Different type of distance education

By transporting computers and the necessary networking hardware to remote sites, two library systems (the St. Louis County Library and the South Central Regional Library Council) are able to better serve the training needs of their staff. This column describes these similar, yet different, approaches to training librarians.

Cybermobiles of St. Louis County Library

The St. Louis County Library uses a transformed bookmobile ("cybermobile") to transport computers to remote sites for the purposes train its librarians on the use of their new, soon-to-be-installed integrated library system.

The St. Louis County Library maintains nineteen branches and nineteen bookmobiles, providing library service to a community of 524 square miles. Recently the Library decided on a new integrated library system that is suppose to go "live" in May of this year. In order to train the Library's staff of more than seven hundred, an "innovative" (hint, hint) solution had to be implemented allowing the employees to become proficient in their new work environment.

The Library's specific problem was how to effectively train a staff spread over such a large area. They focused on the idea of a classroom on wheels, since they felt it would give the staff in the branches a more convenient way to learn. The solution would provide opportunities close to home yet away from the front desk. Given the Library has a fleet of bookmobiles and one was being retired, they negotiated with the head of their bookmobile services for one of the newer units. After a series of brainstorming sessions Library administration (Dan Wilson, Margaret Stefanak, and Kathie Lamb) as well as public services staff decided to convert "Pinocchio", a bookmobile designed to serve elementary school children, into "Millennium", a mobile electronic classroom.

As the Library's shop personnel gutted the bookmobile, removing the old linoleum flooring as well as the checkout desk and wooden bookcases, discussion began in earnest with the head of Technical Training on the layout of the bookmobile's interior. They walked through the bookmobile trying to visualize what would work best in a small space. Shop personnel made two very critical suggestions concerning the lighting and the workstation design. The lighting is mounted around the walls of the unit, with the three switches controlled from a central location by the instructor. This allows the lights to be dimmed when the LCD projector is in use and provides a non-glare environment for the trainees. The desk design is a modified saw-tooth. It staggers the students on one side of the cybermobile, leaving an aisle for the instructor to walk through and monitor the students's progress. The setup sounds like a very effective use of space to me.

Millennium was outfitted with a local area network consisting of seven workstations connected by Category 5 10BaseT cable. The network is directly connected to the Internet by sharing a data circuit (T1) provided at each of its eighteen host locations. In order to conserve on counter space and to provide a flexible training environment, the Library chose laptops instead of PCs for the training workstations. Each workstation provides access to system automation functions and the Internet as well as a series of commonly used applications such as word processors and spreadsheet programs. The instructor's workstation is attached to an LCD projector used to display applications to a pull-down screen. The LCD projector has a zoom function to allow for maximum projection in a limited space.

As of this writing, the mobile training center is scheduled to be taken out on the road the first week in December of 1998 and will be in operation until further notice. During the first few months the Library will test the effectiveness of the teaching/learning environment, gauge the response of the students and discover what adjustments are needed before they begin training on the new software.

As Julie Cruise, a St. Louis County Library Planner, explains:

As the need for training has grown, so have training opportunities. Adapting a bookmobile is one way which the St. Louis County Library has responded to this need. In doing so, we have utilized the skills of a wide variety of Library staff. Millennium is the result, a mobile classroom of which we can be proud.

Mobile labs of South Central Regional Library Council

The South Central Regional Library Council provides computer training to employees of consortium members with the help of a mobile lab of computers and networking hardware.

Located in Ithaca, NY, the South Central Regional Library Council is a multitype consortium covering fourteen counties and 10,000 square miles. Its membership of eighty-five members includes business, public, academic, hospital, and school system libraries. The Council provides many services. Training is just one of them. Last year the Council provided training to almost 400 people. Depending on the type of institution where the training takes place, attendees may be administrators, doctors, university faculty, school teachers, and occationally someone from the public, but most of the trainees are library staff.

Because the Council is responsible for such a large geographic area (just take a look at a map!), and because urban centers are few and far between, traditional video conferencing and distance education techniques for training are not options. Additionally, the Council wanted trainees to be able to learn at their own sites, or nearby sites, as much as possible. Consequently, beginning in September of 1997, they decided to experiment with a mobile lab, a set of computers and networking hardware allowing trainers to take the classroom to the students instead of the other way around.

The mobile lab itself consists of set of laptop computers and networking equipment (a modem, router, hub, and cables). The whole lot fits neatly into a few bags and boxes on wheels. The trainer's computer serves as a gateway and is directly connected via a modem (56 KB) to the Council's (28.8 KB) modem bank. Once connected, the other computers gain access to the Internet through the gateway with the help of the router and hub. Like the St. Louis County Library described above, the lab is sometimes connected to an existing local area network (LAN). The Council discovered that larger members might have an Internet-connected LAN, but not a lab to train in. So the unit is now often taken to a site and added, temporarily, to someone else's network. Lesli LaRocco, the primary facilitator of the lab says:

[the entire setup is] pretty reliable. In fact, though, we haven't had trouble with the modem connection, and it is surprisingly fast, considering up to 11 computers can be hanging off the one modem. I do make some accommodation, though, choosing sites for teaching that have few graphics, when possible. I also use it to illustrate to novice users why a connection can be fast or slow, and how a dial-up differs from a dedicated connection. Make lemonade, that's my motto!

The lab is used for about twenty-five to thirty training sessions per year on topics such as Introduction to Windows 95, Internet Search Engines, using FirstSearch, or other remote databases as well as specific applications. The Council arranges about a dozen workshops per year, and the rest are "custom training". Last year, they had twenty-three scheduled training sessions, and eight custom training sessions. The Council also allows their members to rent the unit for other training purposes. In the year or so that LaRooco has been using the lab, the most popular topics have changed. She says most people don't need the Introduction to the Internet type class anymore, but those changing to Windows 95/98 do need help. She has also noticed a definite upsurge in the number of custom training requests. For example, libraries and consortia are purchasing access to remote databases (FirstSearch, UMI ProQuest, Electric Library, etc.), and they want training to get everyone up to speed.

Distance education and learning

There is a lot of hubbub surrounding distance education and distance learning these days. Personally, I don't see it fulfilling its self-proclaimed goal of providing effective education and learning opportunities via computers and teleconferencing technologies. I believe this to be true for two reasons. First, as perpetual consumers of television broadcasts, our standards for video production are very, very high. The time and energy required to create engrossing productions necessitates, I believe, more time, money, and expertise our educational systems are willing to spend. Second, unless the learner is enormously self-motivated, I believe few people will truly acquire a learning experience without direct student-to-instructor interaction. Yes, email, mailing lists, and discussion groups all facilitate communication, but they all pale in comparison to direct face-to-face discussion.

The distance education/learning implementations described above represent more realistic approaches to remote education needs. At least for now they get the job done. They facilitate direct human interaction and do not spend inordinate amounts of time and money to create learning opportunities.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This article was originally published in Computers in Libraries.
Date created: 1998-08-05
Date updated: 2004-11-07
Subject(s): distance education;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/distance-education/