MET:Learning Commons

From UBC Wiki

Created by Jocelyn Hallman in Spring 2011 (section 65E).

A learning commons is a blended learning space within an academic library that combines traditional library reference services, research and writing help, peer programs, computing and technology support, group study, workshops, and other services to enhance student learning and development.

The Chapman Learning Commons at UBC

Libraries and Learning

Traditionally, college and university libraries have existed to support the research needs of students and faculty. Libraries provide access to books, journals, electronic collections, and the Internet, and librarians provide service and bibliographic instruction to students and faculty at the reference desk and in classroom settings. Often, these services are compartmentalized; different departments within the library provide different services, and the library exists independently of other learning support initiatives on campus.

Since the 1980s, academic libraries worldwide have been engaged in developing a new model for the provision of service and for the design of library spaces (Beagle, 2010; Accardi, Cordova & Leeder, 2010). This new model – the learning commons – is intended to support not only the research needs of students, but the entire learning experience, including their technology needs, their collaborative learning needs, and their personal development.

The learning commons often takes the form of a space offering tables for individual and group work, wired and wireless computing facilities, reference and research help, IT assistance, peer tutoring, technical equipment rental, workshops, and a variety of online services including audio-visual tutorials, blogs, and other social media for learning and sharing. Some commons facilities also include very non-traditional library offerings, such as food services.

As Sullivan (2010) notes, “This is a view of the library as a learning enterprise more than as an information repository” (p.132).

Emphasis on Collaboration

The underlying premise of all learning commons is collaboration. Learning commons exist to facilitate collaborative learning between students, both in-person and through the use of social technologies, and they are formed through partnerships between the teaching faculty, the library, and other student service departments across campus. Learning commons staff partner with such departments as:

• information technology services

• student affairs

• student development

• peer programs

• writing centres

• disability centres

• digital media programs

• residence life

• career services

The educational models that underpin learning commons design and implementation reflect this emphasis on collaboration and partnership.

Educational Models

Several different educational models and theories inform the design and provision of services within learning commons. These include:

Blended Learning

Blended learning environments combine physical and virtual learning spaces. In a learning commons setting, this might include workshops for students both on campus and online; group work that is done both in the commons and using social technologies; and service points that combine research and writing help alongside IT support.

In their brief history of the learning commons model, Accardi, Cordova & Leeder (2010) outline the changing role that technology has played in the commons. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the technological revolution and the increase of personal computing prompted educational theorists - and librarians - to envision connections between academic libraries and computing centres. Libraries began to build computer labs for their users and to digitize their catalogues and collections.

In the early 1990s, academic libraries across North America began to construct facilities that they called "information commons." These facilities expanded on the basic library computer lab, reflecting new ideas about the role of technology in research and learning. Libraries began to integrate computer labs, library instruction, and faculty involvement in order to create blended learning environments for students. In many cases, the information commons also included IT support.

Information commons facilities became incredibly popular in academic libraries in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at which point dozens of journal articles and books were published on the concept. In the mid-2000s, the terminology shifted from "information commons" to "learning commons" to reflect the role that libraries envisioned themselves playing in student learning, although both terms are currently in use. Libraries began collaborating with other student service departments across campus - namely student affairs and information technology - to enhance the student experience both in person and online.

Seamless Learning

Colleges and universities create seamless learning cultures by identifying the places where students engage in learning outside of the classroom, and by working to create opportunities for this learning. This typically involves the creation of partnerships between various student service departments across campus. The premise is that "institutionally driven student engagement activities have a positive impact on student success and persistence" (Accardi, Cordova, & Leeder, 2010, p.316).

Seamless learning cultures are said to facilitate deep learning through student interaction within the campus community (Bell, 2010). The library learning commons attempts to create seamless learning environments through their partnerships with various campus departments, usually offering a multitude of services at a central service point.


Constructivism informs learning commons design in that both emphasize the active role of the learner in creating understanding (Schmidt & Kaufman, 2005). Within a social and collaborative framework, learners actively construct knowledge by making connections between information and their own experiences. Most learning commons facilitate this process by offering group work space to students, as well as providing them with opportunities to learn and use a variety of web 2.0 tools to facilitate their learning online.

By providing services in partnership with such departments as student development, residence life, peer tutoring, and career services, the learning commons also encourages students to make connections between the content of their learning and their lived experiences.

Knowledge Building

Knowledge Building is a constructivist learning theory in which learners create knowledge communities, collaborating and scaffolding one another in the processes of inquiry, analysis, understanding, and the creation of knowledge. According to Schmidt & Kaufman (2005), the theory of Knowledge Building helps "shape the design of programs that support peer collaboration, reciprocal teaching opportunities, cognitive apprenticeships, and other practices in which students can learn from and teach one another" (p.247) - in short, the many holistic and community-centred learning opportunities that learning commons attempt to provide.

Integrative Learning

Integrative learning occurs when students are encouraged to make cross-disciplinary and cross-curricular connections in their learning (Beagle, 2010). The UBC Mix initiative is an example of a project that makes use of integrative learning theory. Learning commons also facilitate this kind of learning by encouraging group work, sharing, collaboration, and peer-to-peer coaching between students. In some cases, learning commons staff are also involved in developing curricula with teaching faculty.

Phenomenographic Learning

Phenomenographic learning theories focus on the difference between deep learning and surface learning, suggesting that whether students engage in one or the other depends upon how they conceive of learning and how they define their learning tasks (Schmidt & Kaufman, 2005).

The learning commons facilitates deep learning by helping students identify new ways of understanding learning and defining learning tasks. Through its partnerships, and its attempts at creating seamless learning environments in which learners scaffold one another, the learning commons "[increases] students' awareness of their own research and learning strategies and [helps] them to develop more sophisticated approaches to learning through integrative processes that allow for skill building, authentic practice, and reflection" (Schmidt & Kaufman, 2005, p.247).

Learning Commons at UBC

There are two learning commons facilities at UBC: the Chapman Learning Commons in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, and the Canaccord Learning Commons at the Sauder School of Business.

Expansion Opportunities

Library and Student Affairs practitioners are continually exploring different means by which to design, implement, market, and assess learning commons. Future Design Wiki articles could focus on the educational affordances of any of these endeavours - all of which are challenging due to the hybrid and cross-departmental nature of the learning commons environment - or on the pedagogical models that inform the design and construction of the learning commons' physical space.


Accardi, M. T., Cordova, M., & Leeder, K. (2010). Reviewing the library learning commons: History, models, and perspectives. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 310-329.

Beagle, D. (2010). The emergent information commons: Philosophy, models, and 21st century learning paradigms. Journal of Library Administration, 50(1), 7-26.

Bell, S.J. (2000). Creating learning libraries in support of seamless learning cultures. College & Undergraduate Libraries 6(2): 45-58.

Mirtz, R. (2010). From information to learning: Pedagogies of space and the notion of the commons. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 248-259.

Schmidt, N., & Kaufman, J. (2005). Learning commons: Bridging the academic and student affairs divide to enhance learning across campus. Research Strategies, 20(4), 242-256.

Sullivan, R. M. (2010). Common knowledge: Learning spaces in academic libraries. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 130-148.

Further Reading

Adams, N. E., & Young, J. B. (2010). Users learning from users: Building a learning commons from the ground up at a new university. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 149-159.

Bennett, C., & Bodnar, J. (2010). Academic engagement in the library commons. Public Services Quarterly, 6(1), 43-47.

Brown-Sica, M., Sobel, K., & Rogers, E. (2010). Participatory action research in learning commons design planning. New Library World, 111(7-8), 302-319.

Garten, E. D., & Williams, D. E. (2006). Repurposing older libraries for new times: Creating new learning space. Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Adminstrators, 26(4), 1-4.

Hinchliffe, L. J., & Wong, M. A. (2010). From services-centered to student-centered: A "wellness wheel" approach to developing the library as an integrative learning commons. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 213-224.

Holmgren, R. A. (2010). Learning commons: A learning-centered library design. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 177-191.

Hussong-Christian, U., Rempel, H. G., & Deitereng, A. (2010). The library as learning commons: Rethink, reuse, recycle. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 273-286.

Lippincott, J. K. (2010). Information commons: Meeting millennials' needs. Journal of Library Administration, 50(1), 27-37.

Massis, B. E. (2010). The academic library becomes the academic learning commons. New Library World, 111(3-4), 161-163.

McKee, N. P. (2010). A multifaceted approach to the assessment and evaluation of learning commons services and resources. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 297-309.

Pritchard, P. A. (2010). The embedded science librarian: Partner in curriculum design and delivery. Journal of Library Administration, 50(4), 373-396.

Sinclair, B. (2007). Commons 2.0: Library spaces designed for collaborative learning. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 30(4), 4-6.

Somerville, M. M., & Collins, L. (2008). Collaborative design: A learner-centered library planning approach. The Electronic Library, 26(6), 803-820.

Stark, M., & Samson, S. (2010). Organized spontaneity: The learning commons. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 260-272.

Weiner, S. A., Doan, T., & Kirkwood, H. (2010). The learning commons as a locus for information literacy. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(2-3), 192-212.