Reclaim Open Learning

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Digital Media Commons

September 19, 2013 by Claudia Caro Sullivan

Linda Knox, Digital Media Commons, University LIbrary, University of Michi
Matthew Barritt, Digital Medai Commons, University Library, University of Michigan

Modeling Openness, Connectedness, and Evolution in a Learning Environment: Digital Media Commons Design Labs

In 1999, a room boldly named “This Room Has No Name” opened it’s doors in the heart of the Media Union, a grand new facility for the University of Michigan’s colleges of Art, Architecture, Engineering, and Music. A small group of students and faculty from each college had worked together for months to decide on the initial contents of the room. With the goal to attract peers who would work across disciplines and outside of the prescribed curricula, they requested: empty space; sketching tools (digital and analog); “converging technology” (unsanctioned, edgy tools of interest to emerging groups); and most importantly – funding for students whose interests would drive new investments, and whose regular presence would foster both academic and social connections among new participants. Gradually, over two years, the learning environment took on a name (“Linda’s Place”, where everyone who participated was Linda), and a culture of openness, connectedness, and evolution took hold.

Today, that same room, now “Design Lab 1” (DL1) , exhibits the same principles at work. An ongoing study of its participants indicates that they highly value the technological, physical and programmatic features that allow them to feel comfortable, connected, and free to initiate change.

Now the Library’s Digital Media Commons (DMC) is beginning to introduce the Design Lab model, informed by DL1 practices, in companion locations. Not generic “flexible” or “connected” learning spaces, DMC Design Labs will each have a unique character, reflecting emerging academic interests as they develop differently among non-disciplinary “anchor” groups in each location.

The DMC Design Lab model attracts learners and teachers who embrace progressive practices. Courses that meet in the labs are project-based and open-ended. Participants move easily from presenting to “making”, from group work to one-on-one, and from class work to unplanned projects, often in collaboration with peers from peripheral groups. To encourage serendipitous connections, calendars are kept open: events are visible online, and no activity has exclusive access. Participants leave artifacts of their work (digital and physical), and comment or build on artifacts they find around them. Students who thrive in the environments are employed to pursue their own project ideas (often introducing new technologies, which the program may fund, at risk); to watch for new patterns among their peers; and to serve as peer leaders, mentoring others who are learning technical skills as well as learning to participate in the community.

Currently, DL1 technology supports a mix of fabrication and creative expression in response to an intriguing collision of “makers” and storytellers. Dual-boot iMacs provide software for electronics projects (Processing, OpenKinect), with Linux piloting this year. The loadset also supports 3D-modeling, projection mapping, and video editing, with both open and licensed software. Meanwhile, an electronics workbench equipped with non-precious resources, a green/blue screen video capture area, and digital drawing tablets encourage students to learn through iteration after iteration.

The anchor participants in DL3 (in it’s second year) are formal designers with an external focus: on product design and solutions to global problems. The converging technology introduced this year will be crafted workstations for exploring the Library’s vast social and scientific data resources. Peer leaders will begin to create a more diverse community around authentic data research and visualization. We look forward to learning from this effort, as we plan to introduce the DMC Design Lab model in additional Library spaces.

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