Loyola University Chicago’s DAN VONDER HEIDE (left) and BRUCE MONTES say the school’s new digital commons building satisfies students’ collaborative computing and networking needs.
Aug 14 2008

A Common Fate

Digital information is physically reshaping university campuses.

Gone are the days of students sitting at computers and pounding out class assignments. They now spend hours creating electronic, media-rich content for their classes, from video presentations to interactive PowerPoint and Flash programs and recorded productions. They share ideas, programs and electronic files as readily as students 20 years ago shared class notes scrawled in spiral-bound notebooks.

Content created by students and instructors has become dynamic, interactive and collaborative as never before. Digital content has become an integral part of students’ work. It requires more than a simple pen or typewriter. Universities are exploring new ways to provide both the physical space and the technical support for it.

IT consultant Warren Arbogast, founder of the Boulder Technology Group in Washington, D.C., sees a groundswell of change in how universities deal with the growing wave of digital content generated by students and instructors. “These schools are realizing that they have an awful lot of content that’s valuable, including courses, lectures and podcasts,” he says.

Course notes, programs, podcasts and other supporting material have traditionally been stored in isolated “silos” in one department or another, or even on the computers of individual professors, Arbogast adds. “Technology has done a wonderful job of connecting faculty from multiple institutions. They can work on projects together, even from as far away as India, as if they were down the hall from each other,” he says.

Student-generated content is a key ingredient in today’s course work, according to Arbogast. “A digital explosion in classrooms is putting unbelievably powerful tools in the hands of students,” he says.

The schools below have implemented what they call “digital commons.” The approaches vary tremendously, but the intent is the same: to provide facilities and space for digital-content creation. Penn State rolled out facilities statewide, while Loyola University Chicago chose a centralized approach.

Penn State Doesn’t Wait

“We’re in a period of rapid change, and we could wait and catch up, or get out ahead,” says Cole Camplese, Penn State University’s director of Education Technology Services (ETS), which is in the midst of opening state-of-the-art digital media studios on each of the university’s 25 campuses across the state.

“There’s been a massive increase in the number of faculty teaching with YouTube, and we’re seeing a real growth in digital media as a source of evidence for learning,” says Camplese, who’s based at Penn State’s main University Park campus in State College, Pa. “Instead of having their students write the big paper every time, more and more faculty are saying to them, ‘It’s OK to produce a video. It’s OK to produce a podcast.’”

What had been missing, Camplese discovered, was a sufficient level of production and editing know-how and the right technology to turn out such multimedia projects. Penn State launched a far-flung digital-commons initiative to let students create digital content, starting with a proposal in spring 2007 and a grant in June 2007.

During the 2007 fall term, ETS opened new multimedia production studios on seven campuses, each with a high-definition video camera, two to five high-end Apple iMac computers with 750-gigabyte hard drives and 4GB of RAM, a podcasting kit, a professional green-screen kit and 20 software programs, including recent versions of Final Cut Pro and the Adobe Creative Suite. By the end of the 2007–2008 academic year, digital-commons studios were up and running on 13 campuses, with the remaining 12 to follow in the coming year.

The studios are backed by a dedicated server with 2 terabytes of storage. “We put a switch in a closet on campus, and the computers run like they’re sitting here in University Park,” Camplese notes, giving students a uniform interface and access experience.

Each site, including any necessary physical renovations, cost between $15,000 and $25,000 to start up, says Camplese. The new facilities tapped into the existing Penn State infrastructure, anchored in the University Park data center and already covered 24x7 by tech support. “Support costs go way down when everyone is dealing with the same machines and the same software,” he says.

ETS manages the machines from University Park using a server that dynamically hands out user licenses for the different software programs, upgrading software and troubleshooting as needed, according to Camplese.

Penn State also met the considerable challenge of transporting, storing and backing up the huge amount of data in multimedia files. The ProCurve switches at each digital commons have Gig-E ports, which allow users to save work at Gig-E speed. The servers at each site use Distributed File System Replication (DFSR) to send saved files to a storage server back in University Park.

Loyola Chicago’s Lakefront Commons

Given its more centralized operations, Loyola University Chicago chose a different approach. It opened its new $30 million Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons at the school’s Lake Shore campus in January. The three-story, glass-enclosed facility offers its own take on the technological future, according to Dan Vonder Heide, the school’s director of infrastructure services.

At the facility, in addition to working in a digital media lab, students can choose among 220 widely arrayed computer workstations, borrow from a collection of 50 notebook computers for use within the building and get full wireless access. There are also eight electronic classrooms that are equipped for web streaming and audio and video capture.

The building contains 18 Cisco Systems Power over Ethernet (PoE) switches that connect via fiber back to the school’s core data center. The connection has a bandwidth of 1Gbps. At the data center, Cisco 6513 switches direct all data to and from traditional and virtual servers and a vast storage area network shared by the entire campus.

“Students were doing a lot more together. One of our main focuses at Loyola is social justice and the service component that students go through,” says Bruce Montes, director for academic technology services at the Jesuit-run university. “That involves working with other students and a lot of group activities, and students were doing it in residence halls and computer labs that weren’t designed for that sort of thing,” Montes says.

The heart of the new commons, according to Vonder Heide, is its advanced work spaces. “For Loyola, it filled the need for having a place for students to collaborate and do research in an open-air, technology-intense location,” he says.

“Social networking really drove this,” Montes says. “Since Loyola built its information commons, students have been using the 220 workstations 12,000 times a week, and the electronic group-study rooms 260 times.”

The New Library Science

American University, in Washington, D.C., plans to deploy a research commons sometime in 2009 that will create an interactive repository of digital work by faculty and students. The digitized content, says University Librarian William Mayer, will include podcasts of lectures, faculty blogs and wikis, as well as more traditional types of academic publishing, including faculty conference presentations and white papers and student theses.

The project is still on the drawing board, but Mayer has begun working with American University’s IT department on designing a network that would include an enterprise digital-asset management system with a 1-petabyte storage capacity, large enough to hold the library’s digitized stacks of journals, theses and dissertations.

The Final Frontier

For all their innovative use of technology, the leaders of digital-commons projects are finding that physical space is becoming the final frontier in their mission. “The hardest thing at a university is getting space,” admits Penn State’s Cole Camplese. “You have to displace someone.”

When his department rolled out digital commons at 25 campuses around the state, Camplese asked for two rooms: a studio for shooting video and recording sound and an editing room for producing finished pieces. He sometimes had to settle for one room — an arrangement he refers to as “digital commons lite” — with the idea of expanding in the future.

American University’s Research Commons, scheduled to launch in 2009, will free up 6,000 square feet of library space as materials in the current stacks are digitized. University Librarian William Mayer wants to add wired, collaborative work spaces to the five-story building, but will have to redesign other parts of the library to make use of the most desirable areas.

“It’s like one of those tile puzzles with all but one of the spaces filled,” Mayer says. “I’m trying to move the tiles around.”