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

Physical Relationships
Human Relationships
Additional Takeaways
Building Sustainable Physical Relationships

Lee, Alfano, and Carpenter (2013) seemed to be writing about a sustainable physical space that embodies Newcomb’s argument: “In the Noel Studio, the space is enhanced by mobile furniture options, allowing students to change the space to fit their invention process. Thus, the space changes with each student or group. In many cases, students in the Noel Studio, move the mobile furniture to accommodate their invention process, either by creating a semi-circle around a flat-screen monitor or assembling a space for drafting ideas and feedback on dry-erase boards” (p. 55). To that end, the renovated space in the lower level of Jackson Library is well positioned to be physically sustainable with its flexibility in furniture and walls, wheels under chairs and white boards, and open use spaces.

The DMC is distinct, as it is both a support program and a learning space. Currently, the DLC is only a support program. This arrangement certainly makes sense in terms of efficiency; however, it has caused some mild tension. Even when the consultation spaces are reserved by the DLC, students are often using them to study, and when a session is scheduled, or the DLC consultants need the space for training and development, the DLC must “kick the students out” of the consultation rooms. The DLC then risks developing the public relations problem of “causing trouble” in a way that might linger with DMC patrons. In addition, there is no dedicated space for the DLC staff to congregate, since the tables in the DMC can be claimed by anyone at any time. Consultants have solved this problem by migrating to one of the DLC leadership offices. This lack of visibility unnecessarily diminishes the DLC’s impact and presence in the DMC. In effect, the Digital Center disappears since there is no obvious staff working there.

To better ensure this learning space’s physical sustainability, the DLC will need visibly dedicated space, along with the shared and unshared working spaces it currently has. In the future, a Memorandum of Understanding must  be drafted to protect and clarify the interests and needs of both parties. This document will further secure sustainability if it describes space agreements and builds human relationships beyond those who are currently in charge and/or those involved in the planning.

Building Sustainable Human Relationships

Though the sharing of space is always a challenge, the relationship between the library and the Digital Center is a healthy one. DLC directors nominated the DMC for an award, and Library leadership agreed to participate in the multi-source assessment of one of the DLC interim directorsboth of which speak to the productive work environment and sustainability. Ongoing communication continues between leaders of both the DMC and DLC about the Libraries’ processes and systems. In line with Elmborg’s (2005) suggestion, DMC and DLC leaders have openly explored co-publishing opportunities and plan to engage more in conversations, which include DLC professional talk. Such conversations start with an invitation for both DMC graduate assistants and leadership to sit in on DLC consultation sessions.

To better position the sustainability of the human relationships of this next-gen Learning Space, we foresee regular leadership meetings to account for current operations and problem solving as well as future planning. Key for longstanding success, combined and separate DMC and DLC staff training will need to focus on integrating theory and practice to educate faculty, staff, and students. In discussing writing center and library collaborations, Elmborg (2005) offers useful insight for our DMC/DLC future, as he argued that the education of tutors needs to include information literacy, and the education of library staff should include scholarship in the instruction of writing. In our DMC/DLC learning space the scholarship of multiliteracy instruction would also need to be a part of the conversation. A new DMC/DLC team or “working together” identity, coupled with ongoing discussions about the shared and separate missions of each support office, will help. The new team’s future conversations should be about sustaining this learning space. These conversations will help pull those working in both support office together.

With strong leadership and organizational support in place, such conversations “can give all a sense of pride in their ability to independently engage in shared decisions” (MacPhee, Wardrop, & Campbell, 2010, p. 1023). The successes of new learning spaces like these happen only with a commitment to the time and energy it takes to develop and maintain healthy workplace relationships that support ongoing flexibility. This commitment can lead to sustaining the human relationships of the space. As Elmborg (2005) noted, successful collaborations such as ours are full of energy, difficult, and worth. If cross-unit learning spaces like ours are to be sustainable, the leadership will need to continue a commitment to forging forward in what is essentially a new frontier on this campus.

Additional Takeaways

While libraries and literacy centers have different cultures and service paradigms, each provides essential services and are committed to student success.  As collaborative space is planned it’s essential to acknowledge and appreciate these differences and how space can be designed to accommodate these different service models. 

MOU’s should be established during the planning process so that all parties are clear who is supporting what in terms of staff, space and technology.  It’s especially important to establish who is supporting ongoing costs such as equipment and furniture replacement.

Having literacy centers in the library can be of two models: space within a space where the literacy centers are completely independent in terms of programming or a more collaborative effort where the centers work with the library on mutual goals for student success.  The latter is preferable (to the library) so that students and faculty may benefit from combined expertise.  Staff from centers and the library should work together to develop mutual program goals for their campus.  

Opening the DMC & DLC at the same time in a shared space was difficult due partly to the separation of technological and rhetorical literacies. Learning to work collaboratively between the units was easier.  It did not take long for the students who work in both to start inviting one another to help mid-session.  DLC consultants were invited into DMC sessions and vice versa as the needs of those being supported changed. In a different time, the DMC & DLC might have functioned as competing support services. Once the working relationships of those who support students in the DMC & DLC were put into focus, the student workers lead the leadership to see exactly how these two can function as complimentary instructional support offices.

Sheridan’s (2006) argument against separating technological and rhetorical literacies into different support units is not lost here.  The DMC & DLC partnership had taught us that while we can offer continuous technology training, it is not realistic to expect every student who is trained in the theory and practice of digital centers to also be skilled at supporting technological literacies. In truth, while the literacies are split between the units’ missions, the support of the literacies happens in the same physical space.  The shared space might be the reason the separation is working, for now.

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