We are taking a close look at models of successful technology training programs and sharing ideas for how to create similar programs in your library. In our last post we looked at ways to provide individual technology instruction to maximize flexibility with one-on-one assistance. In this post we look at how offering assistance in an open lab format can also provide flexibility and focus to your technology training.
The Edge benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering technology instruction in the Community Value section under Benchmark One: Indicator 1.2. This post offers practical advice to help libraries determine if open lab assistance is a good fit for your situation.
"Open lab" differs from regular "open access" in that there is a dedicated staff person or volunteer acting as a technology trainer during a specific period of time. In an open lab setting, technology learners are able to come into the lab, ask technology related questions, and get individualized assistance. Open lab staff may have to juggle multiple questions, but are dedicated to the open lab session without having to assist at the reference or circulation desk.
Open lab assistance combines the flexibility of individual instruction with the focus of a computer class environment. It is a hybrid approach, providing learners the benefit of individualized assistance while giving library staff a focused time to provide more direct training. Open lab assistance can take advantage of partitioned computer lab areas, but can also be offered less formally using laptops or a bank of computers. There are many variations for this approach, so it can be adapted for any size library.
Open lab assistance allows technology learners to guide their own instruction with their questions. This means staff do not have to take time to prepare a lesson plan, and can treat each question as they do reference questions. You can opt to focus the open lab sessions on a certain technology application, from basic mouse practice to job seeker assistance. Open lab can also take advantage of printed materials to aid instruction by having technology books and printouts on hand to address frequently asked questions.
Each technology training model has several key elements that define it. Here are some tips to ensure success in each aspect of this model.
There are many variations on how to offer open lab assistance. Here are two examples that have proven to be successful in libraries. The first story showcases a successful weekly open lab at a small suburban library that allows any type of technology question. The second example is from an urban library that offers a regular job seekers lab and demonstrates how an open lab can be focused towards a specific topic.
The Bemis Public Library is a municipal library in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver with approximately 42,000 residents. The library serves a high number of seniors, immigrants, and economically disadvantaged individuals, many of whom need assistance with technology. Bob Tenny, Adult Services Librarian, wanted to offer a service where people could get more individualized attention since the library staff did not have enough time to answer difficult technology questions.
Bob shared, “I began the Open Lab so people could come in and we could help them with whatever they needed, basic skills, email, word processing, spreadsheets, Internet, etc. We now have something we can refer people to who need more help than can be given from the reference desk. We can tailor our instruction to what people need and want in a way the structured classes can’t, plus one-on-one is by far the most helpful teaching method.” (Photograph of Keith, volunteer at the Bemis Public Library, helping a library user learn to use the computer)
They have recruited several volunteers to help with the Open Lab, which takes place every Thursday morning. Between 4 and 10 people attend each week. The library allows people to ask any technology-related question, and encourages attendees to bring in their personal devices, including gadgets, cameras, and mobile devices (but they won’t go so far as to fix computers). Staff help people with everything from job applications to self-publishing books. They have found that many people come back regularly, and that it has developed a stronger sense of community amongst the technology learners.
At the Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, Maryland), there is a big demand for assistance related to job searching on the computers, since the unemployment rate in Baltimore has averaged over 10% since 2009. Andrea Snyder is the Job and Career Librarian at the Pratt Library (as well as the Assistant Manager of the Business, Science, and Technology Department) and recently began offering an open lab program exclusively for job seekers.
The Career Building Clinic is a biweekly program that complements existing computer classes for job seekers. It allows job seekers a two-hour block of time when they can come into the lab to work on anything related to their job search, and get assistance as needed. Andrea started the program because she had observed many job seekers being held back by technology barriers that weren’t being addressed in job seeker classes. The open lab allows them more individual attention to get their specific questions answered.
They have a team of four technology trainers for this program, made up of some paid staff and some volunteers. There are 30 computers in the lab, and there seems to be just the right ratio of trainers to learners. Many of the questions they answer are quick and easy to answer, so it is fairly easy for trainers to help several people at a time. Also, most of the people who come for assistance are already familiar with computers and do not need as much step-by-step instruction as a beginning computer user.
Andrea calls this “low touch, high impact” because it is so easy to help people and there is such a “huge benefit for the customer.” She says that even something as simple as sharing how to use keyboard shortcuts for common tasks (like cut, copy, and paste) can save a lot of time for job seekers. She says that trainers don’t have to worry about preparing for a class, and they focus their efforts on answering individual questions with as little interruption as possible.
Have you tried offering open lab assistance in your library? What has worked, and what lessons have you learned? Please share your stories in this Benchmark One Survey from the Edge Initiative. If you have more to share about technology in your library, take the full survey that covers all of the benchmarks. Respond to the survey, and you could win a prize!
Read these TechSoup for Libraries spotlights for great tips on offering open lab assistance and managing technology:
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