“We’re ‘In IT’ Together:” Active Learning at NERCOMP ‘15
NERCOMP ‘15 was held in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, from March 30th until April 1st. There were over 700 attendees present (including presenters and exhibitors) and over 50 vendors with representation from companies like Adobe, Microsoft, and McGraw-Hill Education.
The theme of this year’s NERCOMP (NorthEast Regional Computing Program) conference was “We’re ‘In IT’ Together” — when we come together, no matter our titles, “we can do transformative things.”
One of the most memorable sessions for me was “Building a Disco: Active Learning in a Library Discovery and Collaboration Space.” My inspiration peaked during this presentation, as I realized that active learning and collaboration spaces was to be a central theme of the proceedings for the day.
Elizabeth and Patricia dazzled audience members with the story of their library renovation that took place between May and August of 2014. They began with an underutilized space in their library that was intended for collaborative and active learning, but was not designed to be optimal for either of those purposes.
We were then shown the finished product: their beautiful new library space, named the Brian J. Flynn Discover & Collaboration Space (or the “DisCo” — there’s even a disco ball hanging from the ceiling). The new room has features like movable furniture to facilitate an adaptable environment that is conducive to collaboration and active learning and movable whiteboards that are used for collaboration and to define space (students immediately began using them to section off areas of the room to work on projects).
The most impactful change in the DisCo is all of the new technology that was purchased. The room is outfitted with projection capabilities using Crestron AirMedia technology, which offers wireless presentation functionality from any device. Twenty-six HP Elite tablets (complete with keyboards and mice) and four HDTVs (that have AirMedia as well as cable TV capabilities) were also purchased.
The theme of collaborative and active learning spaces and the technology that we use within them reverberated throughout the day: from the gamification of the student work environment at the Nease Library to the 3D printer in the exhibit hall (I won a 3D printed compass charm — NERCOMP’s logo), library spaces were definitely on my mind.
NERCOMP left me with a few questions: How can we best use new technologies in active learning spaces? In the DisCo, several technology issues arose immediately after the space was opened, and a LibGuide was created in response to those issues. This has some implications for launching an active learning space: perhaps faculty and student training sessions should take place before [or soon after] launch, and as much technology should be tested as possible during the planning stage (this was a direct recommendation from Elizabeth and Patricia and something they wish they had known beforehand).
What will active learning in libraries look like in the future? There is a wide range of new technologies that can be appropriated for active learning use. They can be designed to support a myriad of library services and needs: for example, tablets can serve as personal computing devices, for collaboration purposes, or for presentations. Spaces equipped with networking, projection, and appropriate seating can also support students and faculty in conducting presentations, and in collaborating both formally and informally.
Further, these spaces can support active learning: for example, a librarian could more easily conduct an information literacy workshop in the space using projection equipment and tablets to allow the students to share their answers simultaneously.
Will active learning spaces become a staple in academic libraries? I believe so, but the challenge is to design spaces that support substantial specific needs so that they are used regularly for their intended purpose. In my opinion, one way to overcome this is to engage in a participatory design process. If patrons are heavily included in the process from the beginning, they will be left feeling enthusiastic about using the space and advocating for it.
These are only a few considerations; each library space will have its own unique populations to serve and obstacles to overcome. I am of the opinion that if we remain collaborative in nature when discussing and designing active learning spaces, we will be successful in providing active learning spaces for our patrons.
 The Program on Information Science is engaged in a number of research efforts related to active learning — including investigations of Makerspaces, and measurements of attention in massive online education systems. The program website links to classes, resources, and publications in these and other areas.