Learning commons: The library of the 21st century

January 27, 2015
Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Students in Stefanie Maltais-Bayda’s class conduct theatre exercises in the learning commons at Bessie Nichols School in Edmonton. Learning commons are spaces that are designed to be flexible so they can meet a variety of student needs.

New policy redefines what it means to be a library

When is a school library not just a library?

Always, according to Alberta Education’s new learning commons policy, which is expanding the definition of library beyond a place just to access books, information and knowledge to one that also provides multiple spaces and resources for students to collaborate and create and present new knowledge.

“Libraries of the past encouraged primarily a read-only experience — they were places where you went to get stuff,” explains Jill Usher, manager of literacy, numeracy and school libraries for Alberta Education.

More than ever before, students are expected to apply what they’ve learned — to create, solve problems, collaborate and think critically — so to better support these students, libraries needed to transform into the physical and virtual learning hubs of the school, places where students could not only access resources and prior knowledge but also collaborate and create new knowledge, Usher says.

“The goal of the learning commons model is to support students in mastering the basics but provide opportunity to expand and deepen learning as well,” Usher says.

This can involve making library space accessible and flexible so it meets the needs of multiple groups and types of user, often at the same time. It can also involve a virtual approach, whereby off-site users can access resources and collaborate through the use of digital technology.

“While resources are still very much a part of a learning commons, it’s not just about the stuff that’s in the library,” Usher says. “It’s what the students can do and create and learn within that particular space and far beyond that space.”

While aspects of the learning commons philosophy are already well established in many schools, the new policy is intended to spread the trend provincewide to schools where it hasn’t yet taken root, so all Alberta students can benefit, Usher says.

Implementation officially began in September, with officials within each school or jurisdiction able to decide what steps and timeline to follow and whether or not to implement a name change. There is no one-size-fits-all template to follow, and the learning commons can and should look different in every school, Usher says.

The policy doesn’t involve additional funding to school boards.

Alberta’s previous policy for school libraries dates back to 1984, so an update was long overdue, said Nikki Coles, president of the Alberta School Library Council. The organization participated in extensive consultations with Alberta Education, which worked with teacher-librarians seconded from Alberta schools over several years in order to create the policy.

“It’s positive because it recognizes the importance of the learning commons within the school environment,” Coles said. “Because it is policy, it now has some authority, and that’s what we’re happy about.” ❚