Learning Commons spikes UI library use

Students flood tech center during finals week

Justin Torner/Freelance

UI Freshman Rachel Mahrt from Milwaukee and Lindsey Degnan from Clear Lake study in the $14 million UI Learning Commons on the campus of the University of Iowa. The center offers 24-hour access to study space.
Justin Torner/Freelance UI Freshman Rachel Mahrt from Milwaukee and Lindsey Degnan from Clear Lake study in the $14 million UI Learning Commons on the campus of the University of Iowa. The center offers 24-hour access to study space.

Before this school year, University of Iowa junior Liz Dankle only visited the main library during finals week — when she needed extreme quiet.

“Now I come every day,” Dankle said last week as she reclined in a trendy, high-backed bucket chair in the library’s new Learning Commons. “I get l lunch, I use the double computer screens, I use the study rooms . It’s very very nice.”

Even though Dankle had been a student on the UI campus for two years before the new $14.5 million Learning Commons opened in fall 2013, she said she almost can’t remember her academic life without the space.

“When I think back to my freshman year, this was so not as great,” Dankle said. “What did I do?”

She went back to her dorm room between classes and made various stops across campus for lunch, computer access, group study sessions and academic help. Now Dankle, along with tens of thousands of other UI students on campus every day, can meet many of those needs in one place.

Self-purported as a “tech-infused comfortable study space and one-stop academic help center with good coffee,” the Learning Commons has become what many refer to as the “academic wellness and support center” for the UI student body.

Located at 125 W. Washington St., east of the Iowa River and in the center of campus, it offers 24-hour access to study space, about 100 desktop computers, trained academic and technology experts at a consolidated help desk, 24 group spaces, and 18 private group rooms with 52- to 80-inch LCD monitors and walls that double as sort of writable whiteboards.

The commons also has printers, 100 laptops and other technology that can be checked out, one interactive classroom, free Wi-Fi, hundreds of outlets and a Food for Thought Café stocked with coffee, sandwiches, salads, fruit, and smoothies — all of which can be charged to a student’s university bill.

The 37,000-square-foot space, which has taken over the southeast portion of the main library, has been bustling since its doors opened, said Learning Commons coordinator Brittney Thomas. But visitor counts to the library peaked in April when counting devices stationed at the library’s entrances tallied 161,983 visits — an average of 5,399 a day.

That was up from the 92,852 library visits in April 2013 and the highest monthly tally for the library in at least five years. In fact, total library visits in every month since the commons opened were up over the previous year’s monthly totals, according to Thomas.

“There has not been a space like this on campus before,” she said. “There is nothing else like it.”

A ‘reason to come’

The UI developed the idea of the Learning Commons based on student demands for a comprehensive study space. And architects designed it after visiting several other thriving commons on similar university campuses.

Kent Lutz, senior associate with Architects Smith Metzger, said his firm went to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Loyola University Chicago before trying to piece together the UI’s wish list of amenities in the space it had available.

And the project has achieved several honors since its debut — it earned a Masters Award from the Master Builders of Iowa chapter and a people’s choice award from the International Interior Design Association.

Thomas said student feedback on the commons — for the most part — has been positive, although some visitors have logged complaints about noise, activity levels and too few computers. But no major changes to the commons are planned for next fall.

“I think we did a good job of hitting it out of the park the first time around,” Thomas said, adding that a tour of the new Learning Commons now is a must-do for prospective students visiting the UI campus. “I think this has become part of the reason to come to the UI.”

With finals and the end of the school year approaching, students last week made heavy use of the commons’ movable work spaces and group rooms, which can be reserved online or in person by signing up on electronic screens — similar in size to an iPad — that are stationed near each space or room.

Students commonly use the rooms to work together on class projects or independently in a quieter space. And faculty members frequently reserve the spaces for presentations, training sessions and occasional classes that might benefit from some of the center’s special technologies.

In April alone, Thomas said, the Learning Commons had 4,015 group room reservations.

The commons also hosts programming, including technology training, tutoring and social events.

‘I slept here once’

The commons is expecting some of its heaviest traffic to date this week — finals week — and it’s offering fun programming along with academic assistance to help sustain the masses.

Students in need of a study break have had the opportunity to pet a dog, vent in a “confess your stress” photo booth or send a postcard home. The center also has offered free popcorn and free coffee.

That relaxed and supportive vibe is one of the main reasons Rachel Mahrt has spent so much time in the commons during her freshman year on campus.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re in a library,” Mahrt said last week while studying and grabbing a bit to eat in the cafe. “It doesn’t smell musty like typical libraries.”

Looking ahead to finals week, Mahrt said, “I’m already planning on being here all night.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I slept here once,” she said.

UI freshman Lindsey Degnan said the commons became like a second home to her this year. She lives in Mayflower Hall, which sits 12 blocks from the Pentacrest — farther than any other residence halls, and having the commons available saved her time and money she might have spent commuting back and forth all day.

“If I’m on campus, it’s just easier to come here between classes,” Degnan said.

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