Not just a pretty face: putting the learning into the Learning Commons

Rosie Jones, Jennie Blake

Abstract


The newly opened Alan Gilbert Learning Commons (AGLC) provides a flexible learning space catering to students from across the University of Manchester With over 1000 study spaces, ranging from informal to formal, enclosed to open, complimented by state of the art innovative technology, the AGLC is an attractive central hub for students to visit anytime of the day and night. However, the Library's vision for the AGLC travels far beyond the physical space and seeks to engage with students at a much deeper level enhancing and developing their learning. To this end, the AGLC was a driver for the library to deliver its own unique training programme and open learning materials in support of the learning and development needs of all students, irrespective of academic discipline. This is achieved through collaboration and partnership between the current providers across campus, with the Learning Commons providing a central focus for a wide range of activity, to exemplify the best of what the University of Manchester can offer to enhance the student learning experience.

This paper describes the development of the Learning Commons, from planning to launch, in particular highlighting how ‘the learning' was put into the learning commons. It will illustrate some of the ways in which the Learning Commons joins up existing and newly developed activity from across the campus to proactively encourage and support engagement with learning as well as providing a physical space that students really want to learn in. It will describe the current open training programme and this is now being developed further from a pedagogic perspective and through partnerships with other skills providers across the University to enhance the AGLC offer and to ensure effective integration of student skills provision.

The Alan Gilbert Learning Commons (AGLC) is the newest library service at the University of Manchester and opened in October 2012. The £24 million investment in the space is part of a wider strategy at the University to invest in the student experience. The facility provides flexible learning space and caters for students from all parts of the university. There are over 1000 study spaces, ranging from informal to formal, enclosed to open, complimented by state of the art innovative technology. Learning has always been in mind when building the AGLC and the design encourages this through materials and technology in the space and flexible and formative furniture and learning opportunities. The infrastructure also supports learning, it is a 24/7 building 244 days of the year with excellent wifi coverage both indoors and in the outside garden space. There are power points wherever possible and room to put in more, 30 group rooms which encourage learning across distance with as well as in a specific PC cluster that encourages students to use that software as a collaboration tool. The furniture is flexible and reconfigurable, with whiteboards and digital screens integrated throughout the building.  No spaces are labelled instead students have the flexibility to make them their own. Even the quiet areas are not labelled, but depend on the students to decide where and exactly how quiet an area might need to be. This allows the building to flexibly support the students with whatever their needs are at the time, serving them best as they shape the space around them. 

The building aims to inspire students; there are creative concepts commissioned throughout the building to inspire those studying and working in the space. Student's artwork adorns the walls and glass in the building, and there are distinguished alumni tiles in the entrance area which all show students they don't just learn in this space but stand on the shoulders of giants.  There are quotes from the great and the good of Manchester engraved into the solid oak panels that adorn the stairwells. There are 25 bespoke Nobel Laureate chairs associated with the University of Manchester intended to enthuse and inspire students to aspire to equal greatness. There is also a dedicated flexible training room in the building with laptops, clickers, a touch screen TV, stackable chairs and tables and a coffee machine and biscuits to encourage our students to want to be in this environment. The AGLC is an attractive central hub for students to visit anytime of the day and night. It is at the heart of the campus, opposite the main library, students union and University visitors centre.

However the learning part of the building goes beyond the physical. Students and staff from across the University acted as consultants to ensure that the University tapped into the needs of its students and it became clear that a key area was supporting academics and schools to help them with developing student skills. Academic support provision at the University was not consistent. This clear need led to the creation of a learning development team dedicated to developing an open training programme that would support these areas of learning. This team delivers its own unique training programme of open learning materials in support of the learning and development needs of all students, irrespective of academic discipline. In fact the idea of these not being subject aligned is extremely important to the programme, none of the training is school aligned and any student is able to come to any session, interdisciplinarity is encouraged and exploration into the thoughts of someone from a different mindset expected.

The training offer is achieved through collaboration and partnership between the current providers across campus, with the AGLC providing a central focus for a wide range of activity, to exemplify the best of what the University of Manchester can offer to enhance the student learning experience. The programme develops and delivers training and workshops that are new ,innovative, and following a facilitative model, covering topics from Academic Writing to Presentation Skills to Interview and Job Searching. It brings together the expertise and best practices already available on campus with the library acting as a bridge between the students' needs and the wider university resources. The goal is not to duplicate already existing resources, or create a parallel programme, but to create training that links students to the resources they need, wherever they happen to be provided.

Going forward, what is really exciting is that this is part of a wider context, a Manchester vision. At the University of Manchester there is clearly a skills agenda. The University of Manchester has recently announced its "vision" for 2020, a vision that includes the sort of skills development currently being created by the library. Students at the university will be expected and encouraged to investigate beyond the strict content of their degree programmes and invest time in developing a broader and more varied set of skills than is traditionally expected. To achieve this goal, the partnerships across the university become key, an opportunity to demonstrate both the resources available and the multitude of ways the skills and knowledge acquired at university can impact a student after they have left.

The open training programme (My Learning Essentials) allows students to self-select workshops and resources they use. There are online learning resources, formal workshops and informal face-to-face components. The workshops are designed to give students the tools they need to be more successful learners, not answers. With this goal in mind, we can invite students from all degree programmes to attend the workshops and learn from each other, as the process is often broadly transferable no matter the specific content. It may be that our students don't suffer from a skills gap, where they don't know "how" to do something, but that they are not sure "what" to do. Given examples and guidance (but not answers), they will be able to use the skills they have to acquired during their time at University to attack problems far beyond their time in their degree programmes. This also changes the conversation around the skills agenda. It is not about identifying what is wrong; instead, it is about students' ability to self-evaluate and improve-whatever their starting point. Feedback is used from students and staff (and data gathered from registers) to understand which workshops should be offered and how the resources are being used. This helps develop the most appropriate resources and also works to target groups that appear to be under-served.  One of the key components of student success with feedback (and, in fact, with the student experience) is understanding how to move forward and improve. These workshops, because they focus on process, allow students to answer the question of "what next?" that makes feedback (and other support resources) most useful.

The offer during the Spring of 2013 was deliberately kept minimal in order to assess both student demand and the optimal timing and design of the programme. The workshops that were developed covered areas from academic writing to presentation skills and also included an employability emphasis led by a partnership with the careers division at the university, focusing on CVs, interview skills and job search techniques. In all, twenty one workshops were delivered to nearly 300 students in a twelve week period. This was a soft pilot, so minimal marketing was done, but attendance rates were generally very high, with, on average, over 60% of students signing up then attending a session.  September 2013 saw a fuller launch, there are now 17 different titles delivered and take up has been considerable.  In October 2013 My Learning Essentials saw 429 students, a significant increase and 97% of attendants found the sessions useful. 

The programme does not intend to replace skills support in schools (there is not enough resource in the library to help every student that needs this support), but will work to improve it across the University. In this sense, the workshops, online provision, work with faculties and work with other partners will add up to more than the sum of its parts. Expertise of the entire university will be drawn upon to deepen the student experience and create a unique and innovative programme that goes beyond skills support and actively impacts learning.

Much of the work has involved seeking partnerships with other service providers across the university and inviting them to create workshops and become an active part of the open training programme. The courses delivered on this programme are open to all students at the university, regardless of year, degree programme or postgraduate or undergraduate designation. These workshops and training sessions allow the students to evaluate and self-select areas where they feel they need support or have an interest in improving or learning. This structure moves the focus from a top-down remedial model to one where students are encouraged to explore the options and resources available to them at university, providing pathways for success that go beyond the traditional content studied during a degree.

 




DOI: https://doi.org/10.15845/noril.v5i1.181

Copyright (c) 2013 Rosie Jones, Jennie Blake

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