Pius Library, which underwent a series of renovations between May 2011 and August 2012, is projected to house a 14,000-square-foot Academic Technology Commons (ATC), located in the area currently accessible by the newly remodeled south entrance.
In an email to the Learning Technologies Advisory Committee (LTAC) tasked with developing the project, Associate Provost Michael Lewis described it as “a new collaboration between ITS and Pius Library that will be located on the main floor of the Pius Library. The goal is to create a welcoming and innovative space focused on developing and empowering faculty, staff and students in the use of academic technologies. The staff and resources of the ATC will provide improved support focused on driving new adoption, deeper usage and innovation for the enhancement of the academic mission of Saint Louis University.”
During November of last year, Pius and ITS staff hosted “visioning sessions” to gather input from faculty. The advisory committee, composed of approximately 40 faculty and staff, has regularly met since then, most recently Tuesday, Feb. 23. Dan Nickolai, director of the Language Resource Center (LRC) in Morrissey Hall, has a seat on the committee.
“It first came on my radar last November,” he said of the initiative, “but clearly it had been percolating longer than that, because they had already identified the architect they’re going to work with.”
That architect is Steelcase, Inc., based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It offers both architectural consultation and numerous furniture brands. The committee has also selected an interior design firm.
The space in Pius “is going to be reconfigured into different sized rooms,” said Nickolai. These will include an innovation studio, multiple recording studios, an innovation office with access to 3D printing and other “commercial grade technology,” including potentially a hologram generator whose projected images can be manipulated by users. He said that the Commons will include 40 PCs loaded with Adobe Creative Suite, and other software “that’s generally out of reach for the average individual.”
“Some of these ideas, they’re kind of just ideas,” he said, numbering them in the hundreds. “I don’t know how much of this stuff is going to be actually implemented.”
The committee hopes to implement a service modeled on Apple’s Genius Bar, where faculty, staff and students can have one-on-one consultations with “instructional technologists” for using certain technologies.
SLU currently has separate technology centers catered to specific needs, including the Instructional Media Center (IMC) located in Xavier Annex; the LRC run by Nickolai, for language students; and news studios and computer labs in Xavier Hall for communication students.
Nickolai said that the IMC would be subsumed into the Commons. “Every bit of technology they have in the IMC is going to be included.” He also said that Elaine Marschik, the current IMC director, may be new director for the Commons.
“It’s a huge footprint,” said Nickolai, citing the Commons’ multidisciplinary appeal.
This ambitious initiative coincides with a host of administrative measures to address fiscal trouble. Moreover, Nickolai said that ITS director Kyle Collins, who is also on the committee, hopes to have the Commons open by August. How might SLU fund a project of this magnitude?
Two dorms are under construction, but dorms, Nickolai said, “have historically always paid for themselves. This money will come right back. Building a dorm is zero-risk.” He continued, “If you donate to a scholarship fund, that money is never going to leave the scholarship fund unless it goes to a student.”
“It’s not like it’s a big, blue pile of SLU money,” he said. “It’s strange. Just because money seems to be being hemorrhaged in one pocket of SLU, doesn’t necessarily mean that it could be any other way.” The Commons funding is one such isolated pocket.
“We’re at a stage where either plans are drawn up—preliminary plans, I should say—and we’re in the pre-donor stage,” said Nickolai. “I don’t think anyone’s been approached yet.”
He continued, “My understanding is that the university is very good at finding donors for flashy, sexy projects … How soon they find somebody is open to speculation.”
President Pestello has expressed interest in the Commons and is supporting it, according to Nickolai. “I don’t know how much of his support is financial, but he must be providing some kind of financial support,” he said.
He believes a donor will not be sufficient to cover the entire cost and anticipates an ongoing cost in the form of new hires, some of whom could be student workers.
“This is something that they’re going to want to build over the summer because it’s going to be hugely disruptive to Pius,” he said.
While questions persist, the Commons would arrive at an opportune moment. “It’s not equitable right now,” said Nickolai of the technological environment at SLU. Some departments have virtually no support or access to an instructional technologist. “I think the new paradigm in the Commons is going to be, we’re going to have people on staff, easily identifiable, that you can walk up to and request help.”