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Volume 16, Nos. 2/3 • Mar/Apr 2002
• Cover Story •
You Can Wow Your Campus by Using Wireless Technology
by Molly Susan Mathias and Steven Heser

Your library might be able to make a bigger impact on its community if you integrate wireless technology into your bibliographic instruction program, like we did here at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). The mobile classroom we built is one example of how you can create your own flexible training space and simultaneously gain more respect for your library within the institution, and build important partnerships with other departments in the process.

MATC is a large 2-year institution that operates as one of 16 technical school districts under the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS). WTCS empowers all of the 16 local district boards to levy property taxes; these provide the majority of MATC's funding. The college is located in downtown Milwaukee, and its three outlying regional centers serve a three-county area. These different locales allow MATC to provide educational services for a culturally and economically diverse population that totals approximately 65,000 students. MATC administration endorses a philosophy that strongly emphasizes an institutionwide commitment to teaching and learning.

The libraries at each of these locations provide materials, services, and education to support the curriculum. Bibliographic instruction (BI) has always been a mainstay of our library and until recently was our primary means of outreach to the college population. Even though we'd been expanding our resources, our BI still lacked space and standardization, and the technology was inadequate. We needed to turn our BI program around, and wireless technology provided the answer.

The Orange Couch Was Holding Us Back and Giving Us a Bad Image
Originally, we decided to upgrade our BI equipment to wireless in order to address space constraints in the library and the negative effect this had on our ability to present clear, organized instruction sessions. As the library's offerings were expanding, space to teach people about them seemed to be shrinking! None of MATC's four libraries has any training labs for bibliographic instruction, and expansion is not an option at the Milwaukee campus location. Until fall of 2001, BI and library orientations took place on a centralized group of workstations within the library, which nearly always involved disrupting students who were studying. At the Milwaukee campus, library sessions were conducted on the infamous "orange couch," which could seat about eight students, leaving those remaining to stand or sit in chairs around a single computer. In general, library orientations were disruptive, awkward, and lacked effective demonstration facilities. This obviously didn't help us to build a reputation as cutting-edge information professionals.

After some unsuccessful attempts to expand the library, we saw wireless technology as the most viable option for our space woes. This decision meant we would go from using a few stationary PCs in the library to 20 wireless laptop computers transportable via a cart. As we put our wireless plan into action, however, we discovered that in addition to offering a solution to the space crunch, our "mobile classroom" created the groundwork for us to partner with important groups on campus, and it eventually improved the library's image as a technology leader.

Details on the Wireless Equipment
In our first order for the wireless classroom in April of 2000, we purchased 20 Simply Mobile Toshiba notebook satellite 2180CDT units, an outlet and extra battery for each notebook, and wireless 3Com communications cards and software. The order also included two mobile carts, two network access points (hubs), and 1 day of setup and training. Three wireless network/communication cards were also purchased to upgrade existing laptops. The entire cost of the wireless infrastructure was approximately $43,000.

Some of you may wonder how we had this kind of money to spend. As a state institution we are allowed to use capital funds to finance specific projects approved by the college. In our instance, the process was expedited because numerous departments were exploring wireless technology at about the same time we were. Namely, Information Technology and the South MATC Campus led the way for wireless at MATC. Our library eagerly joined the planning and development team for wireless technology.

The notebooks each came equipped with a PC card that allowed them to exchange data with a 3Com Wireless network hub. The hub, included with the cart, plugs into a data jack that allows a connection to the network backbone. Since these data jacks are available in virtually every classroom at MATC, almost any place on campus can be transformed into a high-tech computer lab or library training space.

Our Workshop Built Relationships
We decided to hold a workshop for faculty and staff in March of 2001. Here we would première the wireless cart. Our goals for the workshop were twofold. First, we needed to dispel some of the faculty's misconceptions about the library—namely, that it's not a book warehouse and that we were no longer conducting library orientations on the orange couch. Second, we needed to educate the faculty about the electronic resources that libraries offer today.

The workshop emerged from natural partnerships with other areas on campus, without which our experiment with wireless BI would have been considerably more difficult. Education, Research & Dissemination (ER&D) is a union-based program that provides professional development to new and experienced teachers and has a solid reputation among faculty. ER&D also helps instructors to integrate technology and learning into the curriculum, so when the opportunity arose to collaborate with them and première the college's wireless network within the workshop, we jumped at the chance. We saw in this collaboration an opportunity to elevate the library's profile and to help educate faculty about our electronic resources.

The workshop and wireless cart also strengthened our relationship with the IT department. The library is an ideal place for IT to promote emerging technologies because it has a natural client base of students and faculty. Looking back, we think it's safe to say that without cooperation from both ER&D and IT, our wireless bibliographic instruction program would have been neither wireless nor instructional.

When the faculty gathered last March, the two of us conducted the majority of the workshop, which consisted of a hands-on demonstration of electronic library databases. Our workshop's major goal was to inform faculty about our resources, which had increased in number and improved over the previous 4 years. We focused on our most basic and widely used databases—InfoTrac, EBSCOhost, and ProQuest. We also demonstrated our library catalog and other outside Internet-based resources.

We had only 25 faculty members attend each session because we wanted to keep the classes small. Every attendee was given a folder with the presentation slides, library handouts, and promotional materials, and we snuck in our business cards too!

All those who attended were given a wireless laptop for the duration of the session. This hands-on experience appreciably improved the quality of the learning experience. Faculty followed along while we demonstrated how to use our electronic resources. We allotted time for the teachers to try their own searches to find information on topics pertaining to their classes.

In retrospect, this workshop launched our mobile bibliographic instruction program. Not only did it get us in on the ground floor with wireless, but it also created a positive image of the library with respect to technology and generated interest in our bibliographic instruction that had not previously existed. In an exit survey conducted by ER&D, nearly 80 percent of faculty members attending the workshop stated that their level of usage for library databases would increase moderately or substantially in the future.

Wireless Improved Our Instruction
The format we used to instruct faculty within the workshop strongly influenced the new instruction program we put together for students. In planning for the program, we had decided early on that we needed to create a "BI presentation template" using the form and content of the workshop as our guide. Every librarian at MATC can now follow this template when using the wireless cart. But even with this new standardization in place, getting a mobile session off the ground involves a little preparation time. First, instructors contact the reference desk to schedule a library orientation. Classes must be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance because our reference staff must find out what room the class is in. The librarian must then go to the room and write down the jack number for the IT Helpdesk to activate, since not all jacks are kept active at MATC in order to maximize network speed.

So far, the response to our wireless BI program has been positive. Since our staff takes the computer lab to students in their classrooms, they are able to remain comfortable in their own environments, rather than being uprooted to go to the library or a computer lab. The wireless laptops also have a certain "wow factor," and most students are interested in the technology. As a result, they seem to be more interested in the electronic resources we're offering them. Plus, the hands-on technology allows us to incorporate more active learning opportunities for our students.

The mobile cart was also an impetus for us to standardize bibliographic instruction. Now the library has developed a core set of PowerPoint slides that we use for every instructional session, although databases and examples are customized for each class at the instructor's request. Whereas library instruction on the orange couch had seemed unfocused and haphazard, library orientations using the wireless cart deliver a clear and centralized message. This format does require some prep work, but we have adapted quickly.

The State of Our BI Program Now
Overall, we love the wireless cart since it provides us with an instant computer lab. Two of our library locations now have their own carts, and the others can schedule time to use other mobile classrooms available at their campuses. We especially like the fact that we are increasing accessibility to library resources. The mobile classroom allows the library to run a flexible training program that allows us to go wherever, whenever we're needed. It's also a great publicity tool for our campus outreach. Most importantly, our wireless cart helps us fulfill the library's commitment to and emphasis on teaching and learning at MATC.

Interestingly, that first cooperative workshop that we hosted in spring 2001 evolved into faculty workshops that were conducted at all four campuses last fall and a one-credit professional development course for faculty that is being offered early this year.

Since the inception of our wireless classroom, we've also joined forces with IT on a number of occasions. Presently, the library is working with IT on several projects, including redesigning our Blackboard services and beta testing Blackboard portals. This stronger relationship and new-found trust has opened up the possibility for future collaborative projects between us.

The change hasn't all been smooth going. Faculty members are very pleased with the change in library instruction, but we need to work on increasing their comfort level with the laptops. While they have been enthusiastic about the wireless technology for their students, we've discovered that they're less likely to embrace new technology for themselves. The IT department made the decision not to provide mice with the laptops, and so our users have to familiarize themselves with the track stick (pointer) on the Toshibas. (If a faculty member is having a lot of trouble with the pointer, we will give him or her a mouse to use.) Initially, we also didn't realize how much work setting up 20 laptop computers can be; now, if possible, we have more than one librarian work with the cart at an instructional session, particularly for setup and take-down.

Our Wish List and Recommendations
Although we are pleased with how the mobile classroom has performed to this point, we still have a number of goals for our BI-on-wheels program. For one, we want to improve the technology on the carts themselves. (At a recent conference, we noticed that many computer vendors are integrating the wireless communication hardware within the laptops, rather than using a slot on the side.) We also have to tackle the printing issue; we don't have a printer networked to the wireless cart. Although most databases allow students to e-mail their results, students enjoy having some tangible result from their library instruction session. A new cart with more storage capacity, a networked printer, and some permanent wireless access points are all on our wish list.

We'd like to increase use of the mobile classroom by going beyond BI to "network" with other departments. The library staff has already maneuvered the cart to professional development meetings and campuswide technology days, and we have attended occupational division and high school open houses to promote the library and our mobile classroom. Recently we've joined forces with the Continuing Education and Workforce Development and the Pre-High-School divisions to educate their staffs about a variety of information resources. One of our long-term goals is to obtain lab space for instruction, particularly at the Milwaukee campus. Even if we get training space, however, we believe wireless will remain a part of our BI program. Using the mobile classroom as a public relations and outreach tool has its own benefits for the library.

If you are interested in using wireless to mobilize your instructional program, we have a few recommendations:

To that end, our library director has directly addressed college deans to stress the importance of library resources within each of their divisions. We closely follow campus e-mail messages about events, workshops, and campus promotions, and assertively ask whether the library can be included. In addition, we regularly supplement our efforts with campus-wide e-mail and library newsletters to stress the importance of library integration.

In conclusion, wireless technology has allowed the MATC Library to move its instruction program into the 21st century. Our mobile cart has improved the quality of our bibliographic instruction and has fostered relationships between the library, faculty, IT, and professional development departments. The most satisfying development that has emerged from our experience with wireless is that we now feel that the library is helping to propel the academic life of the college forward. The mobile classroom has allowed us to create training space virtually anywhere, and to leave the old orange couch behind.

Molly Susan Mathias is a reference librarian and instructional specialist at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She holds an M.L.I.S. and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin­Milwaukee. Her e-mail address is Steven Heser is the north campus librarian and Web developer at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of Wisconsin­Milwaukee and an M.A. from Marquette University in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is

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