These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Xavier University’s Web 2.0 Strategy: The Virtual Learning Commons,” delivered by David Dodd (VP for Information Resources and CIO, Xavier) and Doug Ruschman (Web Director, Xavier) on October 24th, 2007. Despite David’s cold, this was an excellent session and a great example of an IT department that listened, faced their weaknesses and challenges with an open mind and without getting defensive, and collaborated with campus stakeholders to develop a new, learning-centered digital commons.

David described the challenges faced by Xavier over the past five years, a list that sounded all too familiar:

  • Lack of planning and leadership. Prior to David arriving in 2005, Xavier had four CIOs in four years.
  • A traditional IT organization arranged into insulated silos of activity.
  • A rudimentary set of tools with only modest Web and research services and high student demand for more Web versus face-to-face services.
  • Pressure on IT to help address recruitment and retention challenges.

David and Doug described two early projects that have since converged into their current Virtual Learning Commons (VLC) project. In 2004, Xavier attempted to create a physical “Learning Commons” inside the library. They also created a virtual admitted-student orientation site called “Road to Xavier” in 2005. This virtual orientation site could be customized by students and included a number of personal broadcasting and social networking features. Students could upload photos and watch videos. Messages from advisors were posted to the student’s in-box. Events and activities were hosted that connected admitted students with current students, such as a video production competition where admitted students reviewed movies created by current students using Ming. Road to Xavier was used to create points of engagement or interaction that would not have happened in the past. Doug told a great story about a prospective student who had some questions and connected with a current student via the Road to Xavier application. The current student offered to meet her at the airport and put her up overnight at her home. She fell in love with the campus and enrolled at Xavier.

While this virtual orientation succeeded, the idea for a library-hosted physical space was scrapped in favor of a more inclusive concept wherein the library space was only one component of the learning commons. Xavier restructured the library division as well as other divisions within the commons, developed a new case statement for a capital campaign, and developed a plan that integrated technology resources like Road to Xavier into the larger commons initiative. IT looked at how people were using the current Web services and took a very user-centered approach. Student focus groups were used to identify gaps and develop ideas for new services. Here are some VLC services either available or under development: 

  • Student dashboard, including a list of important contacts (e.g., advisor, major-specific librarian, Dean)
  • Research resources pushed based on major
  • Tools for students studying abroad (e.g., Frappr application for photo-map mash-ups)
  • A courses channel that provides direct access to current courses
  • Online training videos and a technology training calendar
  • A knowledge bank

One of the comments that stuck with me was David’s contention that the VLC needed to be, “better than Google,” when referring to students doing academic research on the Web. Rather than starting at Google, David looked forward to the day when students would use the library research services built into the VLC as their preferred entry point. I can certainly relate to this sentiment. We pay good money for campus portals with functionality that mirrors MySpace and Facebook. We read papers by students who use Wikipedia as their primary source of information while expensive online library research services go unused. It’s tempting to think that if we only presented these campus resources to students differently, perhaps as part of some Facebook-ish “one-stop” virtual shop, usage would increase. I think Xavier could create the dream academic portal and students would still use Wikipedia first, unless we see changes in certain factors beyond the control of IT. These include:

  • Student information literacy and the development of clear, course-specific expectations
  • Student motivation to engage in genuine research and scholarship versus finding the easiest path to completing a course requirement
  • The institutional support of faculty who wish to engage students in genuine research and scholarship activities that cannot simply be Googled
  • The degree to which student research and scholarship are valued and recognized within the institution and beyond

I think IT departments are setting themselves up for failure if they think that creating something that’s better than Google will change student and faculty behavior. In the end, I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition anyway. Rather than competing with Google or Wikipedia, it may be more productive to embrace these tools as two among the many in our toolbox and help our students better understand their strengths and limitations.