The Emergence of the Learning Commons


The Learning Commons integrates the new and the old in a seamless physical and virtual space in which all formats can be assimilated and studied.

The Learning Commons liberates the exploration of ideas and concepts, encouraging inquiry, imagination, discovery and creativity through the connection of learners to information, to each other and to communities around the world.

For schools, the Learning Commons incorporates the classroom, the school library and the school board to connect students to the real and virtual worlds that are growing and maturing around them.

Just as the Internet has created a web of global connections, information and interactions, the Learning Commons creates a network of information, people and programs for learning within a school and beyond. Universal access ensures that learning is within reach of everyone at all hours... day or night.

Key Components of the Learning Commons

Physical and Virtual Space

The Learning Commons seeks to expand and integrate the real and virtual choices learners have to share their experiences. Safe, inclusive and welcoming environments throughout a school are imperative to meet the diverse abilities and learning styles of individuals, teams, and groups. Virtual learning spaces increase this potential.

Equitable Access

The moment educators encouraged independent study and individual thinking through exploration of multiple resources, inequities were revealed – inequities between rural and urban, small and large, and rich and poor schools. These inequities have become increasingly serious. The emergence of virtual resources and new powers of search can help make access more equitable. 

Learning Partnerships

The Learning Commons provides a space where everyone in a school can work together. Teachers, teacher-librarians, principals, technical staff, students... all can collaborate in learning partnerships. And all can switch the emphasis from teaching to learning. With everyone modeling how to learn, the learning process will become a natural part of a student's being.

Technology in Learning

Students appear to have natural abilities to use emerging technology. But the reality is, while students easily grasp the entertainment and communication value of the devices they use, they need to be taught how these tools can be used in learning and critical thought. This is a task for the Learning Commons.

The Learning Commons Creates Empowered Learners

In the Learning Commons, everyone is a learner. Learning within the curriculum becomes personalized, individualized, motivating and enlightening.

The Learning Commons addresses multiple learning styles and learning levels. It creates virtual spaces that are flexible and inviting. It ensures equitable access for all. And the Learning Commons seamlessly integrates technology with working together.

The Learning Commons helps students view learning as a life pursuit. Students will see learning modeled by everyone in a school. As a result, students of a school with a Learning Commons will become empowered by learning how to learn.  

Implementation in the School Library

To establish the Learning Commons, a school will need to shift both its perspective and its focus.

Both physical and virtual space will need to be reconsidered. Equitable access will need to be assured, and partnerships for learning will have to be enhanced. Students will need to be empowered to direct their own learning. Learners will need to see the communication, information and knowledge revolution in the spaces and places they inhabit within a school.

In embracing the Learning Commons, a school library plays a pivotal role. It is already established as a physical and virtual cross-curricular space. A school library already has a multi-grade focus and a mandate to support the needs of all learners. It can model and facilitate the enriched learning opportunities inherent in the Learning Commons.

Physical and Virtual Space

The time has come for school libraries to welcome an ever-widening variety of learning practices and activities. This can be accomplished through the provision of real and virtual spaces that encourage and facilitate expanded engagement.

Design components of 21st century learning spaces need to consider collaboration, comfort and community. Wherever possible, learning spaces should be colourful, inviting and playful. Learning is fluid and participatory... as a result, space should not place limits on learning. Instead, space should encourage collegiality and intellectual development.

In this age of ultra-connectivity, virtual spaces are possible. Learning can be happening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Students already use social tagging, social networking and individualized online spaces in their personal lives. In the Learning Commons, by using identical tools and with the help of educators, they can now create personal learning spaces.

The challenge is discovering how to reconfigure our current spaces both inside and beyond a school and a school library’s walls to reflect this new reality. Access to the technology that makes it possible, obviously, is critical.

Ideas to Consider
  • See your space as part of a creative learning environment without walls.
  • Establish an "online presence". This does not have to be limited to creating a website, writing a blog or establishing a wiki. Look at multiple formats where users can access information.
  • Create online meeting spaces for learning that utilize social media concepts.
  • Investigate the centrally purchased and freely available resources provided by OSAPAC and Knowledge Ontario.
  • Invest in e-books, databases, video-streaming and other relevant digital resources.
  • Alter your "hours of operation" and rethink your assumptions about "acceptable activities". (e.g., email, SMS, cyberarts, multimedia mash-ups, etc.)
  • Reduce the amount of furniture clutter and choose furniture that can serve varied purposes and can be easily moved around.
  • Make use of new technologies in your displays and set-up.

Equitable Access

The rapidly changing realities of a wide and growing range of online media, information sources and communication technologies necessitate a regular analysis of a library’s program. It’s also important to consider how a school’s community makes practical use of a library’s collections, both physical and virtual. Remember that equitable access to qualified library staff — not as pre-scheduled set periods but on an as-needed basis during and outside the school day — is just as important as access to resources.

Ideas to Consider

  • Examine the concepts behind differentiated learning and reflect it in your collection
  • Develop a plan for purchasing both physical and virtual resources that meet the needs expressed by learners based on ongoing gap analysis
  • Encourage the placement of assistive technology and assistive devices in the Learning Commons
  • Collect and supply tutorials by all learners for all learners
  • Take advantage of student expertise to develop these "how-to guides" in different ways

Learning Partnerships

Seeing everyone as a learner is at the crux of the Learning Commons.

In the past, teacher taught and students learned. But in this environment, everyone is engaged in the learning process.

Teachers become learning coaches and facilitators of new learning. By drawing on the expertise of everyone – students, teacher-librarians, library technicians, community members – learning becomes relevant and dynamic.

Virtual and physical learning partnerships extend collaboration to include all members of a school's community. Technology-enabled learning partnerships foster the mutual exploration of ideas, and lead to innovation and creativity. Both parallel the social ways by which today's students are naturally choosing to learn and network.

These integrated learning opportunities are:

  • global, connected, and social
  • real world, cross-curricular, and interdisciplinary
  • active, fluid, and flexible
  • complex and resource-rich
  • respectful of all ideas

Careful planning ensures that all partners determine how best to model learning together.

Ideas to Consider

  • Work with classroom teachers and students to plan, teach and assess learning
  • Explore professional learning networks to find experts that broaden currently held ideas
  • Rethink assumptions about who can be an expert and utilize search techniques for people resources
  • Recognize yourself as a learner and model your learning experience

Technology in Learning

While students are readily drawn to social media, they do not necessarily use them critically to gain deeper understanding. The Learning Commons can build on the entertainment value that students find in social media to further learning opportunities for critical and creative thought.

Using the tools available in the communication world outside of school is one way to bridge the current learning gap experienced by students today.

Ideas to Consider

  • Consider cell phones as potentially powerful computing devices (e.g., use them to gather student responses, find information, read downloads of news articles, read books and reviews, explore Google maps, act as GPS, record interviews, take digital photos, play language games, etc.)
  • Use collaborative virtual spaces for class projects; include the use of avatars
  • Use bookmarking web technology (e.g., Diigo, Delicious, Shelfari) for building reading lists with students; encourage them to add to the list
  • Explore Web 2.0 applications for their potential to engage learners (e.g., Wordle, YouTube, Audacity, Facbook)
  • Match Web 2.0 applications with student needs (e.g., create collaborative virtual learning centres using wikis, Ning, Google Apps to allow 24 hour access)
  • Use tools such as interactive white boards and document cameras to tap into visual learning
  • Explore gaming (MMORPGs, simulation, board games) as a way of learning
  • Share successes and challenges with other professionals through Professional Learning Communities and Personal Learning Networks

The Role of Differentiated Instruction

An effective Learning Commons will accommodate all learners and address multiple learning styles and learning levels.

In working together, teacher-librarians in partnership with others can modify the process, content, product and environment to meet the needs of a diverse student population. The result will be empowered learners.

Ideas to Consider

 Opportunities Examples

The opportunities for learners to make sense of the content
  • supports and scaffolds for learning (e.g., pathfinders, graphic organizers, checklists, learning tools)
  • explicit skill instruction
  • just-in-time intervention
  • appropriate assistive technology
  • fostering metacognition of the skills and knowledge being learned

The means by which learners become acquainted with information
  • professionally selected resource collection to support diverse learning styles, abilities, reading levels and interest with specialized resources for all learners and students with identified learning needs
  • dedicated areas within the school library to support specialized hardware and software (e.g., speech input software, adaptive keyboards, screen magnification, amplification devices)

The vehicles through which learners show and extend understanding

  • real world examples of products (exemplars)
  • student choice in displaying new learning and understandings
  • students sharing knowledge acquired as a result of rich inquiry tasks

The conditions that set the tone and expectations of learning
  • multiple spaces for individual, small group, and whole class learning
  • virtual library spaces for study, support, and relaxation available 24/7
  • homework help from the school library webpage
  • management of student information resources and work spaces, both physical and virtual