Learning spaces that focus on technology in addition to writing and speaking are quickly becoming the norm, much like the newest learning space at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As “many of the traditional expectations of faculty and students about where and how learning occurs have become unstable … and the nature of knowledge production has changed drastically from print to pixels,” technology-enhanced media labs, library commons spaces, and multimodal support services that were once unusual and new-fangled are starting to become a logical extension of the ways people learn, find information, know, and create content (Elmborg, 2005, p. 7).
In response to these changes, over the past decade academic libraries have evolved from providing resources and services to also offering quality technology-enhanced learning environments for their campuses (Accardi, 2010; Bailey, 2008; Beagle, 2006). Many libraries include an information, knowledge, or learning commons where students may discover the information they need through these libraries’ online and print resources, and students, using a variety of productivity software, can then go on to create a finished product. More recently, these commons have grown to include multimedia or digital support so that students may create videos, podcasts, and other digital projects, as well as traditional research papers. These learning spaces include individual and group settings and provide staffing to help students find the needed information, use the technology, and complete the final product.
On many campuses other learning and teaching support offices including writing centers, speaking centers, and teaching and learning centers; some tutoring centers are also housed in libraries. One reason housing these units in the library makes sense might be because staff at these offices, like staff at the library, serve as mediators between students and faculty (Elmborg, 2005). The arrangement provides an optimum experience for students, as they work on course assignments, to have all these learning resources conveniently in one location. Good examples of conveniently located resources include the Knowledge Commons, Marriot Library, University of Utah, the Digital Media Lab, Weigle Information Commons, Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania, the Writing and Research Center, Odegaard Undergraduate Library, University of Washington, The Noel Studio for Academic Creativity at Eastern Kentucky University, and Grand Valley State University’s Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons. Having resources located near one another also can foster excellent cross-collaboration among the staff for joint programs, training, and faculty development.
Although sustainable learning spaces which feature technology support for patrons has not quite become the norm on all higher education campuses, it is clear that there is now a need for collaborative learning spaces that can meet the needs of learners in this new media literacy environment. Furthermore, while it is not unusual for libraries to have digital media learning spaces, it is unusual for libraries to pair with emerging multiliteracy centers in order to expand the services for media designers beyond functional support and into the critical and rhetorical contexts that new media projects demand. This unique collaboration adds support beyond helping patrons learn how to use technology. Patrons can also become effective designers, learning how to better convey messages through shape, space, style, and form.
As libraries shift from simply being thought of as locations of stored knowledge to places for generating new knowledge, one result can be the kind of collaboration between UNCG’s Multiliteracy Centers and University Libraries that produced a learning space that we hope will be sustainable. And, as future designers think about the creation of such learning spaces, we hope the challenges and rewards that leadership encountered at UNCG can serve as an early road map in the creation of spaces that are flexible in ways that can support long-term physical, organizational, and relational sustainability.
In these early days of creating a new digital learning space in the library (when there were no models to reference), the collaboration produced the labor pains that are a natural part of such a process. Furthermore, not knowing what to expect only exacerbated the difficulties. As the collaboration between the libraries and the Multiliteracy Centers digital literacy center developed, the two constituencies worked to build on their evolving successes and address the challenges of creation, both of which are necessary for a productive long-term vision. In his discussion of how design and creativity impact both space and relationships over time, Newcomb (2012) recognized that long-term vision is an essential part of the creation and design process, suggesting that the design of space (or writing assignments) is fundamentally rhetorical in nature, impacting all involved agents: authors (designers), audience (users, administrators, leadership), and message (purpose and goal of design). In particular, Newcomb argued for intentionally examining the way design decisions create a deep impact on physical space and human relationships. He argued that when “creating with design, … the creation is not basically one of expression but rather an innovative response to a perceived situation and need” (p. 594). And perhaps more importantly, he states that “design ultimately makes more than object or an arrangement—it makes new contexts and associations” (p. 594).
When designing learning spaces, it is Newcomb’s approach that offers insight into why collaborations such as the renovation of UNCG’s Jackson Library basement created such a strong ripple effect on the relationships of the people involved and the way the patrons used the space. Design doesn’t (and can’t) happen in a vacuum: it has consequences, some intentional, some unforeseen. Designing physical space creates “ongoing relationships,” demanding attention to sustainability (Newcomb, 2012, p. 594).
Lee, Alfano, and Carpenter (2013) argued that flexibility is key for a sustainable future, especially since there is no way to know what specific types of space or services might be needed in the future. With flexibility as the key, what are the long-term consequences of creating sustainable learning spaces? How will the flexible design of these spaces impact the physical, organizational, and human relationships that result from its creation? Given how technology has changed in the last 20 years and that new learning spaces seem inextricably tied to and driven by technology (production, interpretation, and media), how do flexible learning spaces address these issues of sustainability? Or, in other words, as designers of flexible spaces, how do we account for long-term physical, organizational, and relational sustainability when we begin with such seemingly young, ephemeral, and evolving material practices and artifacts that will likely change faster than we can plan for, including the technology, the ways the space is used, and the relationships that our design generates?
The Libraries and the Multiliteracy Centers created two support offices: The Digital Media Commons (DMC) and the Digital Literacy Center (DLC), respectively. At the end of the first full semester of operation, our experiences revealed several key tensions, including a need for aligning missions and goals, navigating new space, training staff, and coordinating marketing efforts. To best position this new learning space to sustain itself in the coming years, as well as to best meet the needs of patrons and designers, this collaboration needed to negotiate these tensions with a mindful eye toward relationship building, supporting physical, organizational, and human relations needs. This chapter will first describe the background of the project in order to provide the context surrounding the development of the Digital Media Commons and the Digital Literacy Center. We will then address the challenges and rewards of each of these tensions. Finally, we will look at the long-term implications of trying to maintain a flexible learning space that seems, at times, inherently transient in nature.