Edge Benchmarks: Mobile Computer Labs

In this technology training blog series we identify tips and share best practices from public libraries. We have taken a look at individual technology instruction and open lab assistance as methods to provide flexible training in the library. This post explores several ways to offer technology instruction by taking computers out to the community.

The Edge Initiative benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering structured and scheduled technology instruction in the Community Value section under Benchmark One. This post will give useful advice to help you determine how to offer mobile technology instruction in your community.

The Benefits of Mobile Labs

Mobile labs are versatile and flexible, and are an innovative way to provide technology instruction. You can use mobile labs tp reach patrons at the point of need, whether in a neighborhood center, business, or onboard a bookmobile in a parking lot. They can go almost anywhere! Taking your technology training on the road helps build relationships with other local organizations, and gives the library a greater presence in the community.

Instructors can direct training to the specific needs of one target audience, such as teens, seniors, or government employees. Mobile labs can be used to respond to emergencies, or can be used at community events to provide onsite computer access. When not in use, mobile labs can be used for classes in the library, shared with other libraries and organizations, or stored away.

Tips for Success

There are some important tips and best practices to remember as you plan your mobile technology lab.

Setup tips:

  • Transform an old bookmobile. Make a techmobile to house a computer lab on wheels. Or you can buy a fully outfitted techmobile, like King County (Link).
  • Use laptop computers. There are special cases designed to protect the equipment, including large rolling “suitcases” designed to easily transport multiple laptops and other necessary equipment.
  • Get mobile 4G/3G Internet. Use a mobile service provider and a mobile wireless router to create a wifi hotspot anywhere you take your lab.

Logistical tips:

  • Target specific populations. Identify neighborhoods or groups that are underserved by the library, and take mobile technology labs to them.
  • Reach out to community organizations. Find locations with meeting rooms for laptops (or a parking lot for a tech-mobile) to take your mobile lab to teach classes or offer open access.
  • Screen locations prior to visiting. Especially if you are going to unknown neighborhoods, make a visit beforehand to check for safety, 4G/3G reception, and space issues.
  • Allow enough time for travel and setup. Be sure to account for traffic, parking, loading, unloading, and bathroom breaks for mobile lab staff.

Partnership tips:

  • Share your mobile lab. When not in use, share your lab with other libraries or community organizations. Think about partnerships you could develop with organizations that might want to share resources and costs.
  • Ask partners to teach. Allow other organizations to use the lab to teach or co-teach classes. This saves you time in preparation, taps into community experts, and makes more use of the technology.
  • Communication is key. Work with partner organizations to establish expectations for attendance and outcomes. Make sure there is a clear understanding of responsibilities. 
  • Make regular visits. Create a consistent schedule for repeat visits, so people can easily remember when you will be there and so that you can establish a real relationship with your partnering organization.

Staffing tips:

  • Double up on staff for safety. If you are taking your mobile lab to areas where safety and security may be an issue, take precautions and have two staff members on hand. The second staff member can also act as an assistant during classes.
  • Train staff to be mobile. Give staff the necessary training to be safe drivers, handle potentially dangerous situations, and deter theft.

Consider these bonus tips:

  • Offer open access. Make the most of your time in one location by offering open access after a class. This allows practice time for class participants, and also allows others to take advantage of the lab.
  • Respond to emergencies. Set up the mobile lab in response to disasters, at evacuation sites or community centers.
  • Mobilize at community events. Take the mobile lab to festivals and community events to share library services and resources to a wider audience.
  • Promote library resources. Tell class participants what resources are available in the library, on library computers and in the collection. Because you are not in the library, people may not be aware of what is available. Bring a small sample of books related to the topics being taught. Make sure you have library card registrations and if you able to do it on the spot, that will be a great added service.

Success Story: Poudre River Public Library District (Fort Collins, CO)

The Poudre River Public Library District (PRPLD), located in Fort Collins, Colorado, developed a mobile computer lab in 2011 as a part of the Colorado Public Computer Centers project. The library district serves 177,000 people across 1,800 square miles, including rural and mountain areas that are not near any library branches. PRPLD wanted to reach non-library users by bringing technology and computer classes directly to them.

PRPLD put together a mobile computer lab managed by the Outreach Department. Irene Romsa, Outreach Services Manager, developed a highly successful program called “Tech a la Carte” which brings technology instruction into underserved communities. For this program, the library has a rolling suitcase that holds 6 laptops, a projector, and a mobile wireless Internet router from Verizon. When deciding what wireless provider to use, they were able to borrow some test equipment from providers, and drove to different potential locations to see if they could get an adequate signal. Verizon had the best coverage in the library service area.

They take this into private homes and neighborhood centers to teach a series of technology classes. Each host location is screened for safety through referrals and site visits. A commitment of five adults is required for each series of classes. So far, the program has had 100% attendance and is booked to capacity. "Tech a la Carte" has taught basic computer skills and Internet safety to many families in the PRPLD service area, and continues to grow as staff time allows.

In addition to teaching technology classes, the mobile lab has been used for other community services. They take computers to community festivals and events to issue new library cards and demonstrate online library resources. They also used the mobile lab as an emergency responder in the recent devastating High Park wildfire. The lab was set up at the evacuation site, and served several purposes. Evacuees were able to register with the Red Cross, take care of business online, and contact family and friends via social media and email. PRPLD was able to provide this service because the equipment was easy to move and staff was able to act quickly.

When asked about the challenges of offering such an ambitious mobile lab program, Irene says:

Just give it a try. We call everything a pilot when we begin. That means if it’s not working we will pull out of it. And that helps to ease anxiety in a lot of people. Try it out and see if it works for you, and if not, change it. Each community is different and their response will need to be tweaked according to the . . . very unique composition of your community."

Success Story: Lamar Public Library (Lamar, CO)

The Lamar Public Library serves a rural area of approximately 8,000 people in southeastern Colorado. Kristin Lubbers is the Mobile Computer Center Coordinator who manages computer classes both inside the library and out in the community. The library has open access computers, but does not have a formal computer lab for instruction. A mobile laptop lab can be set up in the library meeting room when needed. This mobile lab can also be taken out into the community, using a hard plastic rolling suitcase that can be easily transported in a library vehicle.

Kristin takes the mobile lab to the Lamar Workforce Center for a class on job skills. This class was taught by workforce center staff, which meant that Kristin did not have to prepare to teach. During the class, Kristin was able to work on other tasks. At the end of the class Kristin talked about library resources, including online educational and testing resources (i.e. Universal Class and Learning Express) that might be of interest to job-seekers. Several of the participants in the workforce class later came into the library and asked for assistance with the library resources mentioned in the class.

Kristin says that one of the biggest challenges in working with community partners has been figuring out who to contact at an organization. She offers this encouragement,

Don’t be afraid to talk to as many people as possible. Not everyone will have the time or manpower to devote to partnering with you in something like this, but the more people you talk to the greater possibility that you will find someone that will want to work with you."

Success Story: Free Library of Philadelphia

The Free Library of Philadelphia recently launched their Techmobile, a computer lab on wheels that can travel to any location to provide classes or open access. This came about as part of their Hot Spots project, which puts computers and trained staff in neighborhood locations that are more than half a mile from a library. Many residents of Philadelphia struggle to get to a library, but rely on library computer and Internet access to stay connected and be productive.

The Techmobile is a large vehicle (similar to a bookmobile) that is equipped with laptops, iPads, mobile wireless Internet, and presentation equipment. It is staffed by one technology trainer (paraprofessional) and one librarian. The trainer conducts the actual computer class, while the librarian drives the Techmobile, manages on-site coordination, and supervises the trainer. They always have two staff members aboard for safety, but it is also helpful when teaching classes to have an extra person available to assist.

Joel Nichols is the librarian on board the Techmobile, and shared some of what he has learned about the logistics of operating a mobile lab. “Parking at some potential sites is impossible, which makes it hard to coordinate a successful training. Designate a trained driver. Although our vehicle does not require a CDL, professional drivers should be essential to keeping the staff and vehicle safe.” Joel also warned that mobile coverage can be spotty, so it is important to have a backup plan for Internet access. The Techmobile uses a mobile 4G/3G modem, so they can select which network to use based on reception.

The Techmobile will travel to any community organization that serves Philadelphia residents. They take requests for service, but also seek out organizations that may benefit from the Techmobile. Some of the organizations they work with include schools, recovery houses, and adult day-care programs. They can visit two locations each day, five days a week, and are careful to allow enough time to travel and get setup at each location. Having this service has allowed for partnerships and collaboration to expand between the library and other organizations.

One organization, the Harmonious Volunteer Center (HVC), is located near one of the FLP branches. The HVC is a volunteer-based community service organization that provides many resources, including job skills, youth engagement, and assistance for people in transition out of prison or homelessness. The Techmobile visits the HVC on a regular basis, providing technology training to HVC clients. Since developing this partnership, HVC is also more connected to their local branch library, and are working with outreach librarians. 

Share Your Experiences

Have you developed a mobile technology lab? What does it include, and where do you take it? 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 explore the many ways to involve volunteers to provide technology instruction.

Read More

Looking for more information on mobile labs? Read these blog posts from TechSoup for Libraries for great tips on managing a mobile technology labs: