May 17th, 2021
GC's Learning Commons continues to evolve
Meslener and Ruby present at MCLCA conference
Jenny Meslener (Director of the Learning Commons) and Ashley Ruby (Director of Advising and Academic Success) at Garrett College.
GC's Director of the Learning Commons, Jenny Meslener, and Director of Advising and Academic Success, Ashley Ruby recently presented at the Maryland College Learning Center Association virtual annual conference.
The conference theme on March 26, ‘Reboot and Recharge,' aligned seamlessly with recent initiatives that took place within the Garrett College Learning Commons both prior to and during COVID-19. Highlighting the session track of ‘Embracing Change', Meslener and Ruby presented a 60-minute break-out session titled "Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: A Learning Commons Continues to Evolve."
The session opened with a brief overview of Garrett College's journey toward a Learning Commons outcome by summarizing the duo's 2019 MDCLCA presentation as a preface to changes that took place more recently.
In June 2017, Meslener, Ruby, and then Director of the Learning Commons, Robert ‘JR' Kerns, boldly took the first steps toward reinventing a long-established traditional library into a cutting-edge, energized learning environment, launching a sustainable investment in learning for future students.
Changes within the 18,000 square foot space reflected low-cost and student-centric initiatives; attractive brand-compliant signage, designated student work zones, relocated academic support services, staff cross-training, student and professional artwork displays, mobile device charging stations, and enhanced library services.
Following this introduction, Meslener and Ruby spent the bulk of the presentation focused on continued improvements and modifications to Learning Commons services, staffing, and student success initiatives within the previous two years, stressing that change is necessary in order to stay relevant, successful, and sustainable in ever-changing environment of higher education.
Radical tutoring expansions were in the works prior to COVID-19; however, the worldwide pandemic provided the platform to push these expansions to students swiftly. In March 2020, virtual tutoring was introduced to the plethora of tutoring options available to Garrett College students.
Flexible tutoring options include live (in-person) tutoring, wired (on-demand, virtual tutoring with GC tutors) tutoring, standby (on-demand, virtual tutoring with other remote tutors) tutoring, and residence hall (on-the-spot tutoring in Laker Hall) tutoring. Students may access all tutoring details within the College's learning management system, Blackboard. Virtual advising and test proctoring services were also introduced, allowing for convenient and timely access to services provided by the Advising & Academic Success Center.
The Learning Commons drastically reshaped the library space and many services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Furniture was removed to promote social distancing, room capacities decreased, hand sanitizer dispensers were strategically placed, and sneeze guards were constructed. And while all these changes were made, the integrity of the space was maintained – it is still a welcoming environment for students to learn. Library materials also follow a strict sanitation protocol with materials being quarantined before going back into circulation.
The library transitioned into promoting online services such as virtual reference and improving online resource offerings including research guides, databases, and ebooks. With an increase in staffing, GC's library was able to extend hours of operation, including providing weekend hours. Despite the struggles from the pandemic, this served as a perfect opportunity to launch the new virtual textbook and merchandise model.
The Learning Commons staffing model was revised to more adequately support students and services. Staffing modifications emerged within the Advising & Academic Success Center between 2019-2020, which included the introduction of two developmental faculty advisors and an athletic advisor.
Within the last calendar year, two new or modified library positions were created. An eCampus/Library Circulation Manager position emerged in July 2020 and the addition of a Technical Services Librarian occurred in January 2021. All Learning Commons staffing decisions were made based on the best interest of Garrett College students.
Arguably the most noteworthy recent change is the Learning Commons' acquisition of the college bookstore. The physical bookstore space was closed, and all services were moved to the Learning Commons prior to a virtual environment. Students now purchase most course materials online through eCampus, and the eCampus/Library Circulation Manager (previous Bookstore Manager position) serves as liaison support. Utilizing the textbook service through eCampus has saved GC students over $100,000 this academic year. In addition, students can purchase GC merchandise through the Follett online store. This concentration of services has streamlined processes and allowed for additional cross-training opportunities.
The Learning Commons continues to lead and promote cross-departmental collaboration in order to support major college initiatives tied to the college's strategic plan, including enrollment and student success. By adapting a positive approach to change, Meslener and Ruby have paved the way for fresh and innovative ideas to facilitate and support student learning.
"The Learning Commons continues to serve as a model for innovative and effective change driven by supporting student retention and achievement. All changes that have occurred within the Learning Commons were initiated with the sole purpose of improving the overall experience, success, and future of the GC student," remarked Meslener.
As a result, student academic performance measures are on the rise and the Learning Commons is swiftly evolving into the gathering place for student learning.
Garrett College student, Katie Cantrell, reflects on working in and utilizing the Learning Commons space: "I really enjoy how open the space is, with ample natural lighting! Even though it's a library it doesn't have the typical stuffy feel of a library. There are plenty of desks and chairs throughout so I never have to worry about finding a place to study. There are outlets and charging areas throughout the learning commons so I don't have to worry about my laptop dying in the middle of a paper. Tutors are set up in the front for easy access and are friendly and approachable."