Microsoft Announces Major Software Grant to Support Expansion of Learning Commons at UMass

AMHERST, Mass. – Citing the dramatic success of the new Learning Commons at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Microsoft Corp. today announced a grant of nearly $600,000 in software to support an expansion of the facility in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library.

The announcement further strengthens Microsoft’s partnership with UMass Amherst, which was named the first Microsoft IT Showcase School in the nation by company CEO Steve Ballmer in a visit to campus last October. Since 1998, Microsoft has provided approximately $12 million of support for campus initiatives.

“Microsoft and UMass Amherst share a vision of using information technology to improve the delivery of educational materials, engage students in active learning and encourage collaborative inquiry,” said Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s general manager of U.S. enterprise education. “By providing a software grant through our Unlimited Potential program, we will help accelerate the growth of this national success story.”

According to Salcito, the software donation to UMass Amherst will help users learn a range of IT skills—from basic fluency in using Microsoft Office products to programming and network support skills in Visual Studio, Visio and XP—to compete more effectively in a global economy.

Jay Schafer, director of libraries at UMass Amherst, said the grant will allow the campus to offer additional technology resources and instruction, and meet the needs of underserved users, including students at risk, the public and people with disabilities. A key to the popularity of the Learning Commons is the rich array of IT-related services it provides. The current facilities were unveiled last fall, but already they are at full capacity.

“Microsoft’s gift, paired with an investment in new hardware, will allow the Learning Commons to accommodate more students in an environment that mirrors the modern workplace,” Schafer said. “We are educating information-literate, technology-savvy users.”

Microsoft CEO Ballmer joined UMass officials Oct. 21 to dedicate the Learning Commons, a 23,000-square-foot, $1.8 million space that brings together technology, library and student support services in an environment that fosters informal, collaborative work and social interaction. Students have responded by making the Du Bois Library one of the most popular gathering spots on campus (it’s open seven days a week, and around the clock for five days).The technology-rich environment features 164 workstations, 400 ports for laptop access to the campus network and Internet, 16 tablet PCs, e-mail kiosks, and access to an array of software as well as professional staff and students to assist users.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Schafer said the campus plans to double the size of the Learning Commons by adding 150 personal computers, upgrading existing PCs, adding more collaborative study rooms and expanding quiet study areas. Demand for wireless network access was so high throughout the fall of 2005 that additional devices were installed in January 2006 to double the capacity. The library plans to implement a next-generation mobile computing network to support the transport of individual user profiles, data and images.

As part of the Learning Commons project, UMass Amherst also intends to create a showcase Adaptive Technology Center to provide tools that assist users with reading, writing, studying and information access. Software and hardware will be available to the public and would assist users with varying disabilities: vision, including blindness and low vision; mobility impairment; learning, including dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and hearing loss.

Salcito noted that the Learning Commons is also the hub of activity for the IT Across the Curriculum Program, another of the initiatives for which UMass Amherst received Microsoft’s IT Showcase School designation. The IT curriculum program reaches and engages underserved populations. The program’s enrollment in its first two years was composed of 42 percent female students.

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