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Edge Benchmarks: Individual Technology Instruction

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In this TechSoup blog series we are exploring examples of successful technology training programs and giving practical advice on how to create similar programs in your library. We start off the conversation about technology training models with Model #1: Individual Instruction, and how to make it easy to implement for just about any library.

Formalizing an Existing Service

Individual instruction is something libraries already do every day. Each time a person comes into the library and asks a technology-related question, we teach them new skills, whether about formatting a resume or downloading ebooks. Individual instruction is an easy way to meet the demand for technology assistance and can be a great place to start if you are planning improvements to your technology training services.

Keep in mind The Edge benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering individual technology instruction in the Community Value section under Benchmark 1.2. A little bit of planning can go a long way in helping your library users become more digitally literate. Keep reading for tips and real-life stories to find out how to offer (or improve) one-on-one technology instruction in your library.

The Benefits of Individual Instruction

Individual instruction can be adapted for any size library, whether you have one librarian or one hundred. This model allows the most flexibility in scheduling; you can offer short 10-minute sessions on demand, or longer 30-minute sessions by appointment. If you don’t have enough staff available, recruit volunteers to lend their technology expertise.

By offering individual instruction you can address the specific questions of your library users, and make a big impact on digital literacy in your community. Training is targeted directly to the needs of the learner, since they will often select the topic. This allows you to teach a wider range of topics and ability levels, without the prep time needed to teach a class.

The 4 S’s of Success

Each technology training model has several key elements that define it. Here are some tips to ensure success in each aspect of this model.

Service: How can you best provide this type of training?

  • Focus your efforts: Schedule staff to provide technology training on an individual basis, one staff member (trainer) to one library user (learner).
  • Address all ability levels: Help beginning, intermediate, or advanced library technology users, depending on their need. Provide links to online resources they can use to further develop their skills on their own.
  • Train anywhere: Individual instruction can be provided in the library or offsite, in a computer lab, public computer area, or meeting room.
  • Incorporate digital literacy skills: Every technology-related question is an opportunity to teach new skills at the point of need. Make certain you are showing learners how to use tools to find technology help on their own so that they can be self-sufficient. Demonstrate critical thinking and evaluation techniques to help take their knowledge to the next level.

Staff: Who will provide the training?

  • Involve all staff: Anyone who is comfortable with technology can be a trainer, as long as they are willing to help people learn. No computer science (or library science) degree needed!
  • Flex a small staff: If you are the only staff (or have fewer than 5), be creative and flexible about how you answer individual tech questions. Think of them as the new reference question, equally deserving of your time.
  • Recruit volunteers: If you receive more questions than you can handle, enlist the help of volunteers at busy times or meet with library users by appointment. (We will talk more about using volunteers in Model # 6.)
  • Train your trainers: Give your staff some guidance on how to offer better individual instruction by sharing training techniques, tips, and technology resources.
  • Encourage specialized expertise: Give tech savvy staff the opportunity to share their knowledge by being the go-to person for specific questions, such as mobile devices, spreadsheets, or social networking.

Schedule: How will you schedule it?

  • Be flexible with on-demand training: Answer questions as they come up, and offer assistance as needed. No special scheduling is required.
  • Increase staff/volunteers during peak hours: Rework the schedule to have more people available during busy times, after school or on weekends.
  • Have a backup: If you aren’t sure when it will be busy, or when the most challenging questions will be asked, schedule someone as the backup technology trainer. The backup person can work on other projects and to-do items when they aren’t needed for technology training.
  • Schedule appointments: For in-depth questions (or to alleviate busy times), offer a scheduled appointment service. Connect learners with expert staff, and provide more dedicated instruction at a convenient time.
  • Juggle multiple questions: Just like reference and circulation questions, it is possible to handle multiple technology questions at the same time. You can often get someone started, then go help someone else as they type information into a web form or document. Check back with them to see if they need additional help.
  • Allow enough time: Be prepared to offer at least 10 minutes of time for on-demand training, and at least 30 for scheduled appointments.

Subject: What topics will you cover?

  • Target training to the learner: Let the learner choose the topic and direct the instruction with their questions.
  • Create topic-related resources: Reinforce learning and have advanced materials prepared in advance of launching your individual instruction program. Refer learners to these resources (such as quick guides and links to online tutorials) and update them over time.
  • Treat technology training like reference: You don’t have to know every topic related to technology to assist people. If you don’t know the answer, use information resources (like the Internet or technology reference books) to find the answer to the problem.
  • Share what you learn: Every time you help someone individually, you will learn a few new things too. Create an online space to share resources and solutions to problems with staff, such as a wiki organized by the most requested topics.
  • Be prepared to address typical topics: Helping learners create an email account, formatting a resume, applying for a job, or researching health information are all common requests. Having information sheets available on this topics can be a time saver and a great help to new technology users.

On Demand or Scheduled Training: You Choose

You have two primary options for individual instruction: you can take questions as they come up, or you can schedule appointments with expert staff. The latter option allows you to better plan staff schedules and answer more in-depth technology questions. Here are two success stories that explore both of these options:

Success Story: On Demand Technology Training

In small, rural libraries, individual instruction may be the most practical way to provide technology training. The Haxtun Public Library (Haxtun, Colorado) serves a community of approximately 1,000 people. It is a single room library with 3 desktop computers, 3 laptop computers, 2 tablets, and 1 librarian. Providing scheduled computer classes is not a realistic option.Vickie

Librarian Vickie Freemyer provides individual instruction to anyone who asks for technology help, even if it means occasionally meeting when the library is closed. Vickie often juggles many tasks, like checking out books or answering the phone, but her library users are patient and appreciative of the individual help she gives them.

Vickie received new computers as a part of the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), and the word has spread very quickly that the library is the place to go for assistance learning technology. Vickie shared,

It's just extremely rewarding to see someone come in here and to help them learn technology. It may take a little bit of your time, but a whole new world is opened up to them."

If you receive more questions than you can handle alone, using volunteers during busy times can be a great help. Model #6 will discuss more about using volunteers.

Success Story: Scheduled Appointments

The High Plains Library District (Weld County, Colorado) offers a successful individual instruction program, in addition to scheduled computer classes. They offer “Book a Librarian” appointments throughout 16 locations, specifically for technology instruction. Don’t let the name fool you, though - many paraprofessional staff also offer their expertise as a technology trainer for this popular service.

To make it easy for everyone, they created a system for scheduling appointments. Library users can request an appointment in person, by phone, or by using an online request form. Appointments are scheduled locally, and learners are paired with staff based on availability and expertise. They have had 399 appointments so far in 2012 (January-May). The most popular topics are basic computer skills, ereaders, and email. They also offer individual instruction on everything from genealogy research to Microsoft Excel, and trainers have created an online collaboration space where they share technology resources.

Erin Kirchoefer, Public Computer Center Supervisor at the High Plains Library District, says that one of her big successes has been with someone who lost his job after working at a company for 18 years. He had no idea where to begin when looking for a new job. Through these appointments, he got a new job and is in line for a promotion!

Erin offers this advice to others: "If I could tell libraries only one thing about one-on-one appointments, it would be to try it. I know that the impact on staffing is a big concern, but in reality libraries are already offering these appointments every time they assist someone with a technology question. All we’re doing differently at HPLD is managing the time of the appointment, which allows us to do a little prep on the topic, and to staff accordingly.”

Share Your Experiences

What experiences have you had with individual technology instruction? How has technology training made your library valuable in your community? Share your experiences 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. We would love to hear your stories. As an added bonus, you will be entered in a prize drawing just for responding. 

Say tuned for the next post in this series - Technology Training Model #2: Open Labs

Interested in more?

Read these two TechSoup for Libraries blog posts for more great tips on one-on-one technology training:

Have a story to tell?

Tell us about your daily routine maintaining public computers, or a moment when you were particularly proud. Don't forget that what might be "that's nothing" to you may be an "aha!" to someone else!