York’s new learning commons a 21st-century learning space

This is the first in a series of stories about York University’s new learning commons that will examine different aspects of this innovative, learning-centred place for students. The learning commons, which will be housed in the Scott Library on York’s Keele campus, will feature an innovative design, a green retrofit to lighten its footprint and supportive programming for students. Phase 1 of the commons will open in September 2010.

York has always striven to do things differently from other Canadian universities and nowhere is this more apparent than in how the University is approaching the creation of its new learning commons.

A learning commons is a new kind of flexible learning space where students can work individually or collaboratively in groups and have access to a variety of academic supports such as research, writing and learning skills assistance. Learning commons are typically situated in academic libraries and are sometimes referred to as information or library commons.

Above: A conceptual drawing of the Collaboratory area in York’s new learning commons. The learning commons will be located on the second floor of the Scott Library. Image courtesy of Levitt Goodman Architects.

Starting this summer, the second floor of the Scott Library will undergo a major facelift as walls are torn down, new areas are opened up and the space is reconfigured into a learning commons. The space will feature comfortable seating, collaborative work areas and a hub that will bring research, writing and learning skills development supports together in one place. The renovation will add hundreds of new study seats, open up thousands of square feet and will include a green retrofit that will decrease its footprint and energy consumption. The library’s IT capacity and capability will also be enhanced with LCD screens for collaborative work and desktop workstations.

The learning commons will feature distinct regions or zones:

  • The Collaboratory will feature modular furniture, including sofas, easy chairs and tables that can be moved and regrouped. A central stepped area will create a layered seating area where students can plug in and stretch out. There will be booths where groups can meet and work together and review findings and presentations on large flat-panel screens.
  • The Hub will offer a place to go for academic support. The Hub will be the home of the research, writing and learning skills consultation "pods". In addition, the area will be equipped with instructional spaces and computer workstations.
  • The Salon will house the Scott Library’s collection of reference books and will contain quiet pockets of lounge furniture, as well as important modern Canadian art by David Partridge, Claude Tousignant and others.
  • Two state-of-the-art group study rooms will be available for booking by small groups of up to eight people.
  • An art walk will display work by York students, faculty and staff.

“York University’s new learning commons will be very cutting edge,” says Mark Robertson, associate University librarian. Robertson and Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, York’s associate vice-president academic learning initiatives, together with a team of faculty, librarians, staff and students, have been working for more than a year on developing and refining the concepts and programming for the University’s learning commons. As part of their work, the group conducted focus groups and surveys, and engaged in dialogue with students about what kind of library and learning commons they wanted and needed.

Above: The learning commons Hub will feature private booths and for consultation with research, writing and learning skills support services.  Image courtesy of Levitt Goodman Architects.

"Last year we did a series of focus groups with students to find out what they needed from their libraries," says Robertson. "The findings were very interesting. Students told us that when they leave the formal setting of the classroom, they need a place to absorb what happens in the classroom. They need spaces where they can engage with their learning, either on their own or with their peers. York is a commuter university and as a result, the need is higher for this kind of place for students.

"Students talked about the need for a variety of different types of differentiated spaces for their learning. Typically libraries have been very formal environments designed for individual study," says Robertson. "The libraries have those spaces, but students said they also need more informal areas for collaborative work.

"We asked students who we saw working in Vari Hall, in hallways or cafeterias why they were there and they told us that they had spontaneously decided to work together. Many said that such meetings couldn’t take place in the library because they had to book the group study rooms in advance," says Robertson.

"It quickly became clear that this was an important part of learning that would be enriched because of all of the services, resources and collections that exist in the library," says Robertson. "It was an aspect of learning that was not being accommodated."

The development of areas like the Collaboratory is a response to this kind of need, says Robertson. He pointed out that in some respects, the Scott Library atrium is already serving as an informal collaboratory. "Floor sitting is a very common sign in the atrium. This speaks partly to the need for additional seating, but in many cases it’s because students are looking for places to work together without disturbing others."

Above: The Hub area showing different zones. Graphic courtesy of Levitt Goodman Architects.

"The other aspect was the social learning that was taking place. Students said they need to work in groups because they are receiving an increasing number of assignments that involve group work," says Robertson. "Students are also studying more together and discussing what they are learning among people in their group." This is an aspect Robertson feels mirrors the social lives of today’s students, who collaborate online through Facebook and chat.

But the collaborative areas are not the only thing that will make the learning commons unique. At the core of the learning commons will be a new integrated model of academic support. The Hub area just off the atrium will be the home of a variety of services previously scattered across campus: research, writing and learning skills support. A team of librarians, tutors and other professionals will be offering drop-in consultations and workshops to help students achieve their academic best.

"Libraries have always had research assistance. But the integration of writing and learning skills in the learning commons recognizes the non-linear nature of academic work. Research, writing and learning do not happen separately. They are woven into each other and so the approach we are taking with the Hub is more holistic and more convenient for students," says Robertson.

Above: Another view of the Hub. Graphic courtesy of Levitt Goodman Architects.

The Hub area will contain service pods that will be jointly staffed by the Scott Library Reference Department, the Writing Department and the Learning Skills Program in Counselling & Disability Services.

The Scott Library project, says Robertson, is intended to create a variety of new informal environments and provide more integrated academic support services. "We want students to feel a sense of ownership over this space," says Robertson. Flexibility will be key to the new learning commons with everything from increased electrical drops, ubiquitous access to accessibility software, modular furniture, whiteboards and partitions, shared LCD panels, multimedia production technology, couches, comfortable chairs and lots of natural light.

In the future, there may even be a café in the learning commons, says Robertson. Quiet study areas, group work rooms and flexible classrooms are planned for future phases of the commons. There are also plans to revitalize the atrium as a forum or piazza for cultural functions such as author readings, book launches and displays.

For more information on the learning commons, visit the York Libraries Web site.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor