Edge Benchmarks: Volunteer Technology Trainers

In this blog series, we are taking a close look at technology training models in public libraries, sharing successful examples and identifying tips and best practices. We recently took a look at mobile lab instruction as a way to reach people in the community outside the library walls. In this post, we examine various ways to utilize volunteer technology instructors, bringing the skills and interests of the community into the library.

The Edge Initiative benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering structured and scheduled technology instruction in the Community Value section under Benchmark One.

Additionally, Benchmark Eight recommends working strategically with community partners to maximize public access technology resources. This post offers tips and real library examples on how to partner with community organizations and engage volunteer instructors in your technology training program.

The Benefits of Volunteer Instructors

Volunteer technology instructors make it possible for libraries to expand technology training programs and reach more people needing assistance and instruction. Volunteers can provide dedicated attention to technology learners without juggling other responsibilities like the reference or circulation desk.

Volunteers also bring their own knowledge and life experience. By sharing that knowledge with others, they build community and social connections within the library. They also may bring special expertise in technology topics that library staff may not possess, making them a valuable information resource.

Volunteers can be utilized in various capacities: as classroom instructors, assistants, or individual tutors. Keep reading to learn tips for successful volunteer engagement and to learn from librarians we've interviewed about their successful volunteer-based technology library training programs.

Tips for Success

Here are some important tips and best practices to remember as you find ways to involve volunteers as technology instructors:

Recruiting:

  • Spread the word: Tap into local news and media outlets to spread the word about the need for volunteers.
  • Partner with community organizations: Talk to service clubs and service organizations to recruit volunteers.
  • Work with volunteer match organizations: Enroll in volunteer match programs to recruit individuals and fill specific volunteer positions (like one-on-one technology tutors).
  • Connect with local schools: Create opportunities for high school and college students to fulfill community service requirements through technology training.
  • Show the benefit to the community: Volunteers want to give back to their community, so tell them how their contributions make a difference.

Scheduling:

  • Coordinate the right amount of time: Each volunteer may want to give a different amount of time each week. Determine the minimum commitment you can expect from volunteers. Some volunteers may only want to help once or twice a month, while others may want to give several hours each week. Be mindful of volunteer burnout.
  • Be flexible (when possible): Volunteers have busy lives, so try to understand when they have conflicts. Ask when they are available before setting the schedule. Some volunteers may prefer a set schedule, while others may want to vary their schedule and fill in as needed.
  • Set clear expectations: Tell volunteers the importance of showing up on time, especially if you are relying on them for computer classes or individual technology training appointments.
  • Create an online calendar: Use a free online calendar program to post volunteer schedules so volunteers can check their schedule any time. This calendar can also be used to schedule individual appointments.
  • Keep track of hours: Volunteer time demonstrates community involvement, so it is important to keep track of how many hours volunteers give to the library. This can be used on grant applications and reports to community stakeholders.

Supporting Your Volunteers

  • Find the right match: Pair the right person with the right job. A volunteer might not be comfortable teaching a class, but they might be perfect for one-on-one instruction. Some volunteers may not be a good match for instruction, but they may be able to help the library in other ways, such as creating valuable handouts for classes, or helping with registration.
  • Explain their role: Be sure that volunteers understand their role and their specific duties. Also let them know what they aren’t expected to do. Prepare a brief job description that you can both sign to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Schedule staff backup: Always have a staff member available to assist a volunteer if a problem or tricky question arises.
  • Offer training: Give volunteers some basic training for the job, including an orientation of what to expect and basic library information. Direct them to resources where they can learn more about technology instruction, like Tech Training for Libraries from the Colorado State Library.
  • Celebrate and acknowledge volunteers: Remember to always thank volunteers for their service. Try to find time periodically to celebrate their work. This could be as fancy as a recognition ceremony, or as simple as having cake at the library.

Success Story: Mesa County Libraries (Grand Junction, CO)

Mesa County Libraries houses a literacy center at their Central Branch. The Literacy Center provides instruction in many areas: basic literacy, ESL, citizenship, and basic computer skills. The majority of their learners are English language learner adults who have low income; the goal of the center is to help them become more self-sufficient. Karen Kllanxhja is the Head of Literacy Services, and shared some information about how they utilize volunteers to make the Literacy Center a success.

The Literacy Center helps people like Patrick, an immigrant from Congo who first came to the center 4 years ago. Karen tells his story:

Patrick wanted to learn English, get a driver’s license, and go to college in America. Patrick came to the library every day and worked in the computer lab on the Rosetta Stone software. We paired him with a tutor and they met twice weekly for a total of 3 hours per week. Within 6 weeks of enrolling in the program Patrick passed the driver’s test and obtained his license. Patrick is still enrolled at The Literacy Center working with a new tutor on writing; he is currently a student at Colorado Mesa University."

The Literacy Center has 10 laptops and a language learning lab with 8 computers, purchased with BTOP funds awarded through the Colorado State Library. The technology is used to teach basic computer skills, language skills, and job-seeker skills. Some instruction takes place in a classroom setting with an instructor, and some takes place one-on-one with tutors. The center has 3 employees who coordinate programs, and about 50 volunteers who serve as instructors or tutors.

The Literacy Center is always looking for more volunteers, and uses several methods to recruit. Staff make presentations at service club meetings to let members know of volunteer opportunities. They work with the United Way and RSVP (Recruiting Seniors for Volunteer Positions) organizations. They post announcements in the library e-newsletter, and occasionally post ads in the local newspaper. The Center is very involved in the local community, and maintains strong ties to other non-profit organizations and service clubs. When it comes to establishing close ties to the community, Karen says, 

Just talk. I went to various agencies, service clubs, and churches, anyone that would let me in the door to speak about what The Literacy Center and the Library offered. Pretty soon our phone was ringing.

Success Story: Denver Public Library (Denver, CO)

The Denver Public Library (DPL) is a large municipal system including a Central Library, 24 branches, and a bookmobile. The Central Library houses the Community Technology Center (CTC), an entire floor dedicated to public computer access and technology training. Tracy Treece, Senior Librarian at the CTC, shared some of the ways they engage and support docents (volunteers). She also shared some examples of how docents make it possible for them to provide an added level of service to library computer users.

The CTC has 2 training labs (one with 36 computers, and another with 12), 127 public access computers, 6 staff, and more than 60 docents. It has one service desk, which serves as a central technology reference desk. Over a three month period (July-September, 2012), there were 817 individual public computer uses per day, and 56 individual assistance questions. Each month they offer an average of 99 one hour individual technology help sessions, and 30 public computer classes. During any given hour when the library is open, there are 1-2 staff members and 2-3 docents working at the CTC, not including class instructors.

Docents contribute their time and expertise as technology trainers, which allows the CTC to offer a much higher level of service to library computer users. Tracy estimates that docents provide at least 50% of the one-on-one assistance they offer, including as-needed assistance and scheduled appointments. They also work as assistants to computer class instructors, helping class participants who have questions or get behind during practice activities. If they did not have docents, they would not be able to give as much attention to library computer users who have questions, and people would have to wait longer to get assistance.

Most docents work 2-4 hours a week, either at the CTC service desk or giving individual help by appointment. Docents apply using an online application and go through an orientation and training program before they begin working in the CTC. The training program gives them some basic information on how to teach adults, and what to expect as a technology trainer docent. They also shadow current staff a few times before taking their own shift, so they are comfortable with the job duties.

Docents typically work exclusively at the CTC, but they recently began sending docents to work in some of the branches. The application and training process is still centralized at the CTC, which makes it easier for the branches to manage.

Tracy says that a docent program is something any library can establish, regardless of size. It is scalable, and can start with just one or two volunteers.

Even if a library just had a few docents to come in and do one-on-one appointments, that’s a great thing to offer to the public. A lot of people learn better that way.

Success Story: Pella Public Library (Pella, IA)

The Pella Public Library serves a town of just over 10,000 people. The library offers computer classes on a variety of topics, including beginning computer skills, Microsoft programs, Facebook, online safety, and online banking. They usually have 5-8 people per class, and the majority of participants are senior citizens. They typically teach classes in the main library area on the public access computers, but recently purchased 6 laptops that can be used to teach computer classes in the library meeting room. 

The Pella Public Library has been partnering with Central College, also located in Pella. College students teach computer classes at the library, and in return receive credit for volunteering and learn many valuable career skills. Wendy Street is the Library Director who works with the college to place students looking for volunteer opportunities. Each semester the number of students who volunteer varies. Sometimes there is just one volunteer, and sometimes there is a group of students who share teaching responsibilities. Students volunteer for as little as 1.5 hours or as many as 10.

Volunteers get an orientation to the library setup, technology, and software. They also learn about the purpose of the classes, and some basic library philosophy about providing equal access to information. The library has class materials available for them to use, including handouts for the most popular classes. Some volunteers are very ambitious and want to create their own materials or teach a new topic.

Having grown up with computers, the student volunteers are confident with the subject matter. Wendy remarked that the volunteers get a lot out of the experience, and enjoy working with older generations. The class participants are usually beginners who are very appreciative of the expertise the younger generation brings. Many volunteers have said that the experience gave them valuable skills that will help them in their careers, including a young engineering student who taught classes at the library on his summer vacation.

Working with student volunteers can present a few challenges. Some students don't prepare for class and occasionally show up late. Many student volunteers are skilled enough, though, that they are able to teach a successful class even with minimal preparation. Wendy offers this recommendation for success in working with student volunteers:

My advice is to have very clearly defined expectations and deadlines. I have found it works best to have the students work from outlines and handouts that library staff have prepared. When the students create a class from scratch, I require them to work with me to develop an outline and handout, as I have found they usually try to cover too much material in the time available. I also keep the handouts developed by students in case we want to offer that topic again.

Share Your Experiences

Have you involved volunteers in your technology training programs? 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.

In the next post in this series, we will take a look at different ways to offer training on personal gadgets and portable devices.

Read more

Do you want to learn more about utilizing volunteers in libraries for technology-related programming? Read these blog posts from TechSoup for Libraries for some great ideas:

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