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Providing Training: A New Model of Open Lab Time

LapWhen we are a solo or a small shop, so much of what we do is focused around finding ways to work smarter, saving as much of our time and resources to do the good things our institutions need to move forward.  One of the biggest problems I find is dealing with training and the associated day-to-day support calls.  I have fallen into a trap lately – instead of showing someone how to do something, I find myself offering to just add that image, update that content, post that new application.  And training, forget it.  There just seems to be no time, both for me as the trainer and for our content contributors as trainees.

Something had to give. This was not a sustainable model. I kept coming back to a presentation I had seen at HighEdWeb13 about taking tech support out of your daily grind.  Jennifer Chance and Mark Foster from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin showed how they built a model that empowered their users to handle the basics, freeing their web team up for innovation.  It stuck with me as something I had hoped to implement on my campus.

So I decided to give open lab hours a try.  The “rules” were simple: any question was fair game – anything from tactical support (or our how do I) to bigger picture items (what does the new college portal mean to my department).  The lab was basically an open sandbox for 2 hours on Friday afternoons.

The first couple sessions are now in the books and the turnout exceeded even my expectations.  I am used to seeing a handful of people at a formal training (maybe 5).  Usually more people end up canceling than attending. So I really went into these sessions with no expectations.

Between 12 and 20 people attended each session, not a giant turnout, but roughly three to five times the number of people I would be able to reach at a training.  The bonus: people appreciated the fact they could just ask their question directly, instead of sitting through a training and hoping to have the chance at some point.  Questions asked covered everything from how to optimize and upload an image into the CMS to how the redesign project was coming to some exciting conversations about content strategy.

While this was exactly what I was hoping to achieve, one thing I was struck with was watching people interacting while they were waiting. We are all trying to do more with less these days; any opportunity to get strength and support from each other is a bonus.  Along those lines, once someone got the answer they were looking for, I found the majority stuck around when they were finished.  I asked a couple people why they did that and they responded that they just wanted to have some time to hear what others were interested in and sit at a computer and try things out.

All in all, a great experience.  Here are a few takeaways as this experiment continues:

  • Have a regular time.  I have tried sessions on Friday afternoons and have upcoming sessions on Friday mornings.  Based on that turnout, I will set up a regular schedule I can share so people can plan.
  • Have something you can work on.  People will come in waves, make sure you have some low-key things you can work on in the downtimes, not something that will take a great amount of your focus and concentration (I caught up on responding to emails instead of writing code)
  • Be willing to cover topics you may not have covered before. One of the first questions I was asked involved how to tell which sites brought the most traffic to their department’s web page.  That question led to an overview of what we could track in Google Analytics, including setting up some scheduled reports to let them track referral traffic.
  • Have fun. One of the things that keeps me going, especially working in an office that’s geographically isolated, is getting out and talking to people.  If this isn’t your thing, perhaps this may not be the best approach for you.
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Solo Doesn’t Mean Alone

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

After the excitement of the big announcement last week,  here I am  trying to figure out how I am going to add to what Tonya and Ron have started.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t say enough awesome things about what they’ve done getting this whole Higher Ed Solo thing off the ground  and giving it life. And wait, now that I am thinking, why exactly did I agree to this?  I spend my days running like mad, bouncing between meetings, working on projects, trying to set strategy, putting out fires…  What was I thinking agreeing to commit to one more thing?

Suddenly, the light dawned – that is the essence of a being an army of one in higher education today. We jump in with both feet.  We take the ball and run with it. We trust our gut to do the right thing.  The best thing.  Because we have to.  It has been my experience that we don’t have an option if we are going to succeed on our campuses.  We don’t typically have an “us” that’s going to help us out and get the job done.

But what makes this whole Higher Ed Solo gig so great is that it reminded me that, while I might be an army of one, I am not alone.  You are there too. WE are here.

So yeah, I am incredibly blessed and excited to have this chance.

You tell me what is going to help you and what you want to hear about.  Work/life balance for solos, project management, mad juggling tips…  And let me know if you want to write a post or chat with me online. There are so many voices out there with stories to tell.  Mine is just one.

We can do this. Solo never has to mean alone.