sustainable learning spaces

The Digital Media Commons and the Digital Literacy Center Collaborate: The Growing Pains of Creating a Sustainable, Flexible Learning Space

Kimberly M. Cuny, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Sara Littlejohn, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Kathy Crowe, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Background and Context
Challenges and Rewards

Aligning Mission and Goals
Staff Training
Navigating New Space


Aligning Mission and Goals

Although the goals of the two programs are clearly distinct and Selber’s (2004) three technological literacies of functional, critical, and rhetorical are present, confusion about the mission statements seemed inescapable for those inside and outside of the project. To clarify, the purpose of the DMC is to provide support in digital information literacy—how to locate, evaluate, and cite media resources—as well as functional technological literacy—how to use the hardware and software tools necessary to create digital projects. In contrast, the purpose of the DLC is to provide support in critical and rhetorical technological literacies: Critical literacy helps designers understand the political, cultural, and economic context of digital media projects; Rhetorical literacy helps designers match medium, message, and context to create projects in order to most effectively deliver their messages to chosen audiences. Even though the two goals seemed distinct, the mission statements did not clearly reflect these differences, nor did the statements speak to each other. The Libraries’ vision/mission/goals for the DMC stated the following:


The Digital Media Commons in Jackson Library supports 21st-century thinking and learning at UNCG by providing the space, technology, resources, and services to support the digital creation and communication of projects and ideas, from concept to final production and presentation.



While this vision statement is well suited to the DMC, it did not quite articulate the specific critical and rhetorical vision and mission of the DLC. The DLC mission reads:

The DLC supports students, faculty, and staff in their effective creation or incorporation of digital media into projects. DLC consultants are students who are a trained, engaged audience, providing feedback on slide presentations, video projects, podcasts, digital photography, websites, and blogs by offering collaborative, dialog-based consultations.

Furthermore, the DLC practiced a collaborative approach to consultation, in which designers and consultants engaged in one-on-one conversations about projectsconversations that focused on shared knowledge and expertise, as opposed to hierarchical instruction. Reducing or eliminating hierarchical power structures created an environment for students to feel safer as they struggled with the complexity of the composing work products. Pensoneau-Conway and Romerhausen (2012) argued that “by providing access to a site wherein students can better meet the educational outcomes of communication while avoiding conventional assessment, such a communication center can effectively avoid the traditional hindrances of power that are inherent to a conventional classroom setting” (p. 39). The goal of the DLC sessions, then, was to help content creators become better designers and, to that end, they were encouraged to be in control of their projects and to participate actively in the conversational consultation. The missions were in alignment and did not conflict with each other, but neither mission captured the goals of the services.

During planning for this new learning space, the staff from the Libraries shared their mission and goals and asked for feedback. At the time, the Writing and Speaking Center Directors, serving as project consultants for Undergraduate Studies, thought they were reviewing mission and goals for the DMC. As center directors, both knew the importance of discussing purpose, audience, and message when asked for feedback; however, neither did. In hindsight, it was discovered that DMC leadership thought both offices were functioning under the Libraries’ single mission and goals statement. With no DLC director at the initial planning meetings, there was no official mission to present to DMC leadership. This lack of DLC mission made it appear as if all were knowingly working under the same mission. This was an important discovery, as it helped to explain some of the confusion leadership experienced during the first semester of operation. In planning for sustainable next-gen learning spaces, a discussion of missions and goals needs to happen early. All parties must have a clear understanding concerning what will happen, since human agents are enacting the mission through both space planning and relationship building. Just as Elmborg (2005) noted for writing center library partnerships, this new learning space partnership would have benefitted from early conversations welcoming professional talks, possibly leading to observations, insights, and intersections of each other’s mission and goals. In turn, these interactions would have set the groundwork for a different first semester, with less confusion and easier patron referrals. Fortunately, the directors of the DMC and DLC maintained their working relationships. The maintenance of relationships should be at the forefront during the first year of collobrations like ours. It was essential for all to believe that, as long as the collaborative nature of these relationships was preserved, the long-term sustainability of the physical space would be in good standing.

Staff Training

The elision of mission and vision contributed to confusion for the staff members of both centers as well as faculty, other university staff, and students. In part, this ongoing mission confusion was caused by a lack of integrated staff training. However, collaborative staff training had been difficult to coordinate and was exacerbated by the two distinct organizational structures and their respective columns of leadership. The DLC had a Director and Assistant Director, and consultants that worked with designers on multimodal compositions. The DMC had a Coordinator, two Assistant Directors, two graduate students, and several undergraduate students who staffed the reception desk.

DMC staff was hired with a combination of multimedia skills, library public service experience, and student and project management abilities. DMC student employees were selected based on their combination of multimedia and customer service skills, with a preference for students who had worked in a library environment before. DMC staff discovered early on that customer service skills and a willingness to openly explore unfamiliar software and problems with patrons was as important as actual multimedia software expertise, if not more so. A matrix outlining the core competencies and service expectations of all DMC staff members was very useful in developing early training models and models for desk scheduling.

The DLC had a series of interim directors. Given more time to make persuasive arguments to upper level administration, the DLC might have been able to secure staffing and leadership at the time of opening. The Writing Center and Speaking Center Directors, though involved in the planning stages of this project as consultants, eventually stepped in as the first interim leadership providing a stop-gap solution in order to launch the DLC in a timely manner and avoid having empty space for the DLC portion of the collaboration. The center directors extended their already successful “franchise” operations into the DLC, which happened very late in the planning phase, one month prior to launch.

The need for quick implementation and launch of services necessitated that DLC consultants be pre-trained. Drawing on the small pool of cross-trained staff who currently worked at both the Speaking and Writing Center, the directors trained four consultants in visual and digital rhetoric to address the critical and rhetorical literacies that would be required in DLC sessions. Joining the four was a graduate assistant with previous multimodal consulting experience at The Noel Studio. In addition, the directors created DLC infrastructure to schedule sessions, collect data, and document and annotate sessions, all while they were in the process of establishing operational policies.

The DMC and the DLC staffs have decidedly different types of work. The DLC focuses on theory informing practice that results in helping designers look at their own work with a more critical eye. In contrast, the DMC focuses on steps for successful communication and delivery of information product for patrons to use. The different emphases on process and product create some tensions. As Elmborg (2005) noted, in order to educate users about the purpose of the DMC and the DLC, staff members need to understand the philosophies and practices that inform the mission statements of both programs. Since the DMC and the DLC are both engaged with the teaching of multiple literacies, such as functional, rhetorical and critical, collaborative training that works to sustain next-gen learning spaces can begin with theories of multiliteracies.

If we are to succeed in the preparation of digital composers, then our new learning spaces need to follow Inman’s (2010) best approaches to multiliteracy design by starting “with the evaluation of what clients will actually be doing. The key question is what clients will do in multiliteracy centers, and beginning to understand these possible uses requires an understanding of multiliteracy pedagogy” (p. 22). While some salient questions that address these concerns were asked at UNCG, more time should have been spent on exploring such before space design conversations started because of the “important role space plays in encouraging and supporting the visual or multimodal learning that happens in new media consultations” (Lee, Alfano, & Carpenter, 2013, p. 54).

Integrated staff training needs to be based on theory and practice rather than being based on an articulation of a series of steps for staff members to execute. In other words, all staff members would benefit from understanding why the work of each program is distinct. Theories of multiliteracies include valuing the many ways that communication occurs beyond the printed word. Although logocentrism has dominated academia for centuries, the persistence of the digital age suggests that literacy must mean more than just reading and writing (New London Group, 1996; Kress 2000). Lee, Alfano, and Carpenter (2013) in writing about “the correlation between space design of writing centers and the learning goals of multimodal communication” (p. 42) offer two reasons to promote and teach multiliteracies:

Communication in our present century is intensely reliant on “sight and sound,” transforming the real practice of our students. Our everyday immersion in multimodal communication, in itself, argues for our need as educators to promote multiple literacies. The second reason rests on the concept of persuasion: that multimedia arguments can actually be more memorable and effective than arguments in single modes and that, as rhetoricians, we ought to be able to help students gain the skills to make choices between written or multimedia texts. (p. 44)

What this suggests is that consulting staff that are well trained in theories of multiliteracy, because they are on the frontlines working with student composers, are best situated to “promote multiple literacies.”

In fact, this shift toward new literacies was the underlying catalyst for the creation of the DMC and the DLC, since students, faculty, and staff now need more support when generating digital artifacts, for which there will only be an increasing demand, as the way cultural information is shaped and exchanged continues to evolve. Given the expansion of literacies and the awareness of their growing cultural importance, joint staff training needs to begin with foundational theories that make the work of the two centers meaningful. The more all staff members understand the relevance of multiliteracies, the clearer the differences in the missions will be.

In addition to providing a theoretical foundation for the DMC and DLC staff members, it is also essential to create a community of practice (Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, & Bouquet, 2007) that reinforces relationships within the two groups. While new spaces designed for flexibility and innovation can foster the development of communities of practice (Wenger, 2008), Vizzier (2006) found in her ethnographic exploration of the community of practice at one communication center that it was the encouraging environment that actually created the community of practice. Although the two separate organizational structures are an institutional certainty at UNCG, how the staffs begin to comingle can be an intentional, mindful decision aimed at future good health. In order to sustain the DMC and DLC, all staff members need to feel connected to their co-workers through a shared understanding of the work, provided through an understanding of theory and practice, as well as opportunities to create a new work culture and community, which are both collaborative and encouraging. Without a thorough understanding of why the work of the DMC and DLC looks the way it does, a collaborative community cannot exist. Common understanding among the staff will drive a unified message of mission and purpose to users, which is a necessity if this new learning space is to avoid being misunderstood and underutilized. (Listen to a radio interview of a director to learn more.)

There was and continues to be a need for cross-training among DMC and DLC staff and student workers. The goals and objectives of both of these dynamic, new campus programs are still developing. Initial meetings, in which all staff gathered, discussed, and described their work and current challenges, were very productive. More productive still was the first attempt at cross training that resulted from those early meetings, from which DMC staff were directed to schedule and take advantage of DLC consultations, using assigned work projects as the focus of those meetings. Likewise, DLC student consultants were directed to make use of DMC student and staff technical assistance and expertise in the creation of multimedia projects for the DLC’s Web page. In the coming semester and year, regularly scheduled all-staff meetings between these two programs need to become standard practice, as does a continued and more directed program of cross-training among both student workers and staff.

Navigating New Space

Another challenge of the DMC/DLC collaboration is location. The physical space was called the “basement” of the Jackson Library until August 2012. While the new space is now called the “lower level,” there remains an institutional history that still conjures images of a dark basement filled with tall shelves of books and government documents and cabinets full of microfilm. This institutional lore is supported when patrons who enter by way of the main stairwell find a basement sign that remains on the DMC entrance door; however after opening that door, patrons see that this is an open, flexible space where learning no longer has the barriers presented in old library basements.Contributing to this shift in perception, the open floor plan, comfortable furniture, and bright lighting now shape the renovated space. Those who find their way to this space return. Students stand or sit at a desks placed in a row.Room reservation data shows that the DMC rooms have a growing number of repeat users, and anecdotal data from service desk staff corroborates the idea that there is a growing base of “core” users.These users can be found at “their seats,” much like the patrons at the bar of a television sitcom. While most student patrons have reported to DLC staff that they love the DMC, some have expressed no interest in telling others about it as they do not want it to become overcrowded.

Figure 9: Many students enjoy working at the same place

During the planning phase of the DMC, input from the Writing and Speaking Center directors was included, but the space that was allocated for use by the DLC was not dedicated solely for its use for consultations. When there are no appointments for the DLC, the space reverts to general use. As such, it functions the same as other Libraries’ spaces, which can be reserved. While this configuration provides maximum flexibility, it also contributes to DLC consultants retreating into the DLC Director’s office to do consultations, so as not to “kick people out” of the consultation spaces that patrons of the library might be using in good faith. As Lee, Alfano, and Carpenter note “through our own consultation practice, we also learned that the space informs the composition process and the composition process, in turn, informs the use of the space” (p. 46). Gresham (2010) further supports this notion: “as students used the physical spaces for production and composition, they would change the process and products with which they worked” (p. 40). Clearly, this DLC shift out of the open spaces and into a closed office is not sustainable for the DLC’s multimodal interaction.

While Inman (2010) stated that in multiliteracy centers some services “should have distinct, dedicated spaces,” the prevailing reason not to have a dedicated space for the exclusive use of DLC is to maintain the goal of making the operations in the DMC look seamless (p. 24). The hope is that students who visit the DMC will see the work of the DLC as just one of the many services that the DMC provides. One of the space challenges, therefore, has been the reduced legibility for DLC services caused by the lack of dedicated space. Along with the seamlessness of services, this lack renders the work of the DLC invisible to anyone who visits the DMC, which, in part has contributed to ongoing mission confusion. Because the missions of the two centers are not legible to staff or patrons though space, signage, or names, the seemingly similar and overlapping work seems unclear for those wanting to use the DMC and DLC services.

Since the purpose and mission of the two organizations are not obvious through the language used to name the programs or mark the space they occupy, people who are not certain of what kind of help they might need must depend on the Library’s desk staff to know which service can be most helpful and why. In this way, the Library controls how users flow through the space and thus the services, as the space doesn’t address users’ needs intuitively.

There is little doubt that patrons will need help in navigating the DMC. For example, in renovating the Parrish Library at Purdue University, designers used color changes to aid patrons in way finding. Doan and McGee (2013) stated that this was done because it was "critical that we incorporate directional signals to alert visitors where to go for assistance and what was appropriate within each space" (p. 277). When color changing between DMC & DLC usage in this shared space was suggested during planning at UNCG, it was spoken of as generally a good idea; however, it was limited to carpeting alone. A sign marks the entrace to the Digital Media Commons.Once carpeting was chosen, it was determined that the color change was not significant enough to help. As a result, designers and DMC staff made the decision to omit the previously agreed upon color change.

Figure 10: A color change for the DMC was originally suggested but not implemented

While the intended flexible, mobile, and adaptable furniture design aligns with Lee, Alfano, and Carpenter’s (2013) principles for designing multimodal composing spaces, it seems that, coupled with the absence of color changing and other direction or usage cues, the centrally located DMC reception desk ends up being the only viable assistance in way finding. Since the Libraries provide staff for the reception desk and manage the ways that students determine which service they might need, the Libraries staff must be well informed and clearly understand the theory behind how the digital literacy center operates, in order to sustain long-term stability.


Because of unintentional assumptions (shared or not shared), the vision and mission made by both the DMC and DLC planners, the Libraries’ goal of seamlessness, though never hidden, became clearer as the first marketing efforts began. The DLC was subsumed, listed as one service among many services offered at the DMC, into the larger physical and service structure. The DMC became the overarching umbrella term for all of the space and its contents. Consistent with this approach, DMC services alone were announced through the normal campus channelsthe University’s Campus Weekly publication for faculty and staff; visits and announcements to the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, and Student Government; announcements on the Libraries’ website and various Library-authored blogs; and notices through the Libraries’ and the University’s social media channels. Text about about DMC services was sent to mailing lists that instructors could incorporate into their syllabi.

During the first semester of operation, DMC staff provided campus faculty with several “overview” sessions of DMC services. Some of these sessions took place in the DMC; others were delivered in classrooms across campus. The same semester that the DMC opened, the UNCG campus also launched a newly revised and reimagined Faculty Teaching and Learning Commons (FTLC). This new FTLC was a logical, important partner for DMC services: FTLC would assist instructors with pedagogy, design, and assessment behind multimedia projects for students, and the DMC would provide those students with the hands-on technical support to complete the projects. The DMC/FTLC partnership led to similar partnerships with The University Speaking Center. The DMC co-sponsored the speaking center’s already developed and planned visual workshop offerings, and the speaking center moved the facilitation of these programs to the DMC. A second partnership formed between the FTLC and the speaking center, as some of the remaining workshops planned by the speaking center were co-sponsored by the FTLC. While the FTLC, DMC, and speaking center leadership soon recognized the benefits of collaboration, developing and co-hosting several programs during the Fall, the lines that previously separated what each office offered were blurred, which was new and not always easy to navigate.

More awareness-raising and co-sponsored instruction-focused programs are planned for the coming Spring. Other outreach events previously conducted by the DMC included the following: A graduate student networking event sponsored in conjunction with the University’s Career Services program; several Family Game Night events, in collaboration with Campus Activities & Programs; and a week-long series of digital media-related workshops and seminars, developed by FTLC faculty and hosted in the DMC.

A soft opening of the DMC, for Libraries and Undergraduate Studies faculty and staff, was held just before the beginning of the inaugural semester. A month and a half into that first semester, a more formal Open House was held for the entire campus community. The Open House featured opening remarks from the University’s Provost, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, the Dean of Libraries, and others. At both opening events, DMC and DLC staff were available to demonstrate and describe different aspects of the Commons, as attendees embarked on self-guided tours of the new space. All of the publicity efforts were DMC driven rather than jointly articulated, and there was no formal announcement about the DLC and its purpose, leadership, or long-term goals made by the Libraries, Undergraduate Studies, or the Provost, which further contributed to the confusion about the DLC’s purpose on campus.

In part, this lack of publicity was exacerbated by the lack of institutional support, as the DLC was charged with a soft launch. With funding for just ten hours of consultation a week, marketing efforts were strategically limited. To get the word out at the start of the semester, the Multiliteracy Centers orientation efforts were revamped to include an overview of all three centers (writing, speaking, and digital) for every classroom group that requested an orientation tour of the Writing or Speaking centers. To that end, the directors, assistant directors, graduate assistant directors, and student orientation team members of both the writing and speaking center addressed 71 classes on campus, reaching approximately 1500 students. The DLC directors, with technical support from staff in Undergraduate Studies, worked early to establish a Web presence for the DLC. Throughout the fall semester, the DLC consultants, under the supervision of the DLC directors, with input from the DLC graduate student director, and in consultation with DMC student-staff, developed a blog, memes, an informational Prezi, a Twitter feed, and an IM chat box to the new DLC Web page.

In October 2012, Undergraduate Studies was awarded a Federal Title III grant, part of which is to fund the DLC for five years. This external funding greatly altered the first-year plans for the DLC and offered a new level of sustainability for the Libraries’ Undergraduate Studies partnership. Starting in January 2013, there would be ample funding spent on administration, marketing, and staffing. Focused branding and an integrated marketing plan that aids in getting the word out about what designers can accomplish in the DLC is certainly attainable now. In late December 2012, the new DLC director had “been in discussions about changing the name of the center. Digital Literacy Center, and Digital Center, are apparently misleading students and faculty alike, including the Library staff, as to what it is the center actually is and does” (S. Yarbrough, personal communication, December 21, 2012). This third name change in five months for the digital consulting service offered within the DMC is well timed given the influx of grant funding and pending marketing plan. The long form of the new name is the Digital Action, Consultation, and Training Studio. In shorter form, it was anticipated to become the Digital ACT Studio or Digital ACTS. Shortly after the change, patrons were using D-ACT as a shortened name. Yet, without clear marketing efforts that educate designers about what the DMC and the DLC/DACT Studio can do, will people know to turn to this new learning space for support? Also, once they arrive, will they find consultants working there who are trained well enough to help in productive ways?

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