With a bit of vision and lots of user input, the little-used lower level of the Providence College library underwent a face-lift in 2010. The result: a wired and welcoming TecHub where students can work and study together.
By Margo Vanover Porter
Almost every institution has one: a somewhat dingy and dimly lit basement area that hasn't been touched in decades. At Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island, that spot was the lower level of the Phillips Memorial Library, which students dubbed "the dungeon" prior to its 2010 transformation into a computer-equipped study lounge and information center.
Renamed the TecHub, the nearly 3,000-square-foot space features the latest in wireless connectivity, along with four Mac minicomputer terminals and data ports; two collaboration tables, each with a Mac minicomputer; a wall-mounted, flat-screen monitor to project images from a laptop; 50 electrical outlets; 50 data jacks; and enough tables and chairs to seat 85 students. Tucked into a corner is the TechStation, a help desk where students can obtain answers to either research or technology questions.
"The TecHub and TechStation bring our library resources together with our information technology resources so they work together," explains John M. Sweeney, senior vice president for finance and business and chief financial officer. "Staff are very visible and accessible. We took an underutilized area of the library and configured it into an active, learning, and inviting place with upgraded technology, and improved the furniture."
Hugh F. Lena, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the private Catholic college, points out that the 2,290-square-foot space was designed to satisfy the modern tastes of the institution's 3,800 undergraduate students—even if administrators may sigh and shake their heads at the outcome. "As we create spaces for teaching and learning, we're trying not to duplicate what we used when we went to college, but rather the flexible spaces that students like to enjoy now."
Business Officer interviewed the two leaders of Providence College to find out how they joined forces to create the TecHub and TechStation, which were honored with a 2012 NACUBO Innovation Award.
Business Officer: How does the TecHub differ from the rest of the library?
SWEENEY: The TecHub is designed to be a very vibrant, interactive space where students can work and study in groups and complete joint projects.
LENA: Increasingly, our faculty members are requiring our students to collaborate with one another, either in making presentations or solving problems. While there is a quiet space in our library for people who want to work alone, this area encourages student collaboration, which is an essential part of our core curriculum.
We use a learning management system called Sakai, which makes it easy for faculty members to divide classes into groups. Once they get out of college, students will have to collaborate with others. We believe group work is a good start for learning how to deal with people. These learning experiences are tangential to the content of the course but integral to the college experience.
What made you think that students would congregate in the TecHub?
SWEENEY: We involved them. Our Student Congress, as well as students working in both the library and information technology, participated in the evolution of the TecHub and TechStation. We also got student input on the furniture. To us, who've been in the profession for a while, the furniture looks a little crazy, but it's exactly the kind of funky stuff students want. They can look at it and say, "This is our type of space."
LENA: The tag line here is, "If you build it right, they will come."
Explain the origins of the project.
SWEENEY: When I arrived at Providence in March 2010, our chief information officer, Rebecca Ramos, and library director, Russ Bailey, were working together to come up with ideas for the lower level of the library, which had not been improved since the library opened in 1970. Rebecca strongly supported working with the library staff so we could respond to the growing student demand for IT support and connect on a face-to-face basis. Russ is a big advocate for the transformation of libraries from their traditional role into that of an information commons.
Research shows that libraries that resist the move from the printed word don't evolve. As a result, they see a diminished response from their student populations. This was our foothold for transforming our library.
LENA: I agree. With the availability of the Internet, students don't need to go to the library to do their work. But we're finding that students like to go to the library, especially if they want to interact with others and do their work collaboratively. Utilization of our library has actually increased, despite remote access.
How long did the project take, and how did costs, funding, and staffing play into it?
SWEENEY: We completed the transition in three months. We started in late summer 2010 and opened that November.
This was all relatively inexpensive. Even with the wall demolition, painting, subflooring, furniture, and technology, the total cost was $133,000.
As for funding, the college has a budgeting process by which we fully fund our depreciation expenses. We set aside money for renovations and improvements every year to renew the campus. Plus, we use earnings from our endowment for one-time capital improvements.
Because the TechStation is jointly staffed by IT and library resources, we've been able to expand the hours without increasing the costs. We've actually improved the service without additional staffing.
What are the library hours and related staffing needs?
LENA: During the normal academic year and the summer session, the library is open from 8 a.m. to midnight. It's open 24 hours a day during exam periods and the reading period just before exams. Students staff the TechStation all hours that the library is open.
The TecHub is typically popular in the late afternoon and evening, and it gets busier the longer the library stays open.
In terms of staffing, we combined the two help desks into one. To staff the desk, both IT and library resources have historically hired work-study students. Since the employees staffing the TechStation have been trained on both the IT side and library side, they can answer questions about hardware and software, as well as research questions.
What do your students like most about the final result?
SWEENEY: The flexibility of the space, the technology, and the ability to get a group together in a fun environment, where they don't have to worry about talking. It makes it easy for them to do their work.
LENA: They also like the proximity of the four new classrooms to the TecHub, which allows three or four students to prepare their presentations sitting down in front of a monitor and then move into a classroom and practice in a real-life environment.
Any complaints at this point?
SWEENEY: Students want the TecHub open 24 hours a day. That's the only complaint I've heard.
LENA: When I periodically meet with a group of students, that's the one thing they mention most frequently. We've looked at it and decided it's not cost-effective to pay for staff and student help in the middle of the night. But if students had their druthers, it would be open 24 hours a day all year long.
SWEENEY: Meanwhile, our student center is open 24/7. Of course, students don't have the support that's available in the library, but the center does have great learning spaces that are open and accessible.
As we go forward, we will plan, listen, watch, and respond to opportunities. We track the numbers on the TecHub and TechStation. When the demand is there, we will extend the hours.
What about video games? Are they allowed in the TecHub?
LENA: Students go to the public computer labs to play video games—or to the lower level of the student center, which has large-screen TVs. I guess there may be a little social pressure not to play video games at the TecHub.
SWEENEY: Most of our students are very social. They treasure interpersonal interaction. It would be viewed as almost rude to play a video game in these areas.
Why is this project so successful, and what was your biggest challenge?
SWEENEY: We had clear buy-in by all of the constituencies. The two divisions—both academic affairs, and finance and business—were completely in sync on what we wanted to do. We knew we could accomplish it in a relatively short period of time with a very visible and tangible result. We all saw the benefit of taking this area, which was not very appealing, and transforming it into an inviting space.
The biggest challenge was the floor. Instead of drilling through the concrete floor to put in conduits, we raised the floor, putting all of the wiring underneath. Otherwise, we would have had exposed conduits on the walls and ceilings, which can diminish the appearance.
What is behind your philosophy to deliver services to students where they congregate? Why is that important?
LENA: We have restrictions limiting visitation between male and female students in residence halls after hours. So, we need to create other spaces where students can congregate, learn, and socialize. We don't have a very big campus, so we are prudent about how we use space.
SWEENEY: My philosophy is to create positive spaces around the campus. Some are big; some are small. I believe students adopt spaces during their campus life. They find somewhere to go when they want quiet and to study, when they just want to get out of their rooms, and when they want to see or be seen by friends. The more special spaces you can create, the more positive their campus experience.
At Providence, we try to develop both interior and exterior environments for our students, faculty, and staff to choose as their own.
LENA: In the nice weather, our faculty take their classes outside. For example, in the area between the current library and the humanities building wing, we are creating an outside amphitheater. Picture that: Students who are studying the Greek tragedies will be able to study them in surroundings similar to the original ones.
SWEENEY: In their brochures, colleges always seem to show classes being taught outside, but in most cases, that doesn't happen much. It happens all the time here-it's not just a photo op. It's part of our culture, and we're trying to respond to that.
LENA: It can be strange to see a science class conducted outside, with students pretending to be molecules bouncing off each other. In our curriculum, we think creatively about the different ways learning can take place, experientially and in applied ways outside of the traditional classroom.
What advice would you give business officers who might be considering such a technology-rich workplace/meeting place for students?
SWEENEY: Don't be rigid in planning the classroom for today. Stay flexible. Look at small changes, as well as big ones. You can make an incredible difference with a series of small projects that don't require a big budget.
LENA: My advice: Involve your constituencies in the design and plan, and cross divisional lines. The TecHub is a good example of collaboration between finance and business, and facilities and academic affairs.
SWEENEY: That's right. As you gather ideas, encourage an environment where people think beyond their immediate needs. If you ask faculty members, "What do you want in a classroom?" they tend to speak about what they know. You need to find out what is being done at other colleges and what is cutting-edge. For example, we invited an expert from one of the architectural firms to talk to faculty about different ways of designing curriculum.
While you want everybody's input, you have to create an environment that exposes your constituencies to different ideas. Try to create a process that encourages the "what-ifs?" I view the TecHub as the start of a process, rather than the endgame. TecHub's success gives us a blueprint to follow in the future.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.