How to Start a Tech Lab @ Your School

I am writing this post as a member of the CS-SIS blog committee, but I cannot take all the credit for the happenings I’m about to describe. The person who got the ball rolling and has been overseeing the project is a colleague of mine: Virginia Neisler, newly appointed Head of Reference & Research Services at the University of Michigan Law Library. Some of these words are hers, so if you have questions about anything in this post please feel free to reach out to either Virginia (vneisler@unimch.edu) or me (hanesjl@umich.edu).

The tl:dr version with some key highlights:

  • Things will take longer than you think, so build in extra time for every phase/project/deadline.
  • You will also need to involve more people than you initially plan for, so try to cast your net as wide as possible at the beginning (you’ll likely still be informed along the way that there are other people you need to consult with to get certain things done or approved).
  • It will probably cost more than your initial projections, so perhaps come up with a budget for “just the basics” and another for the things you’d “like to have.” 

The longer version with more details:

One of our librarians at the University of Michigan Law Library, Virginia Neisler, was generally interested in how technology is impacting the practice of law and how law schools are preparing students. After attending an ABA TechShow she spoke with our director about what other schools were doing to address this issue. Together they decided to create a working group to figure out how we might convert a long-forgotten and unused CALR (computer-assisted legal research) room into a modern “Tech Lab.” 

As chair of the working group, Virginia’s vision for the Tech Lab was to create “a truly experiential lab where students can get hands-on, guided experience with various legal technologies.” Three other librarians, including myself, joined the group and together we started brainstorming ways to refresh the space in addition to researching what types of legal technology (software and hardware) that we would need to bring in for our students. 

Our process consists of four phases:

  1. Information Gathering
  2. Short Term Proposal
  3. Implementation
  4. Evaluation and Long Term Vision Planning

Phase One
We researched emerging classroom technologies, similar tech lab spaces in other schools, and spoke with colleagues throughout the country to find out what they were already doing, or planning to do. We spoke with internal stakeholders (Deans, Clinical faculty, etc.) and tried to find out what types of legal tech are most used by our alums in legal practice today, as well as what they think is most likely to be adopted in their workplaces in the near future. We also tried to keep our current student body in mind, especially where the knowledge gap(s) seemed to be the most severe. (For example, most of our students have Mac laptops, whereas the majority of our alumni use Windows PCs in their workplaces.)  Like many libraries undertaking space renovations, we also decided the furniture in the room needed to be as mobile and flexible as possible, so the room could be set up and utilized in a variety of ways. (We chose Knoll C-leg height-adjustable Pixel tables.)

Phase Two
We crafted a proposal to submit to our law school administrators, outlining our plan for the space renovation, necessary technology updates, and ideas for programming. This part, and getting the budget approved, seemed to take the longest, as we had to justify why the room needed to be re-carpeted and repainted, and why the tables and chairs already in the space were not adequate for what we had planned, not to mention justifying the cost of new computers and hardware. (We opted for wireless mice and keyboards to go with the PC computers, so students working in groups can more easily swap control of the computer.) For the technology and computer specs, we got bounced around between a few different IT people when we had questions and ended up needing to coordinate with many more people than we initially thought, which also extended our timeline slightly.

Phase Three
Phase 3 happened in stages, once the short term proposal was approved by our administration. Most of the painting, rewiring, and re-carpeting took a couple of months, and was paid for out of the library budget from FY19. Tables were ordered and paid for out of the library budget for FY20, and computers and associated hardware were paid for out of our IT department’s budget for FY20. During this time, we started promoting the Tech Lab on our social media channels.

While we had hoped to have the room ready to go for the start of the Fall 2019 term, things moved slower than planned and we are now planning to start hosting workshops in the Winter 2020 term. (Some things that slowed us down included multiple visits from campus IT for wiring and adding more ethernet ports, as well as delays in figuring out which budget would cover the cost of new computers and getting the overall budget approved.)

Phase Four
This phase will start in Winter 2020 as we evaluate workshop attendance and feedback from students in real time. Summer 2020 will allow us to revise and rework as needed, to prepare for long term vision planning, which may include the purchase of specific software or specialized hardware. We are aware of legal tech assessments like Procertas, and plan to advocate for an empirical assessment of our students’ technological competency, but in the meantime, we must rely on anecdotal evidence from our own and others’ interactions with our students. We believe no idea is too small as we get started, and plan to do some workshops on basic Word tutorials and PDF redacting, while folding in some email etiquette tips. (We’ve already heard from clinical staff that most students are lacking some basic skills in all of these areas.)

We’re excited about the “grand opening” of the Tech Lab next term, and will begin advertising it on our social media channels and in our interactions with clinical faculty and students throughout the fall semester. We will also continue to solicit ideas for tech skills at all levels from everyone we can, so if you have ideas or things you’ve already done that made the biggest difference, please share below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*