s article “From hub to beacon: evolution and evaluation of spaces in the learning commons” they do a great job of showing this. They bring up a slew of examples of how to see if this space is worth it. Through seating assessments, one of the most common statistics, to using a framework for evaluation they are learning how these spaces are used and if they are important to the library (Paton & Moore, pg. 3-4). There is also the discussion of both informal and formal learning spaces. How they are vital because students tend to learn in different ways and the library must be aware of how they all learn within various environments. The example from Ramsden in Barbara Paton & Belinda Moore’s article shows how one type of evaluation did not work but could be used in another way through students filling out logs on how they work in the environment (p. 3). They concluded that they would put this new evaluation technique into their information literacy classes (Paton & Moore, pg. 3). Finding the correct evaluation tool and how it can help to show if the space is working for the students is an effective way to make sure the space is excelling.

One of the core issues that have affected the library overall is having to show numbers to make it relevant. The information commons or learning commons is a solution in ways but it also making the staff have to reach out further than normal. To create a collaborative world there needs to be a common ground. The school’s mission can be its foundation but as seen within Sullivan’s article and his review of “Transforming Library Service Through Information Commons: Case Studies for the Digital Age” by Bailey and Tierney when they talk about having this foundation and partnership it can create a dynamic partner in a broad sense within all education and not just centered in the library world (p. 131). These spaces having a committee to help plan their space and to make sure the area does not just reflect as an “information repository” is important to how it will be perceived in design (Bailey & Tierney, p. 132). This complex but collaborative way of working is the only way to make sure that this space is utilized to its highest degree. Being able to have a group to see how students learn and a space that can assist them in achieving their goals in the school.

One way this combination of technology, learning and librarians have been combined in practice is at the Oberlin College’s main library. In the article Paradigm shift in reference services at the Oberlin College library: A case study (2011) they go into deals specifically with the shift of reference services changing their space to better help the students. This article is not a direct link to information and learning commons but shows an approach that was used by a working library. In their environment called the Academic Commons they study the research habit of students and changed the space to reflect that. The main changes that did occur were the movement of furniture, equipment and reference collections (p. 367). These changes made way for more space in the technology area, created a shared space for both IT and reference thus creating “Information” and “Research Help” (p. 369). The space became more open and had multiple points for asking questions. Spaces like this show different aspect of the information and learning commons. Oberlin College has incorporated different aspects that are particular to the information and learning commons. They have combined technology, IT services, and librarian services all in a space that helps to cultivate learning.

What could the disadvantages be?

With new developments in any organization, problems will arise; how these affect either the staff or students is important to take in stride when implementing these new ideas. The learning and information commons have changed how the building operates and how students are digesting information. With this comes the question, should we continue to cater to the students’ learning paradigms? As new generations of students come into the library, new ways of learning will follow. This idea of constantly changing with the students will be a tedious task. Along with evaluating what will be a substantial way for students to learn comes the question as to what will be a fad for the students that year. Some ideas and ways students learn will not become a best practice for the library because it will not benefit enough people. Evaluating and researching what is best is the most effective way librarians can reach out to students.

It will take time, dedication and planning. Learning commons and information commons are not grown overnight. Figuring out what the students need and want along with what resources the library can afford are major components when building them. Within Whitchurch’s article he discusses the need for an assessment from students to make sure the area is needed and conforms to the mission of the institution (p. 42). When building this area there are important questions that will arise that could cause problems such as: Who will manage the space? Administrative, IT or librarian? How will the dynamics work with multiple departments working under one umbrella? Whitchurch goes into these questions noting what the team will have to think about when developing these spaces. Those that will manage the space need to be aware of the rapid change in technology and learning techniques, keep interest high from all parties that have a stake in the space, and laying down the foundation first in the planning stage (Whitchurch, p. 48). Developing these spaces will never be easy and if everyone is not on board then it will not be able to help the students as best it could. It is through research, evaluating and teamwork that these kind of spaces will excel.

Oberlin College is a great example of how they did handle the disadvantages that could arise. They have evaluated their work and people working together by seeing that they need to keep record of patterns, demands and workers. In the end they cut the amount of volunteer staffing, watching of budgets and cutting what is needed (p. 372). The reality is money and cooperation will be one of the biggest barriers for all libraries working to build these type of spaces.

Conclusion

Information commons and learning commons have become important areas to the library. This evolution in space is showing that with innovative technology students are changing and they will continue to change. There may never be a resting point for librarians in their search for what areas and ways students’ best learn but this evolution is helping to cater to a new generation. Success in the library will be found in evaluation, teamwork and listening to their students. These spaces are a way for the library to attract a new type of student but they will have to balance these new and old ways for learning, but it will not end there and there will be another movement as technology expands. Through the studies and experience the LC and IC have helped the library but it is good to be aware of what disadvantages may come with it.

References

Beagle, D. D. (2012). The Emergent Information Commons: Philosophy, Models, and 21st Century Learning Paradigms. Journal Of Library Administration52(6/7), 518-537.

Lippincott, J. j. (2012). Information Commons: Meeting Millennials’ Needs. Journal Of Library Administration52(6/7), 538-548.

Mitchell, J. j., & Soini, N. s. (2014). Student Involvement for Student Success: Student Staff in the Learning Commons. College & Research Libraries75(4), 590-609.

Mitchell, M. S., Comer, C. H., Starkey, J. M., & Francis, E. A. (2011). Paradigm Shift in Reference Services at the Oberlin College Library: A Case Study. Journal Of Library Administration, 51(4), 359-374.

Paton, B. b., & Moore, B. b. (2014). FROM HUB TO BEACON: EVOLUTION AND EVALUATION OF SPACES IN THE LEARNING COMMONS. IATUL Annual Conference Proceedings, (35), 1-15.

Sullivan, R. M. (2010). Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries. College & Undergraduate Libraries17(2/3), 130-148.
Whitchurch, M. J. (2010). Planning an Information Commons. Journal Of Library Administration50(1), 39-50.

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2 thoughts on “The Information Commons and Learning Commons in the Academic Library: How it affects students, the building, and what could be the disadvantages.

  1. Marissa,

    Excellent post. You touched on many important issues pertaining to the development of information commons in libraries.

    I think you were quite right in labeling technology as the major impetus behind the information commons movement. The two focal points are 1) how technology has affected both the space of libraries and 2) how students learn and interact with the library. These concepts are incredibly important for Library Directors to consider as precious library resources are allocated for information commons projects.

    From your description, I took that one of the defining characteristics of the information and learning commons is that it is “a space for faculty and students to work together.” These spaces focus on how they deliver information and attempt to promote it in a way that fosters collaboration. Particularly important was the distinction between information and learning commons—one that I did not realize existed. Namely, information commons focus on technology while learning commons focus on space and service.

    With any new service, it is important to consider the potential costs of implementation. Even as these information and learning commons are being constructed to meet new student demands, “there may never be a resting point.” Certainly responding to changing technologies and learning patterns will be a constant battle and that represents an almost daunting task. Yet this constant struggle does square with a reoccurring theme within librarianship—life long learning.

    My personal experience with information commons has been less than positive and may have tainted my outlook on these spaces a bit. At my library, a few years ago before my arrival, the then-Director decided to re-brand the branch campus libraries as “information commons.” However, the extent of this endeavor was simply new signage. There was no concerted effort to ascertain or assess new student learning models or to rework space—just new signs calling the library an “information commons.” Now, in my experience, the term has contributed nothing but confusion. The phrase “learning commons” is foreign to most students (while nearly all students are aware of “library”). Similar to other library jargon like “stacks” or “holds,” the name “information commons” may not ring a bell for most students. This is especially true when the initiative is simply a hollow marketing campaign. Now, I understand that my experience with the information commons movement is an education in what not to do.

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  2. Hello Marissa,

    I am familiar with the concept of the Learning Commons through East Georgia State College. Their Learning Commons is comprised of the Library, the Academic Center for Excellence (tutoring center), the Academic Advising Center, and the Common Grounds coffee shop. All of these areas work together to offer instructional and learning support services to EGSC students, striving to foster academic excellence and student success. Students in the LC are provided comfy chairs, tables, technology, and a little freedom in order to make them feel welcome into the space and let them know they can make it their own. As you mention the commons area is not grown and perfected overnight. After each semester the area is reevaluated in order to reflect upon what worked and what did not. Sometimes furniture is moved around or replaced with something more mobile. Small changes are made to gauge student reactions, such as experiments with open doors to foster free entry or closed doors to enhance the feeling of privacy and ownership. One issue this has fostered is that returning students do not love the changes while new students love the layout provided. It has always been a delicate balance.

    I like the comment you made about the habits and learning methods that students develop not always being the best practices for the library. This is definitely true. As students become more comfortable in a space they tend to bring their musical instruments and pets with them. One rule that was implemented early on is that ‘jamming sessions’ and pets can be enjoyed outside the area. It was also realized that there is a point when a group study session can be too large. When this occurs the group is encouraged to use a classroom or other area to study in. A large group can overpower the area and discourage other users from entering the space.

    The Learning Commons is supported by the college administration so it is not without some funding. The commons area is located in the same building as the president’s office suite and the president comments about walking past students as they enjoy the space. It is nice to be noticed! Going forward I’m not sure how funding for new technology will be handled but I believe the commons areas is here to stay for a while yet.

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