EWU’s Learning Commons lets students tailor their environment


John McCallum

Eastern Washington University information technology specialist Carl Combs shows an example of students’ work using the Learning Commons’ multimedia lab equipment to university board trustee Jo Ann Kaufman and vice provost for graduate education Ron Dalla.

It may say JFK Library on the outside, but on the inside Eastern Washington University’s main research and studying facility has become something new and different.

University board trustees, staff, faculty, students and community members opened the Learning Commons at a ribbon cutting ceremony last Friday morning, launching a “collaborative-learning area” officials hope will enhance students’ educational success. The commons is a “communal area” that combines traditional library functions with relocated student support services providing assistance in writing, technology, peer services and the opportunity to learn individually or in groups to best fit students’ needs.

“The Learning Commons will give students from different disciplines and fields of study the opportunity to enhance their skills and bolster their learning experiences,” EWU President Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo said in a news release. “Students will be able to work together in ways they never could before on campus.”

University interim vice president of undergraduate affairs Colin Ormsby put it a different way.

“We’re trying to provide a heterogeneous learning environment where students can work in an environment that’s best for them, but in a quiet space,” he said. “This is not your traditional library.”

Ormsby said the commons concept stems from Arévalo’s charge to faculty and staff to increase student success while also thinking outside the box. Last spring groups of students and faculty began meeting with administration officials on ways to do that. Eventually over 160 students and faculty took part in the process, combing the Internet for ideas with some taking trips to the University of Washington and Seattle University to look at similar library facilities at those institutions.

“We took ideas from them and brought them back here,” Ormsby said.

The concept involved moving several student support services to space on the first floor of JFK. The Multimedia Commons (formerly the MARS Lab) and the PLUS group tutorial services were relocated from Monroe Hall and the Writers’ Center was brought in from Pence Union Building.

Students picked out many of the new features. Media stations allow them to bring in their own laptops and plug into services, while mobile whiteboard tables enable individuals or groups to study and work in a collaborative process.

The price tag for the Learning Commons, according to information from the university’s business and finance department, runs approximately $600,000, paid for out of reserve funds. Ormsby said the space combines not only new equipment, mostly in technology, but also the existing equipment and furnishings brought over from the three centers and within the library itself.

The facility that opened last Friday is the first phase, with additional phases adding other services and groups. An additional benefit to students comes from the commons’ hours of operation, which will match those of the library instead of the former Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. time slot of the individual services.

The success of the commons will be assessed in several ways, Ormsby said. Student surveys will provide feedback as will enhanced tracking of how services are used through the expanded hours and what the students leave behind, such as how the whiteboards are moved about and used.

These assessments will determine future enhancements for the Learning Commons.

“What it looks like today may not be what it looks like a year from now,” Ormsby said.

John McCallum can be reached at

John McCallum

University faculty, staff, students and community members check out the new Learning Commons at JFK Library.


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