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Opening School Computer Labs to the Community

At the start of the 2012 school year, Mount Abraham High School opened the school library and its computers to the public in early evenings, Monday through Thursday. During the summer they sorted out the technical details of the project. Once the school year started, they were ready to introduce the a new community resource. Here are a few lessons learned in their early months:

It takes time and consistency to build an audience. That means doing some background work to figure out the best schedule before the lab opens. It also means being prepared for many days, at first, of having an open lab without anyone in it. e-Vermont offered a small stipend for lab monitors which helped create an incentive to stick with the project during this slow time. One benefit: slow days leave plenty of time for the second important tip - lots of outreach.

Outreach needs to happen through as many channels as you can think of. Here is a sampling:

  • Posting on Front Porch Forum and electronic calendars
  • Short pieces in local newspapers announcing the new resource, and later longer stories on the program’s accomplishments (see here from the Addison Independent)
  • Notices sent through school networks, not just Mt. Abe but also places like the Community College of Vermont
  • “Papering the town” with posters and brochures
  • Coordination with the local public library so that the school could accommodate patrons when the library was closed or didn’t have space at its own computers
  • Outreach to local organizations that work with people interested in accessing the Internet and / or improving their computer literacy. For example, the local senior centers
  • Word of mouth – which means that everyone connected to the open computer lab needs to know its hours, which in turn means consistency (see the first tip).

Offer different programmed activities to draw people in. Examples from Mt. Abe and e-Vermont towns include:

  • Tech Tuesday and Try It Thursday – two part workshops introducing tech-related tools
  • Instead of formal workshops, some e-Vermont towns have simply invited residents in to explore a tool together. For example, after the holidays Middletown Springs invited residents to bring their new gadgets and learn from each other how to use them.
  • Tutoring help for students
  • Armchair Traveling – travel presentations by local residents, including students
  • Presentations on issues of local interest – at Mt. Abe these topics have been anything from photos of the Bristol region to a non-profit working with orphanages in Uganda. Another option to consider is pairing local presenters with non-local speakers using Skype or a similar video service. For example, authors of children’s and young adult books often will make remote connections to speak to classes.
  • College Connections – Mt. Abe is developing college-related programming, such as how to apply for financial aid online and connections to online college classes.
  • Individual Instruction for Seniors – Mt. Abe has partnered with the LivingWell senior residence to offer one-on-one computer tutoring. These types of programs do take management and training to be successful, see for example our lessons learned from Internet Interns.

Make the facility welcoming to visitors who are not familiar with the school. Mt. Abe is still struggling with this issue; the library can be confusing to find even with signage.   

Be open to your community computer lab becoming a community center. Even though the focus of Mt. Abe’s project is computer access, the library offers myriad information sources. Families have started coming just to read, some residents are getting literacy training there, students are studying and also using the space to include the community in what they’re learning through presentations, tutoring, and other projects. Librarian Laura Mina reflects that the most important outcome of this project has been weaving together the school library and the larger community into a multifaceted learning space.