sustainable learning spaces

Sustainable Commons: Bringing Multimodal Composition and Digital Media Production to the (Physical) Center of Pacific University

Alfred Weiss, Pacific University
Marita Kunkel, Pacific University

Imagining a Digital Downtown
Developing Partnerships

Cooperatively Planning the Commons
Building the Commons

Next Steps

Developing Partnerships to Create a Sustainable Commons

Identifying Strong Partners

While a good proposal was an important initial step in the process of developing the Media Commons, we still needed to acquire funding for the project, get buy-in for the Commons from different campus constituencies, and ensure that the space itself would be successful. In order to achieve these goals, we looked for campus partners who shared our objectives for the Commons and who would aid in the development of the space. We were particularly interested in finding partners from academic departments who would be able to integrate the use of the tools and services of the Media Commons into their programs’ curricula. Other successful multimedia labs, such as at the University of Colorado Boulder and Bentley University, have credited strong support from a department or curriculum as being an essential component to creating well-used and vital labs. Likewise, we felt that having partners whose academic programs were tied to the Commons would not only guarantee that the lab was well-used and necessary from its inception, but would also ensure that a number of student and faculty constituencies who experienced the facility would then help evangelize for the project and showcase its potential.

Having strong campus partners also made the Commons fiscally sustainable. While the Commons would provide direct lab support for several programs, funding for it was centralized in the Library. Through this funding model, programs partnering with the Commons have the cost of both new and existing programs significantly reduced by not having to create or maintain lab space. Additionally, the Library would ensure little duplication of equipment or software purchases across these programs and that these services would be implemented in the most cost-effective manner. For example, the Library is investigating ways to deploy a limited number of software keys and licenses from a central server so that expensive multimedia software is available on computers throughout the library, without needing licenses for each machine. By moving lab costs out of these departments, the University as a whole should experience cost savings and efficiencies. Additionally, this funding model would allow the University to not only offer a greater array of media-intensive courses, but to also have these lab resources available to the University community as a whole. In other words, we believe that this model will create a virtuous circle, in which the partnering departments and the entire campus will see benefits from the Commons, becoming enthusiastic supporters of its continued funding and growth.

We also believe strong campus partners will make the Commons curricularly sustainable. By developing the Commons with the direct input of our partner programs, we are assured that the services, resources, and design of the facility will be immediately applicable to the students and faculty of those programs. Moreover, because the facility is integrated into these programs’ course of study, the Commons will continue to be updated and modified as these programs grow and change over the years. Being a dynamic component of programs with media rich curricula will help ensure that the Commons remains technologically and pedagogically relevant within the rapidly changing 21st-century media landscape. In other words, the Commons will not become a dusty lab with out-of-date equipment, but will remain a compelling environment for the entire University community, to will support and promote the use of digital technology across disciplines.

In searching for partners, therefore, we were interested in finding programs and departments that were engaged in cutting-edge digital media production. In addition, because we were interested in promoting digital literacy and scholarship in the Pacific Community, we were also sought to partner with programs and departments that were engaging in multimodal scholarship and critical approaches to media production. We were fortunate in the timing of the development of the Commons: three programs that met these requirements were seeking to expand or create computer lab space to accommodate both new students and technological changes within their disciplines. The Media Arts department, for example, is engaged in creating a new inter-disciplinary minor on digital communication. This minor will require a new dedicated lab, computer classroom space, and specialized software. Likewise, a new Editing & Publishing Minor has been approved that will critically examine what publishing means in the 21st-century, while having students engage in authentic publishing projects. Like the new digital communication minor, this program will also require dedicated computer lab space and specialized multimedia software. The minor will also require specialized printing and scanning equipment. While these new programs will find a home in the Media Commons, two established programs will also partner with the Commons. The Photography Program in Studio Arts will be moving away from chemical film processing to an all-digital program. In order to have the appropriate lab and classroom space, the Photography Program will use the Commons to support its use. Also, like the Editing & Publishing Minor, the Photography Program will require specialized printing equipment and other hardware. Finally, existing Media Arts programs are expanding, and their current lab and classroom spaces are inadequate for their anticipated growth. The Media Commons will provide capacity for these programs to grow.

Cooperatively Planning the Commons

The Director of Educational Technology and the University Librarian shared the initial proposal for the Commons with the department heads and program leads of potential partners. Out of these meetings, the proposal was endorsed by the Media Arts department, Studio Arts, and the Editing & Publishing Minor. With these endorsements, the next stage of advocating for the Media Commons began. First, we reached out to the Provost and to the President’s Cabinet to share the proposal, the endorsements, and to gauge the interest of the administration in funding the proposal. Both the Provost and the Vice President for Finance and Administration were enthusiastic about the plan and provided seed funding to continue the planning process with help from architects. They agreed that this was the next step in the progress of a vision that had begun with the creation of the Director of Educational Technology position. With initial funding secured, we canvassed each of the participating departments for the types of technologies and space requirements and included those in our proposal. We also contacted the architectural firm that had initially planned the Library to make preliminary drawings and plans for the Media Commons space.

We held several meetings between the architectural firm, the Library, and our new partners in the Media Commons. At these meetings, we reviewed how the space would be used and our general requirements for the area. Because the space would have so many different uses and constituents, a key requirement for the Commons was that it had to be as flexible as possible. Also, because Media Arts and the Editing & Publishing Minor both emphasize collaborative learning in their curriculum, and because the Media Commons would support collaborative multimedia work for others on the campus, the space had to be designed to facilitate the work of students and faculty engaging in group activities. Finally, the space would be used for formal classes and instruction for Media Arts and the Editing & Publishing Minor, as well as for workshops held by the Center for Educational Technology and Curricular Innovation. The space, therefore, needed a classroom component that could be acoustically separate from the main area of the Library.

To meet these requirements, the Commons would need to be comprised of four partsa collaborative work area, a classroom space, a smaller work area for quiet work, and a printing and scanning area. An initial walk-around of the architect, interior designer, and stakeholders quickly confirmed the viability of the classroom, the periodical browsing area, and the 24-hour study area as the most appropriate space for the media commonsthe areas that the authors had initially conceived as the home for the Commons. In our plans, the existing Library Classroom would be reconfigured to be a more flexible learning environment and would become the classroom space for the Commons. The adjacent Periodicals Browsing area would become the collaborative work area, the central component of the Media Commons. By using the periodical browsing space as the collaborative work area, we could take advantage of the space’s proximity to the Library classroom to provide flexibility for formal classes while using the classroom’s computers to add capacity to the Media Commons’ digital resources when the classroom was not being used for instruction.

The small 24-hour study room was already physically separated from the adjacent classroom and collaborative work area, making it an ideal location for private workspaces for individuals who would want to work in a quiet environment. As an added benefit, if we modified the entrance to the Media Commons, we would physically closed off the entire Commons from the rest of the Library during off hours, allowing us to expand the area of 24-hour access in the Library and providing students access to the Media Commons even when the Library and other study spaces on campus were closed. This expansion would more than double the Library space open to students 24 hours a day. Finally, we planned to create a glassed-in printing and scanning area between the quiet and collaborative workspaces to house specialized printing and scanning equipment necessary for print media production.

Blueprints of the space with notes along the side. The space is divided into different colors to illustrate how they will be used.

Figure 4: The initial architectural plans for the new Media Commons.

While the creation of the printing area and expansion of the 24-hour access area would require some demolition and construction, most of the design of the Commons could be implemented without major renovations to the space. Simply by reconfiguring and purchasing furniture and equipment, we could meet many of the requirements that our partners and stakeholders had for the Commons. Our ability to make such radical changes to how these spaces would be used derived from the original design of the Library—a design that consisted of large, open spaces. This image shows a large open area inside a building. There are three floors visible along with a valted ceiling.The openness of the design made it very easy to re-imagine and repurpose parts of the Library as the functions and needs of the institution changed over time. However, it is important to note that, despite being modest, the planned redesign required some structural renovation that was disproportionately costly compared to the total project.

Figure 5: The Library was designed with an open floor plan facilitating the repurposing of existing spaces.
Building the Commons

With plans in hand, it was time to start developing the Commons. Due to funding concerns, we have begun the project by focusing on the least expensive and highest impact portions of the renovations: furniture and equipment. To this end, we worked with our interior designer to help us find the right design configurations and furniture for the different spaces. In developing the designs, we were influenced by SCALE-UP classrooms. Developed at North Carolina State to encourage collaborative group work in large classrooms, rooms are centered around 9-person tables, where students can easily work individually or in groups without physically moving (Beichner, 2008). What struck us about these learning spaces is that flexibility is built into a fixed design. In other words, learners in these spaces do not need to reconfigure furniture or seating to engage in different learning activities. Rather, the design itself allows learners to participate in different types of activities without moving from their seats. Considering that the Media Commons would be both heavily used and largely un-moderated, we wanted to emulate the SCALE-UP design where furniture and equipment could remain relatively fixed but which would allow a multitude of uses. In consultation with the interior designer, we chose innovatively shaped tables for the collaborative work area in the Media Commons that could easily accommodate both individual and group work. In addition, we decided to mount our computer hardware on masts with articulated arms in the middle of tables so that monitors could easily be shared, or, when patrons preferred to use their own equipment, simply pushed out of the way.  

A drawing of a table shaped like a triangle with three working stations at each side connected by curved edges. A large classroom with curved tables and chairs on wheels. The room is set up with small workstations. One table at the front has four computers, two facing one way and two facing the other. There's a SMART board and white boards on the walls.
Figure 6: In the Collaborative Work Space, computer monitors will be mounted on masts with articulated arms.
Figure 7: Furniture in the collaborative work space is designed to allow either individual or group work.
Figure 8: The Library Classroom was reconfigured into pods to facilitate collaborative learning activities.

At the same time we brought the flexible furniture into the collaborative work area, we rearranged the library classroom from straight rows into a pod format. Our primary challenge in the Library Classroom was arranging the room according to a SCALE-UP model while continuing to use the existing power outlets and network ports. In order to accomplish this, we created 4-person pods that, despite being smaller than what the SCALE-UP model proposes, still provide a far more flexible and student-centered seating layout than found in the original design. In addition to reconfiguring the tables, we added a second projector and screen to the room so that all seats would have good sight lines to any digital presentations. We also almost tripled the amount of white board space so that each pod would have easy access to a collaborative writing and display space. And again, as with the collaborative work area, these design choices, allow the classroom to perform various functions with relatively fixed furniture and equipment.

With the furniture in place, we purchased of the technology and software that are essential to the Commons’ mission. We followed the same procedures with our partners to purchase equipment and software as we have followed in design of the space. We canvassed our partners for their hardware and software requirements and found that, not surprisingly, they had largely overlapping hardware and software requirements, and it was relatively easy, therefore, to buy equipment that would satisfy their needs. For the Collaborative work space, we brought 8 Apple iMacs that we loaded with the Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection, iLife, Audacity, Microsoft Office, and other related software packages. The Library Classroom was already equipped with iMacs, and we updated their software so that they had the same application packages found in the collaborative work area. Additionally, the Classroom iMacs are dual boot, and we purchased equivalent software for the Windows side of the computers as well. Finally, we have added two iMacs in private carols in the 24-hour study space for students who need to engage in quiet or individual work.

When we secure funding, our final step will be to make the actual structural changes to the space. We have two large challenges—first, we need to create a space for the specialized printing and scanning equipment required by our partner programs and second, we wish to be able to close off the Commons from the rest of the library so we can open up the entire space for 24-hour use, doubling the area now available to students 24/7. Additionally, we plan to add more projection and whiteboard space in the Classroom and Collaborative workspace. When we create the printing area and add projection and whiteboard technologies into the lab, we intend to make use of modular walls that can be repositioned or moved much more easily than drywall construction. These modular components will provide us with the means to make future adjustments and renovations to the space as we move forward. We will also preserve the openness of the original design of the Library, a design that made our current repurposing feasible and that will allow future redesigns as well.


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