Tag Archives: space

When the Active Learning Agenda Comes to Town: #TILC2016

River in Radford

It was a lovely day to visit VIrginia, thank you TILC organizing committee for inviting me.


I had the great pleasure of getting to speak to a roomful of library colleagues at the Innovative Library Classroom conference in Radford, VA this past week.  It’s one of those nice small-room conferences that facilitates deep dives, long conversations, and chatty interactions that can inspire and lead to future work that you would never have otherwise been able to consider.

I have been presenting on the work my UNC Charlotte colleagues and I are doing in our Active Learning Classrooms  in a few different contexts.  This is the first time I’ve gotten to speak about what I think the implications are for libraries and librarians.  Several people helped me with the content and the framing of this talk, and I will thank them at the beginning of this blogpost (rather than at the end of the talk).  If I am coherent at all when I give talks it is thanks to the processing that my friends and colleagues allow me to do in their presence, in conversation, on Twitter and email and elsewhere.  They are not of course culpable, any mistakes or disagreements should settle safely on my shoulders alone.

For this talk, I get to thank Dave Cormier, Rich Preville, Kurt Richter, Stephanie Otis, and Susan Harden for talking with, working with, and otherwise indulging me processing aloud in some way.

(Usual caveats about how I am far more Improv Theater than Scripted–here is my best attempt at capturing this particular talk. )

I have been asked to talk to you today about the agenda of active learning classrooms, active learning practices, and active learning places.
I am an anthropologist employed by my library to do research around academic practices, defined very broadly.  I am responsible to the Dean of the Library to bring relevant information around digital and physical spaces and practices, so that our library can make better, more effective decisions about policy, spaces, collections, and agendas.  


Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte.  Photo Wade Bruton, UNC Charlotte: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stakeyourclaim/6254440195

It has become clear over the last several years that my work is about more than the library, it’s about academia generally, and therefore I have to be present, in my research and in my policy discussions, outside of the library.  So I am collaborating with people in the US, UK, and of course at UNCC who are in centers of teaching and learning, who are in leadership positions around digital pedagogy, as well as in libraries.  


You’ve seen this cognitive map before. I love these visualizations of how wide-ranging and messy academic practice is, the nice representation of the connected network of learning spaces including but also beyond the library.

So when we talk about Active Learning, I like, as with my library work, to take a broad view.  I am defining active learning for the purposes of this talk as the cluster of pedagogical approaches that center student participation in teaching and learning, and de-center the role of the instructor as Imparter of Knowledge.  It tends to take place in a wide variety of environments, including purpose-built ones like we have at UNC Charlotte.


UNC Charlotte’s active learning classroom in Kennedy Hall, photo from the Center for Teaching and Learning. Dr. Coral Wayland teaches and learns from her students.

I think it’s useful to ask, when talking about Active Learning Agendas, questions like:  whose agenda?  Is there more than one?  Where are those agendas located?

I see multiple sites for discussions around active learning, and many possible participants.

Another question I have is:  are the agendas embedded in the practices of a university or school?  Or are they accessories that mask the dominant presence of less innovative practice?

I think about the difference between integrated Information Literacy education vs. One-shot library instruction, and what those very different approaches can signal about how the library is situated on campus as a whole.   When one-shot instruction is the only option, what does that mean with regard to the culture of teaching, and the possible library role in it, as a whole?  Conversations I have with instruction librarian colleagues (and indeed, the content of much of the TILC program) indicate that no one thinks it’s a particularly marvelous way to teach people.  But it persists, sometimes as the only game in town.

Likewise we know that lectures are a less effective way of teaching and learning than active pedagogies, but they are still around because…?

There are a number of reasons, but I wonder in particular , where is the time to plan and do otherwise?

How do we create organizational space?  Time?  Priorities? Communities for people to come together and teach as a process?

And I struggle with this a great deal in part because while I’m increasingly witnessing relatively high-level policy discussions around the intentions of our administration, faculty, and community with regard to teaching and learning, and am also getting access to grass-roots practice via fieldwork (observations and interviews mostly, and also some MA-student led work on the anthropology of collaboration among undergraduates), I don’t have a good sense of what the in-between bureaucratic procedures we need at UNCC (or elsewhere) for a sustainable, pervasive active learning agenda.

I am confident that all of the people in the room at TILC are doing as much active teaching and learning as they can, it’s part of why they were at the conference.  I want to explore a bit what my experience around active learning has been at UNC Charlotte, and ask some questions about the role of libraries in the larger educational agenda of universities.

I see active learning as an opportunity for libraries and librarians to partner with teaching faculty–and so as always the question is how do you get buy-in?  How can you get faculty informed, and also informing each other about those opportunities?  How, in the course of engaging in active practices, can we get people to go along with de-centering content, transmission of knowledge, and focus instead on process, on connection, on learning?  Here is where I turn to the work of Dave Cormier and his #rhizo experiments in online learning.


Image source David L. Van Tassel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Helianthus_maximilianii_rhizomes.jpg

I quote shamelessly from Dave’s blog here:

“What is needed is a model of knowledge acquisition that accounts for socially constructed, negotiated knowledge. In such a model, the community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions.”

To borrow a phrase from libraries and archives, how do we get to a point where we curate connections rather than curating content?  This has always been the work of the library, but is now more than ever at the center of what we do.  And we are not alone, clearly that shift is happening in the classroom as well as other teaching and learning spaces in universities.


UNC Charlotte’s active learning classroom in Kennedy Hall, before they started being used. Photo from Center for Teaching and Learning.

UNC Charlotte’s active learning classrooms are the newest teaching spaces on campus, constructed in our oldest building.  We have this agenda and these spaces in part because of our Senior Associate Provost, Dr. Jay Raja, and his commitment to fund and facilitate these classrooms.  The roll out of these spaces was accompanied by a programmatic attention to them in the form of the Active Learning Academy, the leadership team of which is comprised of people from the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Classroom Support, and the Library.  My role is assessment but also in participating in conversations about the role of teaching and pedagogy at UNC Charlotte generally.

In the fieldwork I conducted and facilitated I did observations not just of the classrooms but also of the sessions where faculty teaching in these rooms came together to talk about what they were doing around active learning, and why.  We approached the Active Learning Academy as a community of practice, an opportunity for faculty to share with and learn from each other, far more than another place for faculty to be told what to do by outside experts.

I was most struck by what was anxiety-provoking.  One faculty member, on walking into the space, wanted to know how to turn off the internet.  We heard from another faculty member they had been warned not to teach in classrooms like these, because they would not be able to deliver the content they needed to.  We had another faculty member stop teaching in the classroom after an academic year (we are now at the end of our second full year of these classrooms being open), because he could not lecture effectively in that space.  There was too big a gap between what the room was encouraging him to do, and what he was still comfortable doing.  He was unable to put much distance between himself and the model of authority which required that he know everything, and try to communicate it all in person to his students.

There was some anxiety around what if the tech fails?   Persistent narratives, either around tech or students or content delivery, centered on lack of control.  Lack of control of classroom tech, of students, of their own time as instructors to be able to pay attention to their syllabus and their pedagogy to really effectively use the potential in a room like this.

Students pushed back as well, against a notion of teaching that was unfamiliar to those used to lecture-based content delivery, of standardized testing.  “I thought you were supposed to be teaching me!”  is what some faculty heard.

Student are not immune from the same cliches of teaching and learning that can trap instructors.  

The role of the Center for Teaching and Learning was to attempt to provide a space where faculty could start to feel comfortable engaging in teaching practices that didn’t require them to know everything.  Active learning is approached as a continuum of practice, where there are lots of ways to get stuck in, and many opportunities for faculty to realize where their existing practice is already quite active, as well as discover places for them to take apart and put back together their classes.  

There can also can be a huge role for the Center for Teaching and Learning (and other locations on campus) to provide ways for faculty to share strategies on framing active teaching and learning for students as “What Education Looks Like.”  We are in some ways responsible for deconstructing the model of education handed to our students by the public K-12 system.  Standardized-testing-centric teaching (mandated by the state) provides fewer and fewer opportunities for students to engage in the collaborative active generative (and messy) learning that the Active Learning Agenda encourages and facilitates.

The Active Learning payoffs discussed by faculty included:

“Inquiry assignments work great!”

“Spontaneous “write-think” exercises”

“Discussions are more productive.”

“I get their full attention.  They are very engaged.”

“They interact with each other & build a stronger relationship/friendship.”

“I feel more connected to the students.  A reward for me as the instructor.”

Who doesn’t want those things? And who notices that these are not easily measured, but are definitely observable and describable phenomena, another argument for including qualitative assessment work in institutional projects such as these.

It seems to me that libraries are super-well-positioned to take advantage of the active learning moment because IL has always had to be more about process, evaluation, sifting, and then critically using than the essential container of content.  This is why we are ideally positioned, in theory, to articulate our instructional agenda coming from libraries with the larger educational mission of the university.

What is library instruction in an active-learning environment (i.e., one that de-emphasizes content) ?

It is, really, same as it ever was, but now we can explicitly link it to the kind of teaching and learning happening at our universities.

This feels like an opportunity for librarians serve as consultants, partners, and leaders on campus with faculty.  So, we continue to have conversation with faculty, and about what they do.

A nice example of this is the work of my colleagues Stephanie Otis (in the library) and Joyce Dalsheim (in Global, Area, and International Studies).  They are partners in a now four-year long project called Reading is Research, and co-teach.  Their model is library and librarians as colleagues, not helpers–this is not “how can I help you?” but is expertise, and embedded practice.  I quote from a description of a workshop they co-delivered this Spring at UNC Charlotte:

This collaboration between anthropologist Dr. Joyce Dalsheim and Atkins’ teaching librarian Stephanie Otis has been tested and improved and is now inspiring new First Year Writing assignments and course design. It has also informed changes to the Senior Seminar approach in Global, Area, and International Studies (GAIS)…By initiating this collaboration, Joyce has advocated for research instruction that goes beyond scheduling a session in the library to involve faculty and librarians planning the syllabus, class meetings, and assignments/activities together. This approach helps establish the library as an academic and curricular partner rather than an optional service. In addition, the idea of deep collaboration and rethinking the emphasis of research can inform many other partnerships with the library.”

They delivered this workshop to attendees from across the university–for example, Anthropology, the Honors College, Biology, and Engineering.

As with the Active Learning Academy, the interest in these practices has not been limited, at UNC Charlotte, to just one corner of the university.  It is a pervasive agenda from many locations.  We are therefore forging an Active Learning, Community of Practice.

What does this mean for each of you, in your institutional spaces?

Of course there are questions of bandwidth–if you are a small library, how do you get time to do that?  If you are doing instruction and outreach, maybe you can’t do that.

New Spaces aren’t always going to happen.


And there is an inevitable contrast between old spaces and new spaces when we do have them.

Think about faculty who get into the new spaces, how do they go back to the old classrooms?  What happens when the possibilities  are limited to certain spaces on campus?   We need to ask questions about how people have access to these kinds of spaces.  If they don’t exist on your campus, to what extent can you engage in the pedagogies anyway?  My colleague Susan Harden (pictured above teaching in our smaller active classroom) has come up with a kit.


Susan carries the kit around in a bag like this. Active Learning To-Go.



The Active Learning Agenda can mean using whatever space you have, it’s not always going to be about building shiny new spaces.    And space is just a starting point, not the be-all-end-all.  “Building classrooms is the least expensive part of this”–I have said this in a variety of contexts.  We are lucky, at UNC Charlotte, we got to build the classrooms,  but the strength of the agenda is in the human labor, the staff development, the money required to give time and opportunity for faculty and students to try, and regroup, and try again.

At UNC Charlotte this is not an agenda that is possible if it only emerges from one location. This is a cross-university partnership among our CTL, Classroom Support, the Library, Academic Affairs, and key champions in each of our Colleges.

This cannot happen on an institutional basis by practitioners engaging in isolation from each other.  We are banding together with like-minded faculty but then also finding ways to disseminate these practices.  I find it frustrating (I am not the only one) that we’ve got 25 years of research backing up these techniques as more effective on nearly every measure than traditional lecture, but there is still push-back and demands for proof before space is allowed.  Who is interrogating the efficacy of lecture-based classes?   Too often the familiar and the tidy (and the numerically significant–“butts in seats”) win out over the messy and the unfamiliar (but, more effective!)  We are still coming from a defensive position, and current political climate that is fundamentally suspicious of the expertise of educators is not helping.

The UNC Charlotte Active Learning model is trying to approach the sweet spot of harnessing grass roots practices and having administration on-board with the overarching agenda.  Space was created for us by high-level policy decisions, the practices existed on our campus, and we need to do the (occasionally boring) work of putting in place procedures so that this agenda can spread and thrive in a sustained way.

So I end, as I usually do, with questions rather than conclusions.

What is the role of the library?  What is your position in your university now?  How does that status reflect what voice is possible?

What does your agenda look like?  

What are the implications?  What is at stake?

One of our faculty members said to me in an interview:  “now that we know how much more effective teaching and learning are in these active environments, it’s a social justice issue that we continue to do so.”

Who do you talk to?  Who do you influence?  How do you find the rooms where practice can start to be moved?

What are the leadership contexts in which a tolerance for risk and mess can be created and maintained?

The Active Learning Agenda can provide a space for the library to become a place that facilitates access, not just to information (never just to information), but to possibility.

How can the library, and those of us who work from within the library, be part of the team removing the obstacles to active learning?    Can we curate a path to change?


Ganesha, “Lord of Success, Destroyer of Evils, and Remover of Obstacles.”


Places, Spaces, Teaching, Learning, Planning


No time

Faculty expressed anxiety about not having time to develop curriculum to “maximize effectiveness of the (active learning) room” because the tenure system doesn’t leave space for that, or reward it much if at all.

I had the pleasure of presenting at the National Forum for Active Learning Classrooms (NFALC) on Thursday August 7th, along with my UNC Charlotte colleagues Kurt Richter and Rich Preville (our slide deck is here).  We were talking about our experiences in designing, building, programming, and evaluating our Active Learning Classrooms at UNCC.  And in particular we were pointing to the importance of the Active Learning Academy, the community of practice model we have arrived at to make it more likely that these classrooms will be successful additions to the ways we approach teaching and learning spaces.

We are just starting to put together and think about the information we’ve been collecting this past academic year on the student and faculty practices that occurred in those classrooms.  I’ve been working, with the help of graduate research assistants, on directing observations in a variety of classes, interviewing faculty on their expectations and experiences, and trying to get a sense of how best to influence the development and configuration of learning spaces (not just classrooms) elsewhere on campus.

I have been witnessing, in the last several months a flurry of intensifying discussions around learning spaces, and in particular how to approach planning for them.  We who work in Atkins Library are discussing how to reconfigure our 1st and 2nd floors, and also revisiting our ground floor spaces to see what we can improve.  Jisc has launched a quick guide.  I have been asked to think about giving talks at 3 or 4 different venues by now around teaching and learning and spaces.

What I’d like to point out here is that, based on my experiences dealing with learning spaces in libraries and classrooms, buildings are the least interesting part of the space conversation.  Yes they are necessary prerequisites.  But before they are built, or reconfigured, I would like  people to ask:

  1. what is the activity you want to support?
  2. how does that activity fit into the larger work of the university?
  3. what are the current learning spaces at the university?  Do they relate to each other?  Can they accommodate some of what you want to happen?  Why or why not?
  4. What are the new spaces going to look like in relation to the spaces that are already there?

I see the 3rd and 4th points getting lost in the shuffle a great deal, and it’s frustrating and unnecessarily limiting.  The learning spaces an institution plans will inevitably be in a network of other spaces.  Being not just aware of those connections, but actually leveraging that awareness, making the spaces explicitly connected to one another, raising the visibility of the spaces to teachers and learners alike, can have an impact.  If the activity they want to engage in (group work, for instance) is supported more effectively by a particular kind of space, institutions should not just provide that space but make sure that people are aware it exists.  So what does that look like?  Digital maps?  Tours?  Faculty telling students about where they can work?  Teaching happening in as many different spaces as possible, to demonstrate what is possible across the university?  What else?

Also:  People occupy spaces not just because they exist but because they have motivations to occupy.  There is no “build it and they will come.”  If the space is built and there’s no motivation to engage, they will never show up.  Kitted out classrooms that ignore motivation become just another kind of useless edtech

Another thing I am struck by, and the note we ended our NFALC presentation on last week, was that the least innovative thing about UNC Charlotte’s active learning classrooms are the active learning classrooms.  The SCALE-UP model has been around for 25 years, the research has been done about the efficacy of active learning techniques and environments.  The rooms themselves are not innovative.

BUT.  Innovation can come out of these rooms (and is!).  And that innovation does require a baseline physical setup (which costs money, and involves technology), but to really happen it requires money spent on professional development time for faculty, and in particular on providing time and space to rethink pedagogy.  That is, the building of these spaces can only be the beginning.  Institutions need to commit to providing institutional space (time, resources, money, prestige) to prioritize teaching and learning.  This is why we want to talk less about the technical specifics of the rooms (although we can, certainly, discuss that) and more about the Active Learning Academy, the faculty and staff who trade practices, teach each other, learn from their students, go further with what works, and discard what does not.  We see, in this Academy, experienced faculty stretching themselves because the presence of these rooms frees them from having to jerry-rig active learning practices into spaces such as traditional lecture halls.  Once they do not have to fight the physical space they are in, they can really start to play with what is possible.  

I’d like to emphasize:  you can’t have spaces that generate innovative practices without surrounding them with effective staffing and programming.  Building the spaces is the beginning (or should be) of an iterative process whereby the spaces are programmed, occupied, evaluated, and reprogrammed as necessary.

Who owns the thinking around holistic development of learning spaces at universities?  No consistent set of people.  And teaching staff don’t necessarily have the time or resources to lead that thinking.  There needs to be a dedicated well-compensated team whose work it is to think carefully about learning spaces all the time.

So when thinking about space planning for teaching and learning, there should also be people-planning.  Because these spaces without people, without programming, without communities of practice making them living breathing growing parts of the university’s mission, become accessories, mere performances of teaching, and learning opportunities lost.



People, Places and Things: Why do Visitors and Residents Workshops?


View from the High Line, NYC

I have just completed a week away that contained two different Visitors and Residents workshops.  The first I conducted with Dave White at Parsons, the New School for Design, at the invitation of Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, with a group of Parsons faculty.  The second was a two-day event at the invitation of Keith Webster at Carnegie Mellon, with a group that included librarians and library staff from CMU as well as the University of Pittsburgh, and Dave and I were joined by Lynn Connaway to run the workshop.  Dave blogged his views on the different workshops here.

I am struck by how little the basic mapping format has changed since we started doing these workshops in conference settings, as a way of getting people to think about the V&R concept without lecturing.

When we have people map themselves, the range of practice remains striking.  We get “sparse” maps

2015-05-13 12.09.20


and we get “filled in” maps.

2015-05-13 12.11.06


We get people whose Resident practice is largely in their personal lives,

2015-05-13 12.10.55


and others who primarily engage in the Resident spaces of the web (such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) because of what they need to do in their professional lives, or for their volunteering obligations, or as a part of their artistic practice.

2015-05-11 11.04.53


The point we have to make over and over again at these events  is that no mode of practice is inherently better than the other.  I can see the tension run out of people when we tell them that no one is going to be judged for their maps.  The intent of our work, and the workshop, is not to identify those who are “More Resident” so as to claim that their practices are Best and then send their largely Visitor-centric colleagues over to Learn How To Do the Web Better.

Because the V&R workshop is not about Doing the Web Better.  The workshop is a way of visualizing practice, and in particular about making clear all the different ways in which the Web is a Place, a location for people to meet and interact and learn and leave and come back to.  A place where, as with any place that has people in it, individuals can do the social work that results in relationships, where intimacy can flourish even in the absence of face to face interaction.

Engaging with digital places is not a substitute for engagement face to face, rather it proliferates the possible locations where connections can be made.

In libraries, in higher education generally, the work of institutions is embedded in relationships.  Students, faculty, and staff rely on each other (or don’t) because of webs of trust and credibility that are not just about institutional authority ( they are seldom just about that) but because of the meaningful connection that grow when people interact with each other in common places like:  Student Unions, Library Buildings, Cafes, Classrooms.  But also:   Twitter,  Facebook, YikYak (!) and Instagram.  The Digital can be (among other things) a tool, or a resource full of content, but its existence as a Place is what can be hard to see, at the same time it is so terrifically important to grasp.

We seldom have time to be reflective about our own practices, what they are as well as what they mean.  In offering the workshop format as an open resource, and also in coming in to run the workshops ourselves, as we did this last week at Parsons and at CMU/Pitt, the Visitors and Residents team is helping provide space for such reflection to take place.  Further thoughts from Lawrie Phipps about where we can take the V&R framework from here can be found here.



Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Memorial Chapel, Pittsburgh.


Playing with Cognitive Mapping

I am messing around with cognitive mapping instruments, stolen with Andrew Asher’s blessing from the ERIAL toolkit (I know, I know, I don’t need anyone’s blessing because hey, that’s what toolkits are for!  Especially those posted on the web).  I am doing this in part because photo diaries, while useful and capable of yielding rich information, are really really time consuming and difficult to get students to do.    I am still very much hoping to get back to University College, London, to continue the work I started there in 2011, and when I am there I’d like to use cognitive maps as well as structured interviews and immersive observations to get a sense of how and why various learning spaces are being used by UCL students and faculty.

So, I’m doing some here at UNC Charlotte.  At the very least, such an exploratory exercise can give us a sense of what our undergraduate and graduate students’ spatial networks look like when they are written down.  The data I’m collecting can also begin to serve as a comparative set for the data that I hope to be able to collect in the UK.

I just want to put some of the maps here because I think they are really interesting.  I am of course far from the only one doing this–Lesley Gourlay at the IOE and her colleagues have done some mapping exercises, and of course there is the aformentioned ERIAL work, among other ethnographic projects in the US.  The students were given 6 minutes to complete each map, and were asked to map all of the places that they go to/inhabit in some way for their academic work.   I was specific in saying that the spaces could be on- or off-campus.    The maps posted here are undergraduate maps–I have maps from graduate students that we are still processing.  In general, undergraduate space maps indicate the need for them to be in places that make it easy for them to get to the other places they need to go to.  If they have class in a particular building, they are more likely to study in the Student Union than the library, because the former is closer.  If they live away from campus, they might be likely to have off-campus cafes, etc. on their maps as work spaces.  The choices they make about where to settle in to study are not made in a vacuum.  There is a similar diversity to the spaces they find themselves in, however, in part because undergraduate classes occur in a variety of buildings in different parts of campus, and are not necessarily taught in the building that house their major programs.  Graduate student maps (in process) have less diversity of spaces, because they are much more tied to the departmental labs and spaces of their degree programs.

The students worked for 2 minutes in each pen color, beginning with blue, moving to red, and then ending with black.  Some students finished before the 6 minute mark, resulting in some maps in just 2 colors (such as #7 shown here).

This undergraduate lives on campus, and has drawn straight lines connecting all of the places he needs to go.  The library is one place in a larger network, of course.  Several of these building are classroom spaces.  This senior lives in an on-campus dorm.  There are no off-campus spaces shown here.
This sophomore lives in an off-campus apartment relatively far from campus, but her boyfriend’s apartment (the building in the upper left corner) is closer in.  She has mapped campus buildings such as the Student Union and various classroom buildings, but also included important spaces such as where her youth group meets, and the 24-hour cafe Amelie’s.  The library does not figure in her mental map of learning spaces.
This student lives close to the South Carolina border, nearly a half an hour from campus.  She has included several cafe or bookstore spaces, all of which have free wi-fi, but not all of which are open 24 hours.  “School” is the university campus, and she has not differentiated places within the campus, because she has so many other places she inhabits.  The library on this map is the public library closest to the university.
This junior has sketched only the places within the library he inhabits on the left hand side of the drawing.  He has put in study rooms, and indicated where the study rooms are in the building by their proximity to round tables with computers on them (these are on the 1st floor).  His other learning spaces are in his close-to-campus apartment, on the right hand side.  He has sketched his living room furniture (comfortable chairs as well as desks), and his bedroom.

EDUCAUSE 2013: Finding our Way in Anaheim

My second attendance at Educause, and this one was in Anaheim.

I had a full Wednesday of presentations.  One presentation was with my Visitors and Residents collaborators, Lynn Connaway and Erin Hood  from OCLC (but sans David White, who was with us in spirit even as he stayed in Oxford).  We talked about our analysis of the data we’ve been collecting since 2010 on modes of engagement with digital places, people, technology, and information.  I was gratified that the themes revealed in our work, and in particular our conclusions about how important people and relationships are to the choices people make when engaging with technology and the web, were so well represented in other presentations at Educause, including Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote, and Mimi Ito’s presentation on her work regarding Connected Learning.   As an anthropologist, I am of course a big fan of researchers (like fellow anthropologist Mimi Ito!) pointing out to Education Technology specialists like the ones who attend Educause that that they need to pay attention to people, their  behavior, and their motivations, and not get distracted by the specifics of the shiny tools that people are using at any given moment.

I also presented a poster session with my colleague Bob Price, Director of Digital Initiatives at UNC Charlotte. We were focusing on two primary things:  the wayfinding tool that our Digital Initiatives department built, and the research processes that helped inform why we wanted to build the tool (not just because it would be shiny!), and the plans we have for it going forward.

Our poster was in two parts, designed by our fantastic colleague and web graphic designer Maggie Ngo)

Click to see larger version of Posters 1 and 2

Thanks to all who stopped by, the conversations were wonderful, and the interest in our work truly gratifying) was that this sort of project was inspired in part by the open-ended exploratory research I’ve been doing among our students.  The photo diaries I have been having undergraduates do for the last 3 or 4 semesters have been a way to evaluate and observe the habits of our students in terms of where and how they do their academic work, regardless of whether they are in the library or not.   Some of the prompts ask library-specific questions, and some ask much broader questions about their practices, without cues to talk about the library (I adapted the photo diary instrument from a similar one used by Nancy Fried Foster and her team, in her research at Rochester).  The photo diaries from our UNC Charlotte students revealed a deep level of ambivalence about some library spaces, in particular the stacks, and the corridors.  Valuable resources are in the stacks, and along the corridors–the latter is how you find study rooms, classrooms, and our reference librarians, in our physical building.

We saw leveraging digital tools to give students a way to become more familiar with our building as a way of encouraging them to become comfortable with the building before they even walk into it.  In the same way that people use Google Maps to figure out where they are going in an unfamiliar place, our students can use our digital wayfinder to plan their route, to see what lies where, and to generally get a feel for the physical spaces, before they are even there.

The campus population at UNC Charlotte has many first-generation college students, as well as transfer students who were accustomed to buildings and resources at their previous institution.  Even traditional first year full time freshmen might have mental barriers to entering a university library building, which can seem large and intimidating to someone not used to these sort of institutional spaces.  It is our responsibility to try to respond to the need for students to access our useful spaces (like libraries), by making them navigable, familiar, friendly.

In future iterations of our wayfinding tool, we hope to go beyond the physical building, which is just a part of what our library has to offer.  Linking our digital resources and spaces in with the wayfinder will give our patrons a more holistic vision of what we contain:  electronic resources, booking software that allows students to connect with each other in study groups, connections with liaisons via chat, text, and email, and other tools we haven’t built yet.

We welcome comments, and those interested in collaborating with us on future versions of the Wayfinder.





Sleeping and Successful Library Spaces

.@DonnaLanclos have you read the ‘learning aviary’ paper yet? Fave quote so far is if students fall asleep in 1 area then design success 🙂
— Bryony Ramsden (@librarygirlknit) August 27, 2013


So the article my colleague Bryony is referring to is this one : 
 Legerton, G. (January 01, 2013). Encouraging choice, serendipity and experimentation: experiences from Griffith University library (G11) extension and Gumurrii Centre. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 27, 51-62.
I am interested to read it further, but her tweet reminded me that I had never pointed out one of the fun facts uncovered by the behavior mapping that myarchitecture grad student, Alison Schaefer, carried out last semester.   First, I want to show you a typical circulation pattern through our ground floor collaborative space.  This map was generated not long after the space opened, but this primary pattern has yet to deviate substantially.   Then look at the next two maps, in black with beige highlights.
The dotted lines show the circulation paths.  This map was made on Jan 24th, representing the pattern at 12.40PM. 

Sleeping map, January 2013


Sleeping Map, April 2013

Notice, in the two maps above, where people were sleeping

While some of the sleeping is indeed happening away from the high traffic areas, some of it is certainly happening right in the middle of relatively noisy and active parts of the ground floor.  

Another thing to note is that these maps were not created during finals week, a time when it is assumed there will be lots of sleeping in the library, along with studying (and, avoiding studying).
In short, making assumptions about where students will sleep in the library based on a) where we think they should be sleeping, or b) where we would prefer to sleep, or even c) conventional wisdom about where students sleep, will not get you very far.
Our students sleep anywhere, as they need to.  They are working hard, and sometimes need to recharge.  If sleeping students are symptoms of successful spaces, then Atkins Library is doing very well indeed.

Field Trip! NC State Hunt Library and Spaces to Think With.

On Wednesday I visited not just NC State for the first time ever, but I got to have a comprehensive tour of the new James B. Hunt Library.  They had an open house yesterday, and the place was full of people who work in libraries (visitors came from all over the region, including out of state) being led around the amazing spaces.

There are pictures of the Hunt library all over the internet–I reproduce mine here not because they are fantastic photos, but because I took pictures of things that help me think about library spaces, and about what is possible in our own spaces at Atkins (which I’ve been uncharacteristically (for my blog) chatty about  recently).  It is an objectively spectacular space, and the fact that not everyone has the resources to create such a space should not deter people from going into what NCSU has created, learning from it, and dreaming big.   I intend here (and everywhere) not just to think about spaces, but to think with spaces, not just fancy ones like there are at Hunt, but in the more mundane everyday spaces in which our students and faculty find themselves.

The small 3-D printer that NCSU students
can use for prototypes for classes, or just having fun.

I am going to blog here mostly about space, although the tech stuff possible in the Hunt library is just as cool, and just as worthy of anyone’s attention; for example, the fact that students and faculty now have 3-D printers at their disposal in the Hunt makerspaces. 

The Hunt library is, to my mind, the biggest branch library I have ever seen.  It is the library for the new Centennial Campus at State, which means its primary users are in Engineering, Textiles, and other science programs.  It is also envisioned as a “second main library” for the entire university, and I will be interested to see what other constituencies use the spaces in that building.  They are undeniably attractive.

Color has been used in simple but effective ways to mark places that students need to look for.

Yellow is for Stairs.

Blue is for Elevators.

                                                                                             Orange is for restrooms.

Red is for Asking for Help (as well as the Wolfpack).

All people going into and out of the library have to pass by the Ask Us station, which is not just an info point, but an all-services point, where students can go to for reference, technical, and circulation help.  In addition, workers can be deployed (via walkie talkie) to parts of the library where people need help (this is apparently very popular for IT type help).  Reference specialists can be called from other parts of the building if a question is particularly in-depth.  Books that are retrieved by the “Book Bot” are put in this space within five minutes of the request.

And hey, let’s talk about that Book Bot.

Entering on the 1st floor of the Hunt Library gives you a great view of the “back” of the automated vertical storage unit, which holds 1.5 million volumes.  Books, folios, microfilm, and DVDs (among other things) once requested, can be made available for patrons in 5 minutes (and retrieved from the Ask Us station), or delivered to faculty offices.  They are sorted by size, and bar-coded for identification (although they are also RFID-ing each thing that is circulated, with the hope that at least the most circulated things will be RFID-tagged eventually, if not the entire Hunt collection). 

This is the “front” of the system, showing one of the robots that retrieves the books, with one of the bins, showing how the books are sorted. 

So, yeah, the system is cool, and really makes me think about the future of stacks maintenance, but what I was struck by was what NCSU’s library IT has built to make it possible to browse closed shelving (it’s currently in Beta).

They call it Virtual Browse, and it’s a touch screen that is currently mounted on the 1st floor, before you enter the library proper, between the large windows that give you a view onto the back of the Book Bot. 

This allows for browsing the Hunt collection in a way that is simply not physically possible anymore, given that the books are all in the automated storage system, and that it was never possible to look at the physical collection and browse the electronic resources at the same time.  The Virtual Browse includes electronic resources as well as physical.  This exercise in stacks virtualization, I think, is not just useful for libraries with closed/automated/off-site collections, but for all of us.  In my experience, many of our patrons experience our stacks as “closed” even if they are technically open, because they don’t know how to navigate or read the stacks.  This tool allows them to navigate the stacks and find things even if they don’t understand the call number system, even if they aren’t exactly sure where in the building those books are.   I think I’m more excited about the virtual browser than I am about the book-finding robot.

The collaborative work spaces in open parts of the Hunt library (spread across 3 floors) are colorful and configured in a variety of ways (with very attractive and fancy furniture). 

                                                                                                                                                                         Some booths.  This one has a view beyond to the Graduate Reading Room.

Some tables with task chairs, rolling whiteboards, stools.

Some bar-type computer banks.

 (the computers were Coming Soon).

And so on.

There are also spaces that evoke the design trope of the reading room, also spread across at least 3 floors of the Hunt Library.

I especially appreciated the simple trick of integrating physical books into spaces for effect.  The silent study reading room at one end of the main floor is lined on at least two sides with book shelving.

The rain garden reading room just before that integrates some of the reference collection, faculty book collection, and new books into the furniture arrangements.


What books do here is set expectations, they read “library” to people, and they say, without any signs of any kind , volumes (ha) about where people are once they walk into those spaces.  When we start downsizing our physical collections, I think we who work in libraries would do well to think about the other properties of books– to think carefully about all the different ways that books speak to our communities, beyond the delivery of content.

And here’s the thing:  we don’t have to have all the resources in the world to engage in the kind of thinking that NCSU put into its Hunt Library spaces.  I think (to be utterly immodest) that we are trying to do that kind of thing in Atkins at UNCC, right now.  Every library should aspire to be:  clear about what is where, beautiful in its execution of design, deliberate in providing a variety of spaces, and thoughtful about how and where to deploy appropriate technology, and dedicated to the staffing levels that create seamless access to services and resources.  We need to think with the spaces we already have, pay attention to what is trying to be done in those spaces, and imagine beyond what is there now to what could be.

Guest Blog: Mitchell L. McGregor on groupwork, observing spaces, and the Prequel to our new spaces

Last time I blogged on some of the work my current architecture student, Allison Schaefer, is doing in the new ground floor spaces of Atkins Library.  This time you are going to hear from Mitch McGregor, whom I advised last year during his MA (architecture) thesis research.  Mitch did his work in our ground floor before it was reconstructed, and the work he did helped inform decisions we made about furniture and technology in our new student spaces.  All of Mitch’s work was covered by the Atkins Library Ethnography IRB Protocol.


I wanted to find a way to design a space based on research of what inhabitants really expected from the space. I chose the Atkins Library due to the amount of people that use its spaces,  and the variety of activities done there. My intent was to observe the activities that were taking place, and to try to understand why certain group spaces that had been tried in the library were not being very successful. What was causing these spaces that were equipped with new useful technology to be overlooked?
After observations and a few low technology experiments in different parts of the library, I decided to find a specific space that would be more conducive for group dynamics.  I chose the corridor on the Atkins ground floor connecting the main stair and the coffee shop as the area of study.

Part of the ground floor in Atkins Library, Spring 2012.
This space had areas that allowed both private and group work mainly due to the type of furniture and arrangement of it. I observed that people wanting to be alone would come and sit at the long tables between each “bay” with a whiteboard, couch, coffee table, and soft chairs.  This “living room” arrangement of furniture facing white boards promoted group use of the space. The space was adjacent to a busy travel corridor, and people working there seemed comfortable communicating aloud to group members. During my observations, I sketched diagrams to analyze the types of activities that were happening in this space.  Here are some examples of the cleaned-up drawings (created in Adobe Illustrator): 
The long table that tended to attract students studying alone is on the left.  The “living room” arrangement is in the center, comprised of a couch, chairs, and coffee and end-tables.  In this sketch, 2 students are working at the whiteboard, and using the coffee table to hold the laptop and textbook they are consulting for their studies.

Here one student is taking notes on the couch, referring to material on the laptop, while the other sketches out thoughts on the whiteboard.

The student at the long table is referring to a textbook and laptop while the other uses the whiteboard to think through the reference materials.
My goal was to understand what people were already coming to this space to do. Rather than recreate the space with a new type of activity in mind, I wanted to think about redesigning the space to enhance the current use. I observed the space for about 12 hours, and found that I groups were coming to this space for a few main reasons. One was that groups would come to the space to work on problems or brainstorm, often using the whiteboard while referring to a book or laptop.  This often became difficult because there was no place to put books or laptops that was adjacent to the white board. Other groups used the space to work on group presentations, by sitting in the couch area and working from one or multiple laptops, discussing a group project.  I then derived scenarios for additional activities that could happen in this space if certain amenities were added.  I thought the space could benefit from a large screen adjacent to the whiteboard that students could hook up their laptops to. To allow for multiple uses, I decided the screen should be able to be connected to while near the whiteboard, as well from sitting in the sitting area facing the screen. I chose this arrangement:
 In one week I spent about 56 hours observing this space, varying my time of observations from early morning to after midnight. I observed the screen station was used for every thing from a cell phone charging station , to practicing power point presentations, to solving physics equations.  The first few days proved to be difficult, because some things that I as the designer took for granted were not obvious to new users. For example, I thought it would be obvious how to plug into the screen, but ended up having to make the cords far more obvious than “sleek” designs would allow for.  
As I worked through these issues and tried to make the installation more user friendly, I also conducted several interviews. I asked users of different varieties what they liked and disliked about the space and what could be improved. Most students said they really liked how they could move things around in the space, such as the furniture or where they connected to the screen. The space met their basic needs, yet was manipulable to specific groups’ needs.  The more flexible spaces can be the more apt people are to use them. 

This process showed that with research into what a space is currently used for, and how those current uses can be enhanced proves much more efficient than just creating a space and intending for specific activities to take place there. Students wanted a semi-private space that they could adapt to various types of group work. The possibility of multiple types of media showing information at the same time, in this case, whiteboard and media screen, allows the group to function even more efficiently. Students also want this technology to be easy to use; if the technology in this space takes too much of a learning curve it is possible that students will avoid it. Overall, a research-based process allows designers and educators to greatly increase the success and efficiency of a space.
Looking at the new spaces now, a year since the original research started, it is great to see how the new spaces have implemented some of the discoveries of the research. The new spaces that have both white boards and media screens where students can connect allow for the group collaboration and efficiency.  The type of furniture and dividers being used also give the students power over the space they are working in. 
I would add to what Mitch has written here that while his research was just part of the information we compiled and responded to in thinking about and designing the new ground floor, it was a crucial part.  Because it was grounded in the actual behavior of our students, we could use this work to think through ahead of time the details that demanded our attention.


McGregor, Mitchell L.  Principles of Space and Interaction (unpublished M.A. thesis) Department of Architecture, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, NC.

New Learning Spaces and the role of Ongoing Research

This is going to be one in a series of posts, because I’ve got fun maps to share, and if I share them all at once, the post will be entirely tl;dr (if it isn’t already…)

Atkins Library recently renovated our “basement,” that is, we took space that had been inhabited by staff doing the work of the library, gutted it (having found new places for our staff to work in), and turned it into  an array of spaces in which students can do collaborative work.  Here is what it looked like before there were people in it (photos by Cheryl Lansford, Interior Designer for UNC Charlotte):


We have created configurable furniture arrangements in some areas, and more fixed arrangements in others.  This picture shows the T1 touch screen tables (which also have screens at the head of the table, so students can plug in and share from their laptops. 
This is a view into one of our new group study rooms, with tables that are wheeled as well as wheeled task chairs.  Surfaces near the digital screens allow students to share from their laptops, and there is also a dedicated computer for them to work from if they do not have their own device with them.  Whiteboards and the glass walls are meant to be written on (and are).
The space just outside of the library cafe has been set up to be more cafe-type seating, but with larger low tables, to accommodate the need to spread out with laptops, books, notebooks, and even more than one person’s “stuff” that they are working with.  There are outlets in the wood-paneled pillars, to allow for student to plug in wherever they want to work.
The most configurable part of the open space (that is, the space not contained in the study rooms), has more of the wheeled tables and task chairs, as well as some soft seating (relatively lightweight, so it can be moved around), rolling whiteboards, and movable privacy screens.  

I think it’s all pretty cool.  Our students seem pretty happy with it so far.  We had a fancy grand opening for the space, and are grateful to all of the work that went into the design and building of it.  Some of the work was done by me, and students under my supervision, in the form of studying the kinds of behaviors that go into collaborative work, and thinking experimentally about how to reveal the best configuration of space and technology to facilitate effective student learning.

In many learning space design scenarios, the opening is the ending.  Universities continue to build new spaces, open them, and then walk away without thinking about what comes next.  What did they get right about the new spaces?  What did we get wrong?  How can we improve it?  When can we make changes?

I wonder sometimes if there is a fear of looking bad, somehow, if one goes in and makes changes to brand new spaces.  As if the planning wasn’t good enough, and that’s why we need to change things so soon after the opening.  I hope that is not the case, because we are already looking at the new spaces and thinking about things we need to change, to better respond to how people are actually using the space, rather than assuming that they are using the space as we imagined they would.

Sometimes, people just do their own thing.

To that end, I am enlisting the help of my graduate assistants this semester, Allison Schaefer (an MA student in Architecture), and Carrie Vass (an MA student in Communications), to systematically observe what is going on in our new spaces, and report back.  At this early point in the semester (the spaces have only been officially open since January 23rd), we already have several days’ worth of observations, and some nice visualizations of that observation data.  We are interested not just in how people are using the spaces and the furniture

Allison created maps of our ground floor using Revit, and then added color for movement or activity using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  She mapped the kinds of activities people were doing, and also where people walked when they moved through the space, over the course of her observations.  First up:  the activity maps.

This shows where people were eating in the course of her observations (about 8 hours altogether).  The heavily blue areas are adjacent to the library cafe.  But eating is clearly happening near the nice windows overlooking the Student Activity center (on the right, in this diagram), and in the central parts of the spaces.

This is where studying is happening in the new space.  All over.

This is where talking in happening in the space.  Also, all over.

When we overlap the maps for eating and studying, we see that they are not mutually exclusive areas.  These maps were created from afternoon observations–if they included evening hours, we know that there would be even more overlap.  Atkins library has allowed food and drink in its spaces (except in Special Collections) for several years, now, and this shows that we are right to not treat these activities (eating and studying) as mutually exclusive.

Can you study and talk at the same time?  Our students can and do.  While some areas clearly show one thing or the other happening, the overlap is significant.

Just because students have a laptop open does not mean they are studying.  Likewise, just because they don’t have a laptop, doesn’t mean they are not studying.

These maps are beautiful and informative, and of course are only part of the picture.  Next post, I will talk about the maps Allison created that show how the density of occupation varies, as well as length of stay, and the maps that show circulation patterns through the space.  I will also have pictures of what the spaces look like when they are occupied!

Space Hacking and Student Engagement

Outside learning spaces at UNC Charlotte.

So I went to THATCamp Piedmont in Davidson, NC in early May, and attended  Mark Sample’s Spacehacking panel.  The panel was full of faculty whose concerns were largely classroom based, and whose desires seemed to centered around how to shake things up physically in classrooms, so students are engaged, while at the same time meeting expectations that materials are presented by professor to students.  We brainstormed about furniture, digital tools, sitting and standing, taking the professor out of the front of the room (and the pedagogical challenges therein), expressed concerns about accessibility, and speculated about non-classroom-based work environments (like, the great outdoors!).

Calling something like a classroom a “learning space” implies that they are also “teaching spaces”–the direction of that teaching has traditionally been from professor to student, but increasingly we are asking students to teach each other, and occasionally to teach us about the materials we wish them to be engaged with.  Classrooms in university environments are frequently locked into particular configurations, especially the auditorium-style rooms with bolted-down chairs, immovable tables, and a very fixed focal point at the front of the room.  The room we were in during the panel (in the Center for Teaching and Learning in the E.H. Little Library at Davidson College) was very configurable, with desk-height tables on wheels, comfortable task chairs, and whiteboards along the entire perimeter of the room.  It still had a smart podium at one end of the room, requiring whoever was needing to present materials to treat that side of the room as the “front” (there was also a smartboard there).  It was also, apparently, not a terribly typical learning space at Davidson (though it was a very in-demand space!).

During the panel and after I was thinking about Atkins library spaces, and the changes we’ve already made that have resulted in big differences in student engagement in learning spaces.  For example, my colleague Heather McCullough, the head of our Digital Scholarship Lab, came across a group of students studying in our ground floor collaborative spaces during finals week.  There was one student at a whiteboard, outlining principles of Economics, being listened to by a group of his classmates.  The student’s classmates asked him,”how do you know this stuff??” He told them, “I did the practice problems in the back of the textbook.” And his classmates said, “Can you tell us how to do that?”  And so he did.  They were not doing this in a classroom, they were doing this in the library, sitting on couches and comfortable chairs, facing a whiteboard, feet up on the glass coffee table they were circled around.
Students teaching each other during finals week 2012

Now, faculty can choose to despair at the image of students at the end of the semester just figuring out the utility of the practice problems in the back of the textbook.  Or, they can choose (as I do) to be struck by the tableau of students teaching students not just the course material, but techniques for success in class, techniques that they can then take out of the current class they are enrolled in and apply to future situations.  Student engagement is happening in the library–they are engaged with their course materials, they are engaged with each other (and not just in a social way), they are engaged with the stuff of intellectual work, one of the most important reasons for them to come to university.

These students stacked tables to make the furniture work better for them

 If such engagement is not happening regularly in the classroom, or, if the kinds of engagement that faculty are experiencing in classrooms are not satisfying (either to faculty or to students), then how can we bring the engagement we see happening in the library into other parts of campus?  Could one part of the solution be a reconfiguration of space?

I’ve been trying to think about space in the library here at UNCC in terms of a concepts I’ve borrowed from my colleagues:   in environmental psychology, “behavior settings”, from architecture, “affordances,” and from my own field, anthropology, the idea of “places” as cultural constructs.  “Behavior settings” refer to the cluster of assumptions that particular environments suggest to people upon entering the space (think of those velvet ropes that lead up to service desks–we know we’re being set up to wait in line).   “Affordance” is a related concept (also used by people in Human-Computer Interaction), describing the range of possible activities/functions suggested by a particular space/piece of furniture/object.  For example, a chair suggests a limited range of options (sitting), where a staircase wide enough to accommodate seating as well as walking (as in this example at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke) can suggest a larger set of possibilities (sitting, walking, meeting, talking, etc).   Anthropologists approach “place” as the set of cultural meanings that are imposed by people onto physical spaces.  I think it’s useful to keep all three of these concepts in mind when contemplating creating spaces that meet the needs of both students and their instructors, at universities and elsewhere.

With our reconfiguration of our ground floor spaces (and I swear, we’re going to start reconfiguring other spaces as soon as we have the resources to do so!), we have been consistently paying attention to what students were trying to do, both on the ground floor as well as in other parts of the library.  We saw them trying to work in pairs or threes at traditional library carrels, we saw how overbooked our group study rooms were, we saw the syllabi requiring that students work in groups as a part of their coursework.  Those observations helped inform the decisions we made to dedicate most of the ground floor to collaborative work spaces.

In the same vein, paying attention to what faculty are trying to do when they are teaching should inform classroom design.  Faculty are already (as evidenced by the roomful of concerned professionals at THATCamp Piedmont) thinking about novel ways to reach their students in the classroom.  They should be partners with classroom support and facilities departments on campuses in planning classroom spaces, and experimenting with operationalizing those ideas with the help of different furniture, digital tools, and open minds.  I know that some faculty (I’m thinking of @georgeonline here) are already doing this at their respective institutions.

What’s happening on your campus to transform learning and teaching spaces?  What works and what doesn’t?