Creating Learning Spaces Through Collaboration: How One Library Refined Its Approach

min read
  • Eliciting user input increases a renovation project's effectiveness.
  • Incremental renovations permit testing assumptions about learning spaces along the way.
  • Continuous assessment informs upgrades and future projects, increasing their impact.

Georgia Tech Library has undergone two learning space renovations in the past six years, with a third in 2009. This work is grounded in techniques that elicit user input.

Library staff hope one day to completely renovate the entire 220,000-square-foot main library facility. Until that day arrives, library staff are making incremental improvements through renovations that test assumptions about learning spaces. Students are delighted with the results, and the library has garnered national attention in the process.

In this article, we review how the three renovation projects were planned, executed, and assessed, with particular emphasis on the following techniques:

  • Engage users in all aspects of learning space creation.
  • Incorporate flexibilities into the built spaces to foster experimentation.
  • Avoid mimicking others' space solutions without first incorporating your own user-centered findings.
  • Build in a continuous assessment program to inform upgrades and future projects.

Library West Commons (2002): The First Collaboration

01 West Commons floor prior to renovation

This view of the West Commons floor prior to renovation shows cubicle-style study carrels packed into the available space, butting up against the supporting columns and the wall-to-ceiling windows on one side.

West Commons floor plan

The floor plan for the West Commons renovation shows ranks of long study tables in the middle of the room with chairs along each side. Along one side of the room, open-center groupings of tables with chairs allow students to work with their backs to each other. Along the other side, standing-height tables with high stools face the windows. The multimedia center at one end of the room includes a recording studio (currently used as a staff office) and is close to the information services desk and consultation cubicles, which sit along the wall opposite the windows and next to the elevator.

West Commons floor after renovation

This view of the West Commons following renovation shows that the planned high tables with stools along the windows have been modified to include a mix of both regular-height and counter-height tables and chairs set back from the windows, although still facing out. Backing up against them are low, comfortable chairs facing the windows.

Focusing on individual productivity needs

The tables in the center of the room have four computer terminals spaced out on each side, with individual lighting and headphones. Additional chairs are available for collaboration. Tables along the length of the room, facing the windows, provide individual working spaces with a computer for each chair. A walkway behind the window-facing tables provides easy access to those workstations and to the tables in the middle of the room.

The West Commons renovation work began in 2001 with a charge from the new library dean to consolidate library service points and install a learning commons. At the time, the library supported three reference desks, a circulation desk, and a photocopy center scattered across various floors of the main library. This distribution of service points confused users and precluded the library from having sufficient staff to extend access to 24 hours a day. (See Richard W. Meyer, "The Educational Epicenter," The Classroom, Spring 2002, p. 9.)

Library staff collaborated on the West Commons project with the campus Office of Information Technology (OIT). This was our first experience working with another campus unit on a large-scale project. The planning process, which engaged over 50 staff from the two organizations, was overseen by a senior advisory group and carried out through the work of teams addressing areas such as computing, furnishings, and staffing.

The West Commons project included scarcely any input from students or faculty — we didn't know how to include customers in the planning process. Insight came from colleagues at Emory University, who generously hosted a half-day seminar on lessons learned while creating their commons, and what we read in the available literature. While we were unsure if we had correctly guessed what students required in the space, we were lucky in that the end product was highly successful with students. The West Commons space and services offered within it were superior to any other spaces on campus, and this helped mitigate the lack of direct user engagement during planning.

The West Commons provides over 100 computer stations in a spacious environment (8,000 square feet) that includes a presentation practice studio and a heavily used multimedia center. The multimedia center is a big hit with students, who rely on its high-end production capacity, and with faculty, who rely on it to train students in high-end applications.

05 Multimedia center with high-end Macs and PCs

The multimedia center provides high-end Macs and PCs for students who need the technology support for media production. The workstation shown here has dual monitors and additional desk space for other materials, as well as plug-ins for PCs.

06 media staff and student assistant experts.jpg

Staff and student experts are available to assist multimedia center users for 16 hours each day.

The West Commons capitalizes on great views, comfortable furnishings, and long sight lines across the space. Printers dot the periphery, along with the library's consolidated information services desk. As measured by library staff, library attendance increased 65 percent when the West Commons opened.

Administration of the West Commons is outlined in a memo of understanding between the library and OIT. The agreement calls for a commons advisory council composed of leaders from both organizations. The group meets regularly to review issues, assess and analyze user data to inform future purchases of software and hardware, and consider the right balance of staff skills to support student learning needs. In particular, the commons advisory council solicits information from the front-line staff who understand the installation and how it might be improved. (This council also oversees the East Commons, the second library renovation.)

After the West Commons went live, we conducted a comprehensive assessment of the planning process, new environment, and library and OIT staff perceptions of how the space was working. A report card summarized all we had learned, focusing on the complexity of planning an 8,000-square-foot learning space in collaboration with another campus entity.

Lessons Learned (West Commons)

  • At the inception of a renovation project, issue an official launch document or vision statement, preferably from a dean or provost, that stipulates the nature of the learning space to be created.
  • For the planning process, solicit staff who will be most affected by outcomes; they have a high motivation to see the project succeed.
  • Appoint a project coordinator from within the organization who is proficient at communication, trusted to be open and objective, and capable of championing the work.
  • Create opportunities to listen to your users and engage them every step of the way.
  • Develop services in the commons around student learning needs and also to support faculty expectations for student skills and proficiencies.
  • Objectively assess the results to inform future projects, and continue to assess the enterprise after it goes live.

Library East Commons (2006): A Journey of Enlightenment

Photos described in the following paragraph

These images of the East Commons before renovation show comfortable chairs in small groupings next to plain worktables and chairs, with bookshelves down the middle of the room between the support pillars. Long tables with computer terminals all face in one direction. Wall, floor, and furniture colors are neutral, and the large open area has little carpeting to muffle sound.

East Commons floor plan

The floor plan for the East Commons renovation shows a combination of spaces, from large and small tables for collaboration or individual study to relaxation areas with comfortable chairs to theater-type seating for presentations on a large screen.

The renovated East Commons offers webcams and flipcharts for tutors; chill-out spaces with comfortable chairs; extensible power cords for laptop hook-ups; stimulating, edgy student exhibits; three zones that can be adapted for study or presentation; and movable furniture, fabric walls, and lights.

Following the West Commons experience, we hoped to predicate future renovations on user input and wisdom to inform the assembling of resources, assistance, and amenities. A first step was a series of informal student focus groups conducted in fall 2003. We explored what students might want in a future renovated space. Their responses were surprisingly astute as they provided a vision of learning spaces targeted to groups rather than the individuals served by the West Commons. The big lesson learned from these early focus groups was that our users knew more than anyone else about the amenities and qualities of good learning spaces. We understood that future renovations should center on student input facilitated by an emerging toolkit of techniques to help us characterize these spaces.

At the same time, in 2003, we enlisted the aid of Steelcase Corporation's research division to conduct fieldwork identifying qualities of perfect learning spaces. To do this, we went where students gathered in large numbers to study. The technique required us to interview students across a 16-hour spectrum, identify the amenities and preferences supported in their chosen spaces, and compile findings to inform our understanding of services, technologies, aesthetics, and staffing that appeal to study groups. Library staff who conducted the survey were intrigued by the exercise and inspired to identify additional techniques to gain insight into user needs.

Student Advisory Council

In fall 2005, student leaders offered to help effect more library improvements. In response, we created the Library Student Advisory Council, which is formally charged to work with the library on projects of consequence, especially around renovations. A formal mission statement for the council outlines obligations for both the staff facilitators and student members.

17 library student council members.jpg

The Library Student Advisory Council worked with two staff facilitators.

The library has benefited enormously from the council's contributions to data gathering and evaluation, advocacy, and acquiring of funds. They also provide a vital link to the student body by reporting our efforts to student government and the campus newspaper. The Library Student Advisory Council has proven essential for renovation projects.

Library East Commons Discovery Techniques

In 2006, funds were identified for a second renovation, the East Commons. To develop programming for the East Commons, we employed a number of user-centered discovery techniques that borrowed heavily from anthropological practice and from common sense. These included:

  • Lunch invitations to students and faculty to informally solicit their ideas
  • Focus groups to begin topic exploration
  • Campus tours of the principal study destinations on campus, coupled with interviews of all students found in these places
  • Affinity focus groups with different populations of students, faculty, and support staff using the techniques described at; see the findings at
  • Web-based surveys and randomly distributed paper surveys soliciting opinions on what the new spaces might provide
  • Student Advisory Council guidance
  • Campus and outside experts to comment on our findings and assumptions and to help us work through difficult issues
  • Report cards/post-occupancy assessment documents that provide lessons for, and insight into, future renovations

Crit Stuart has published concise descriptions of these techniques, including a description of the planning process for building the East Commons at Georgia Tech, in a space planning toolkit for the Association of Research Libraries. The kit also includes anthropological field techniques championed by the University of Rochester under the guidance of Nancy Foster, Lead Anthropologist at the River Campus Libraries. Taken together, this suite of discovery techniques, assessment measures, and organizational structures provides a helpful array of tools to create superior learning spaces.

In addition to discovery exercises with faculty and students, we recommend expending the effort to include affected staff in the planning process to garner and assure their support for the emerging vision and for changing roles in the new space. Having staff participate also helps ameliorate the inconveniences associated with staging the renovation.

Students identified the following attributes as essential for the East Commons:

  • Attention to aesthetics, comfort, good food and drink
  • Comfortable, mobile chairs and tables
  • Space that facilitates diligent work and breaks
  • Outstanding group productivity tools
  • Celebration of Georgia Tech creativity through exposure to student art and projects
  • Occasional interruptions for fun and games
  • A sense of connectedness to the space and to those in the space
  • Easily adaptable space that "morphs to my needs"
  • "Assistance at hand when I require it"

All furnishings in the East Commons were vetted by students using an assessment instrument created by a human factors class. Students' preferences trumped planning committee preferences.

Issues to Manage in the East Commons

Any construction project will certainly encounter some challenges. Based on experience with the West Commons renovation, we advocate a project "champion" from the library or partner organizations to help manage and coordinate the construction process. Issues for the East Commons project included a number of physical, staffing, and communication challenges.

Physical limitations like low ceilings, a paucity of windows, and inadequate HVAC required novel solutions and added significant expense. Some limitations were addressed in cooperation with Herman Miller Inc.'s senior research lab, which helped us apply a beta version of a product subsequently marketed as Convia. Our experiment with Convia is addressed in a case study on our Commons website.

Staffing support for the East Commons was addressed by upgrading two positions in the circulation department to monitor users' well-being, technology, and furnishings; solicit faculty participation around special programming; and provide marketing support for special events. These positions also coordinate most assessment of the East Commons.

OIT personnel create and maintain the workstation images, secure software site licenses, and assist with technology management and upgrades. It is a highly successful collaboration. We do note that a programming venture with partners carries the potential to reveal conflict or dissonance in service models and expectations (for example, hours of service, comprehensiveness of service, and so forth). Partners in a learning space venture should be chosen for their capacity to deliver one or more ingredients that are essential to student use of the space.

At Georgia Tech, we have learned to more effectively communicate renovation projects to students, faculty, and library and partner staff so that anyone who wants or needs to know what is going on can find the answers. We can accomplish this through the library's own channels as well as campus media. Once a project is completed, we post significant, project-related documents to the library website.

Construction Completion and User Evaluation/Commentary

The effort expended in addressing construction and programming issues proved its worth in the final product, which reflects each of the student-identified "essentials" noted above. The East Commons incorporates a café; a flexible study area that transforms quickly into theater space; two collaborative computing areas with 40 workstations and several printers; and two zones with comfortable, movable furniture and some capacity to serve as performance spaces. The open architecture of these spaces, combined with an infrastructure that accommodates immediate transformation, provides a remarkably flexible environment.

The East Commons project is a living experiment that benefits from ongoing assessment. In addition to this library-led assessment, we have user-initiated efforts such as freshman honors program students who created a video of the East Commons the first semester of its existence. They considered it to be a model of inspired planning and community building.

Two years later, one of the students who created this video was invited to reflect on the East Commons, giving an assessment of how her use of the space has changed over time. She identified the conversion of the original "space" to a "place" as vital to student engagement and adoption.

Lessons Learned (East Commons)

  • Student advisory groups can be a real asset to a building program if their time and talent are focused on assignments of consequence.
  • Building exceptional flexibility into learning spaces allows for unrestricted evolution over time; a corollary lesson is to treat learning spaces as "works in progress."
  • Ongoing assessment is required so that needed improvements are quickly identified and applied.
  • Amenities do not have to be costly or high-tech to benefit users. We found that students prefer flipcharts to white or "Smart" boards, for example, and they frequently gravitate to simple webcams with audio capability to hold virtual meetings rather than using expensive videoconferencing capabilities.
  • Create staff positions to publicize learning space amenities to faculty and to solicit engagements that portray exciting speakers, competition winners, and show-and-tell moments, all of which illustrate the richness of academic life.
  • Provide walk-up stations for quick printing and e-mail queries, thereby freeing up workstations for long-term occupancy.
  • Soft furnishings are preferred in study areas, so make sure to budget for annual cleaning of fabric and to replace worn materials. Stick with manufacturers' fabrics and materials to get the best warranties.
  • Document all aspects of your project and post results for the public to see — students appreciate knowing how a space came to be. Freely share your insight with other campuses engaged in projects, but insist that they also do a significant amount of self-discovery and share their results.

Second Floor West Commons Renovation (2009): Expressing Student Wishes

18 Second floor west prior to renovation

Prior to renovation, the second floor of the West Commons was a large open space with wooden tables and chairs on a linoleum floor with panels of bright fluorescent lights overhead. Fabric-covered half-walls along one side of the space created separate working areas, each with its own table and chairs. Half of the floor space was open.

The library's program of renovations to enhance student learning spaces continues with the third project — the second floor of the West Commons. Despite its poor condition and outdated furniture, the space was heavily used by students because it is the largest collaborative area in the library.

Two major design parameters guided the discovery process. First, users said the space should remain primarily collaborative in nature because of a strong demand for group activity. Second, they wanted the area to facilitate laptop usage. Georgia Tech recently implemented a mandatory laptop requirement, and an adequate supply of desktop computers is  available in the East and West Commons.

User-centered discovery techniques have included:

  • Organizing focus groups
  • Conducting random interviews
  • Observing where students go in the library when the East and West Commons are full
  • Creating a virtual design laboratory for students to vote on emerging concepts and provide narrative feedback
  • Consulting findings from East Commons discovery and assessment activities
  • Working with outside experts
  • Involving the Library Student Advisory Council in user-centered discovery and interpretation of data
  • Mentioning the project frequently in campus media to generate user interest and participation
  • Conducting design charrettes

Design charrette exercises — a novel technique for Georgia Tech — were conducted toward the end of the discovery process to test space layout assumptions with users and to solicit a final input of design ideas for this floor. Students who had participated in earlier discovery activities for the second floor commons were invited to the charrette exercise. Each student was given a blank template of the floor and provided with cutouts representing the various types of furniture under consideration. The students were asked to create a furniture layout and provide extensive margin notes explaining their choices. Additionally, students were interviewed individually to ensure that planners understood their concepts. The planning committee, composed of individuals from the library and OIT, then reviewed the charrette results and made final adjustments to the design.

The various discovery exercises with students indicated that the second floor renovation should incorporate components of the other commons areas while establishing its own identity. The two most important features identified were enhanced lighting and greater availability of power outlets. Students also requested improved aesthetics and a space filled with flexible partitions and furniture to promote a collaborative environment with extensive flexibility. Careful attention will be given to signage, carpet patterns, and color selections to address student concerns over way-finding.

Notably absent from the findings were prominent features of the East Commons such as the café and instant theater space. Students also requested that less space be devoted to lounge furniture, with more space given over to task seating.

Programming materials submitted to the architect for construction design and other documents relating to the second floor renovation can be found at

In Conclusion

We have dealt with only some of the complexities of creating customer-informed learning spaces in this article. We gave passing mention to engaging staff in the work and no mention of staff effort to create new models of service. Neither have we spent time addressing renovation funding. Funding is not a trivial issue — the combined cost of the first two renovations came to $2,500,000, and the newest renovation will cost approximately $750,000.

We also must add a note of caution: We believe the most effective learning spaces complement and respond to one's own faculty and students. Rather than mimicking what others have done, you must perform your own user-centered discovery.

The library has renovated 15 percent of total building space, with each succeeding project capitalizing on lessons learned in prior projects. The biggest lesson has been to learn how to tap into customer wisdom. The results are evident — library use has doubled to historic highs. What were once underutilized areas are now filled with students. The library has become the preferred learning destination for the majority of undergraduates on campus and for some graduate students as well.

Watch a quicktime movie about the space.

More discovery, experimentation, and assessment are required to continually refine these spaces to meet user needs. That the insight is grounded in user wisdom and expectations makes it much more likely that our efforts will succeed. It's an experiment, after all!

See Also

A recent EDUCAUSE Live! webcast with Crit Stuart covers discovery techniques employed in the East Commons, along with pictures of the space and a summary of library efforts to instill a sense of community in the space.

Robert Fox ([email protected]) is Associate Director for Public and Administrative Services at the Georgia Tech Libraries.

Crit Stuart ([email protected]) is Director for Library Roles in Research, Teaching and Learning for the Association of Research Libraries.