The U of C Learning Commons

By Anne-Marie Bruzga

Picture a water cooler. Now, picture a water cooler surrounded by faculty, students and staff using the latest technology and resources to discuss and shape curriculum at the University of Calgary. Now, replace that water cooler with a coffee kiosk, and you have the Learning Commons.

The grand opening of the new facility, located on the fifth floor of Biological Sciences, was held on Sept. 14.

The mandate of the Learning Commons states that it’s "an extensive, collegial network of faculty, students, staff, and external partners committed to enhancing student learning and access, as well as to creating new knowledge about teaching and learning through collaboration within the teaching community."

Alberta Member of the Legislative Assembly Calgary-Varsity Murray Smith, put it in laymen’s terms.

"It’s like an academic water cooler you can gather around and exchange pretty creative information at," said Smith. "I see tremendous spirit here, fulfilling a partnership, coming together and working on problems this province, this country face, and finding solutions."

While several other members of the Legislative Assembly were present at the opening as well as corporate sponsors, it was dominated by faculty, staff and administration who came out to see the realization of a long standing plan.

It was in June 1997 that the Learning and Instructional Development Subcommittee recommended that teaching and curriculum development be given a higher priority through centralization to the Academic Planning Committee. It was believed that this would more effectively allocate resources as well. Four departments were relocated into the Learning Commons: the Learning Enhancement and Professional Development; the Advanced Media for Learning; the Distance and Distributed Learning; and Curriculum Design.

"The Learning Commons has been designed to support the ongoing development of our teaching and learning," said Learning Commons Board Chair Esther Enns. "It supports research and development that will enhance and fortify the teaching practices, our learning processes, as well as our educational materials and resources. The Learning Commons is a philosophy as much as it is a place."

Students’ Union Vice-president Academic Toireasa Jespersen said that was one of the difficulties with determining how the Learning Commons will help undergraduate students at this stage.

"Direct help is hard to define at this point, as it is all a bit philosophical," said Jespersen. "How the Learning Commons will help undergrads is a question I have been asking since the beginning of my term, and I’ve had some problems getting a simple or direct answer."

Enns emphasized that the Learning Commons worked on various levels during the opening.

"It stands for an extensive stand on collegiate relationships among faculty, students and staff, and external partners who all share a passion to enhance learning," said Enns.

It was the "external partners" that made Learning Commons a possibility, as they paid for two thirds of the $1.8 million facility.

The Alberta government pitched in one-third in the form of various government funds like Learning Enhancement Envelopes which help cover an important part of the Learning Commons–fellowships.

Corporate sponsors included companies like Shaw Communications, who donated money, and smed International, which donated the office supplies. The Learning Commons is supposed to be a state- -of-the-art facility and it is. Besides Ralph Lauren paint on the walls, the Learning Commons has the latest in multi-media technology.

"Multi-media services, called Advanced media services here, encompass the old services," said Learning Commons Director Ken Hewitt. "We have a full-time staff of 18–Java programmers, designers and video producers–essentially here in the context of curriculum. As some faculty members look at reconfiguring their teaching, in a technological environment or an information age if you will, this is part of a support program."

Hewitt explained that Distance and Distributed Learning component is also well equipped in BioSci with four major facilities.

"Room 587 is a direct connection to the U of A broad band, full motion video," said Hewitt. "There’s another classroom of 60 with a direct connection to Mount Royal College. Then we have many picture/tele connections in other rooms with connections to sights on various campuses."

U of C President Terry White compared the Learning Commons experience to a little girl he observed at Prince’s Island Park, whose curiosity about a roaming butterfly put her hand-eye coordination to the test. White said that the U of C was committed to making learning as inspiring as it was for that small child and that the Learning Commons was going help achieve this.

"The U of C has committed itself both through our governing bodies and through our time and energy to the following learning objectives: All students awarded their bachelor degrees will have acquired a coherent range of knowledge, intellectual capabilities, human skills, attitudes and values that are essential for a successful personal and professional life," said White.

He said it was this knowledge

U of C grads would take with them through their lives, via the Learning Commons. According to White, this would in turn help them gain a competitive edge in what he termed the "knowledge-based era" because they’d be able to make sense of it.

Minister of Science, Research and Information Technology Lorne Taylor agreed with White, and congratulated the U of C and the private sector for taking on a "can-do" spirit–the kind of spirit that he said had benefits.

"First, it gives national and international attention to the U of C and Alberta," said Taylor. "Secondly, it brings better research and communication between faculty and students. Third, and most importantly, it helps students up to speed in the knowledge-based economy."

"The Learning Commons will be an open, interactive environment," said White. "If a prof has an idea to add, lets say, a virtual reality component in a course, she could find support and encouragement at the Learning Centre in the Learning Commons to make sure it becomes a reality."

One way a prof or student could make ideas like that become a reality is by receiving one of the 20 Learning Commons fellowships valued at a maximum of $20,000 each annually that will be added over the next three years.

"A whole new feature of this activity is the presence of fellowships on campus," said Hewitt. "Now we have 30-35 fellowships every year that a faculty member could acquire used funds to purchase release time through a sessional appointment, clerical support or research. They could buy the release time to come into here and work."

Hewitt recommended that the first thing students who are interested in the Learning Commons should do is talk to Jespersen and the other student representatives on the Learning Commons Board. Hewitt also invited students to stop by the Learning Commons to learn more.

Jespersen also said that students stop by and take a look at the Learning Commons.

"Yes. Right now, we have myself and four SU representatives on the Board," said Jespersen. "As far as general involvement with the Learning Commons goes, I would suggest that students go up to the fifth floor of BioSci and check it out. See for yourself if you think the facility is student friendly (cappuccino bar and all). While multi-media is expensive and valuable, we should keep an eye on these kinds of expenditures. The SU expects to see astute use of resources of this campus, and I think that students should expect this too."

Over the next year, the Learning Commons Board is going to try to communicate with the campus and generate discussion about what various sectors of the university need.

"I think that there is a lot of passion and energy on the Board to make this project work, and it is clearly an institutional priority," said Jespersen. "As far as the investment goes, we must keep an eye on the return for students. There is a real potential here–but whether that potential is realized remains to be seen."

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