A Learning Commons on a Budget

Lyndon State College (LSC), a public liberal arts college with a focus on rural and first-generation students, in 2013 initiated an incremental approach toward the creation of a Lyndon Learning Commons. The Commons model emphasizes the integration of a variety of academic support services, increasing both their proximity to one another and cross-unit collaboration, in order to make these services more visible, more accessible and easier for students to navigate.
The goal is to provide a diversified, learner-centered environment integrating extra-and co-curricular activities to enhance learning, research, and teaching while also removing the stigma, or perceived stigma, of using academic support services.

With an enrollment of 1,400-FTE, LSC recognized that it could provide more efficient and enhanced academic support services with improved collaboration and communication across functional areas. These services—including the Academic Support Center, Career Services, the Advising Resource Center, Information Technology (IT), the Writing Center and the Library—were located close to each other but were quite separate in operational terms. We saw potential for greater collaboration and integration, in ways that would enable our offices to develop closer partnerships and make it easier for students to navigate and access the range of available support services. The idea made sense given these services’ physical proximity and shared mission.

Those factors, coupled with the possibility of sharing what we call the four S’s: space, services, staff and stuff (i.e., resources, such as computing facilities and furniture), made the Learning Commons model a great fit. We were also inspired by the successful implementation of this model in other academic libraries in northern New England. The concept was logical and there was unanimous support for it among Lyndon’s academic support staff and administration.

Exploring the possibility of a Learning Commons had the support of the college’s senior administrators, who took a strong interest in our proposals and campus conversations, and provided much support for the changes that followed. The commons model motivated faculty and administration to reflect on the nature and strategic purpose of Lyndon’s academic support services, and there was widespread interest in how it might reshape these services and aid student success.

The Commons idea—with its potential for enhanced integration, collaboration, communication and resource-sharing made sense for Lyndon—but we are a small college with limited finances and no capital funds available for major reconfigurations of our physical space. The examples of Learning Commons that impressed us had enjoyed the luxuries of substantial investment and the ability to reconfigure their physical space. In our ideal design, we would have replaced our respective program spaces with a single open-plan area, with a central triage desk having lines of sight to multiple service points. But such a plan could have cost as much as a million dollars and there were no funds available. The big question for us was: “How can we lead a project like this to success without financial investment or physical reconstruction?”

We needed to make the most of our current space, services, staff and stuff. First, some priorities had to be articulated in order to move forward. Those priorities were partially based on an analysis of overlapping responsibilities, similarities of mission and current space use. These priorities would allow us to decide what could be done with minimal financial investment, plan for minor adjustments to our physical layout, and create a timeline.

The infoDESK

It became clear that combining the IT help desk and the Library service desk into a single service point was an obvious first-step toward forming our Learning Commons. These two service points typically experience different usage patterns, in terms of peak traffic, urgency and the technical knowledge that student workers need to have. But both departments saw these patterns as essentially compatible, plus an integrated service desk would resolve a longstanding issue affecting the accessibility of IT support.

Up to this time, the IT help desk had been located in the Library building, but it was one flight down from the main Library service desk. The Library service desk is located in prime real estate facing a busy main hallway thoroughfare. Having IT support downstairs had been a physical obstacle to service—many students would give up before finding their way to the IT offices—and the physical separation inhibited collaboration between the Library and IT.

It was agreed that integrating the IT help desk and the Library service desk was high on the priority list. During the spring and summer of 2013, staff from both departments met weekly to figure out how to reconfigure space, staff the desk, train staff and student workers in both services, design new workflows, create new signage, and market the new integrated service point.

The question of how to accommodate IT support at the Library’s service desk presented a simple solution. There was ample room to put in another desktop computer specifically for IT staff. And, by taking out a small wall, we were able to provide a combination of office space and shelving for reserve room materials. The main IT staff offices remained on the second floor. We also decided on a new name for the area, the “infoDESK,” to signal a change and market the area.

As for services, we decided on a two-tiered support model in which student workers specializing in library services or IT services provide “tier one” support and services. “Tier two” student workers provide both library and IT services, but a level of support on the IT side, such as assisting with classroom and lab equipment, and troubleshooting issues with computers, software and printing. Library staff continue to staff the Reference desk and during busy times, such as the beginning of semesters, regular IT personnel staff the service desk. We also have cataloged some hardware and made it available to be checked out at the infoDESK, which is much more convenient than it was prior to the change.

The infoDESK has been operating for just over a year now and both departments have received rave reviews from students and faculty for the collaboration. We continue to explore other ways to be more efficient and provide better services.

The Writing Center

Now in its 30th year of operation, the LSC Writing Center is supervised by the director of student academic development, a staff, not faculty position although the director is also an adjunct instructor in the English department. The Writing Center staff of peer tutors is drawn from across the curriculum to encourage students to use the center for support and assistance in a wide array of writing tasks. These “writing consultants” work on a drop-in basis, generally Sunday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

This year, following a year of successful collaboration between the Library and IT, the Writing Center was also integrated into the Learning Commons space. We hoped this move would help advance the longstanding goal of establishing the Writing Center as a center for writing excellence rather than as a place solely for remediation, an identification resulting from its location in the Academic Support Center where content-specific tutorials are housed. Importantly, the relocation brings together main components for research papers: writing, research and technical support. The Writing Center’s peer tutors are located on the main floor, within easy reach of the infoDESK and Reference desk, in space previously occupied by the Library’s print Reference collection. Library staff had weeded that collection, creating a flexible, open space for more study tables and chairs, as well as more computers for general and tutoring use.

This collaboration is a work in progress, primarily involving shared space. But we are looking at collaborating on writing and information literacy workshops, an integrated web presence, joint marketing and projects involving student writers, faculty and staff writers, and Writing Department faculty.

The futureThe Commons is proving to be a flexible and efficient model for providing academic services and maintaining useful physical space, web space and resources for students.

The model encourages regular assessment of services to ensure responsiveness to evolving student needs. It is our hope that the Lyndon Learning Commons will create opportunities for academic and social synergies by providing flexible physical space for both individual and collaborative study in a technology-rich environment. Commons spaces will enable diverse uses, including quiet study or noisy group interaction, teaching, testing and meeting. All of these spaces will help accommodate various student learning styles and intelligences. We also hope to offer a café providing light refreshments as a key component of the social and academic atmosphere. However, without funds for a major space reconfiguration, we will have to concentrate on “services, staff and stuff” for the time being.

We hope to provide new services and more collaboration in the following areas:

  1. Academic triage. When a student is identified as struggling academically, teams from academic support and faculty could be formed to create and implement a full range of academic support services for that individual. This idea has the potential to boost retention by focusing on the whole student with a multifaceted approach.
  2. Instructional technology support center for faculty. An instructional technologist will provide help with online courses as well as classroom technology for both students and faculty.
  3. Classroom visits. The reinvigorated spirit of collaboration among Lyndon’s academic support services could be the basis for a shift from Library-specific research instruction to a suite of academic support services, encompassing instruction from the Library, the Writing Center, Career Resources, advising center and IT.
  4. Resource for local schools. It may be possible for Lyndon to position itself locally as a resource and model for K-12 schools, which may have added benefits such as enhanced local recruiting.
  5. Centers for Veterans, ESL students, and nontraditional students. Often, students in these categories have different support and service needs. Lyndon has already recognized the need for our population of veterans to have their own lounge where they can relax with fellow vets who are dealing with similar issues. In addition, many commuters need on-campus study and social space, while others have work or family responsibilities that necessitate their accessing support services outside of the regular work day.

Our small, public comprehensive college has begun to meet the current needs of our students with the limited space and resources at our disposal. We hope that similar institutions find the model useful in guiding their own quests to enhance student success.

Deb Bailin is director of student academic development at Lyndon State College (LSC). Heather Bouchey is associate provost at LSC. Garet Nelson is library director at LSC. Graham Sherriff is public services librarian at LSC.

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