A Step Ahead

Center Merges Teaching, Learning, and Technology

Even before he taught his first class in the new Information and Technology Convergence Center, Jeff McClurken ’94 could see that the building was fulfilling one of its main missions – bringing students and faculty together in a technology-rich, collaborative space.

The Convergence Center had been open to students for only a few hours on the first day of classes. But they had already sought out spots in study niches throughout the four-story building. They nestled into comfortable chairs and couches, plugging laptops and tablets into power outlets built right into the furniture. Some tapped keyboards in solitude, while others shared screens and conversation.

As an “academic commons,” with access to state-of-the-art technology and a fully powered and networked design that encourages creativity and idea-sharing, the Convergence Center was well on its way.

Several years in the making, the center places UMW in the national forefront in using technology to advance learning and digital literacy. It also prepares students to work in cutting-edge technology settings. “This is a game-changer,” Board of Visitors Rector Holly Tace Cuellar ’89 said at the Sept. 18 dedication ceremony. “There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”

McClurken, a professor of history and American studies, is the special assistant to the provost in charge of the University of Mary Washington’s newest and highest-tech academic building.

His pride in the building was evident as he showed a visitor through its 78,000 square feet of classrooms, studios, collaboration spaces, a sophisticated digital auditorium, a locally owned coffee shop – and some scary cool chairs.

Some highlights:

  • A soaring media wall is made up of flat-screen TVs that can coordinate to form one moving image or 43 individual ones. The wall, a showcase for students’ digital work, greets visitors entering through the second-floor doors, off Campus Walk on the northern side of campus.
  • A three-story digital auditorium is equipped with screens, projectors, and movable seating. The space is flexible enough for concerts, speakers, dances, and more.
  • Active-learning classrooms allow students to work in clusters around big computer screens, sharing their projects or seeing material from the professor’s computer. Classes are interactive, so back-of-the-room naps are unlikely.

The classrooms can accommodate up to 36 students, “which for Mary Washington is a big class,” McClurken said. “But the idea is that you don’t lose intimacy.”

  • A digital archiving lab lets UMW digitize its collections and train students in archiving techniques. The lab overlooks Campus Walk and leads to an elevated walkway connecting the Convergence Center to the Simpson Library next door.
  • A newly created digital-knowledge center helps students not only master the technology needed for a particular project, but hone their ideas and focus. Student tutors staff the digital-knowledge center, following the model of UMW’s writing and speaking centers. Those centers also have a new home at the Convergence Center.

“Students will come in with varying levels of expertise,” McClurken said. “But when they leave they will have digital fluency, not just literacy. That means they’re not able just to consume, but to analyze and create a digital product.”

  • And then there are those chairs.

Tucked away on the fourth floor are two “spun” chairs that whirl sitters in defiance of gravity. “You have to trust the chairs,” McClurken said, demonstrating, as a couple of students walked by.

One had already taken one of the chairs for a spin. “It’s a little bit terrifying,” she said, “but also thrilling.”