Creating and Facilitating a Handheld Users Group


It all started about four years ago with the Palm IIIc. I was hooked on its beautiful spectrum of colors and the basic applications that it offered. I gradually weaned myself off the Franklin Planner completely and started to use only the handheld. About a year later, I purchased the Palm m515. While it offered the same great colors as the Palm IIIc, it also featured a screen that was easier on my senescent eyes. And remaining loyal to Palm (now palmOne), I upgraded to the Tungsten T model when it was introduced.I am an information consultant for Oakland Schools, the intermediate school district for Oakland County, Mich., which serves 28 public school districts. Oakland Schools provides consultants and support staff in general education, special education, career-focused education, early childhood education, technology, curriculum educational media services and more.

Laying the Groundwork

Many of Oakland Schools' employees have handhelds, and several use them for more than just their basic applications. However, there are also a lot of employees who only use their handhelds for the calendar and address book functions. In January 2003, after several requests from educators in Oakland Schools about handheld use, I decided to start a handheld users group. Other employees in our organization had already provided handheld workshops for customers in our school districts, but I wanted to informally share information with Oakland Schools' employees on how to utilize handhelds for individual, personal and work use. My philosophy is if someone learns to use the handheld for personal use that person will start to use it for work, and vice versa.This idea required some planning, so I asked a colleague who worked with educational technology if she would be willing to co-facilitate these meetings. She wholeheartedly agreed because she was also hooked on handhelds. We got together for some initial brainstorming and planning, and decided that the first item of business was to send out a needs assessment survey to interested people.
But after the third meeting, I found out that my co-facilitator was leaving to go back to teaching in an elementary school. She recommended another colleague who could serve as my co-facilitator. When I asked him, he was very excited about participating. Unfortunately, he quit to go to another organization eight months later, so I'm currently facilitating the meetings alone.
I was lucky, however, that our Technology Services department helped us by creating the needs assessment survey in an electronic format so that we would have the results immediately after someone filled out the form. Questions about preferred time of day and day of week for meetings, level of expertise, type of handheld used, applications used, and interests for other use were asked. The survey ended up being very helpful. Based on survey results, it was decided that the group would meet once a month from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. We were determined to make these meetings useful, fun, interesting and comfortable without taking employees away from their important activities too much. From the get-go, we considered what we were doing to be professional development.
The next step was finding a name for our group. We came up with the name Oakland Schools Handheld Users Group (OSHUG, pronounced "o-s-hug"). Our first group meeting was held in March 2003 and was attended by 14 people. The second meeting attracted 18 attendees, and subsequent meetings have had between nine and 20 attendees.

Next Steps

The next item of business was to create a logo. My partner in crime created our logo in color so that it looked more appealing. Then I created a template on which to include the Agenda, Alerts! (Web addresses and contact information for items discussed and demonstrated in the meetings) and Notes, a blank area in case anyone wanted to jot anything down. I also created Q-Cards, which are question cards to hand out at the meetings. The Q-Cards are worded: "If you have a question about handhelds, please write it on this card and turn it in during the meetings. We will answer your question at the next meeting. If you are wondering about it, chances are good that someone else is also."In addition, I've found that sign-in sheets are a good idea for these meetings. I created one in Adobe PageMaker with the date of the meeting at the top of the sheet so that it can be changed each month. Reminding all group members to sign in is necessary so that there is no need to take a headcount. Data is then available to show which months are better attended than others.

Adding Incentives

Since it is always necessary to market professional development, Oakland Schools is fortunate to have a weekly electronic employee newsletter. An announcement is included in the newsletter indicating that our group is open to all levels of handheld users, the date and time of a meeting, as well as listing some of the agenda items. RSVPs are requested because it gives us some idea of how many people will be attending. There are always people who will not RSVP yet attend, and there are always people who do RSVP but, for various reasons, don't show up for the meeting. However, a ballpark headcount gives us an idea of how many agendas and handouts are needed, as well as how much food to bring.
An e-mail distribution list is also extremely helpful for marketing and reminding people about upcoming meetings. We started with several people who were interested in attending such a group and added names from the sign-in sheet for each meeting. This built up the distribution list to a much larger group. If anyone shows the slightest bit of interest, they are immediately added to the list.
To make the meetings fun, door prizes and food are included. Everyone knows the old adage that "people will show up for food." Of course, I wanted people to come for more than the food alone; although it is a nice incentive. I was extremely lucky in this department, because after I brought in food for the first couple of meetings a colleague, Sharon, volunteered to cater future meetings. Sharon is a gourmet cook who provides foods based on themes such as holidays, seasons or regions of the world. Each of us appreciates the work and cost she puts into it.
As for door prizes, I check out the local electronics stores for great sales. Some handheld software is on sale for less than $3 a piece. I purchase many of these myself, while I have also had some friends and family members provide some similar items. I generally give out some software and maybe a stylus pen or T-shirt. There are also usually two or three door prizes per meeting. I created tickets for these prizes in PageMaker, but you could always use the perforated roll of tickets that is available at any office supply store. The most important point to remember here is that there is no cost to Oakland Schools for any of our foods or supplies.
Another tip, which I have not been completely successful with so far, is to ask a software door prize winner to demonstrate the application at a future meeting. I believe someone will take me up on that offer someday.

Content Planning

Planning the content of each meeting takes some time and thought. In addition to the questions and suggestions garnered at each meeting, agenda ideas are solicited form group members. I also review numerous handheld Web sites and technology magazines for ideas to use. If I'm in an electronics store, I peruse the merchandise to see if there are any great deals on hardware or software. I also share information on handheld sales from the Sunday newspaper circulars. Sometimes, group members will even contact me with information to share with the others. If a Web address can be connected to any of the above we add it to the Alerts!.
In the original planning meetings for the users group, we brainstormed numerous ideas so that we would always have some jumping-off points. We recorded ideas, themes, specific applications and more general application areas. The brainstorming helped a lot so that we do not have to start from scratch for each meeting. Here are some of the talking points we captured during those meetings:

  • Updates, scoops on new handheld models
  • Photos on your handheld! (Yes, it is possible to show too many photos of your dog)
  • Web site focus (one for each meeting?)
  • Peripherals
  • SD/MM cards/storage/memory
  • E-books - public domain and commercial
  • E-book readers
  • Projection devices
  • Organizational and management tools
  • Shareware/freeware - trial and terror!
  • Copying applications to a storage card
  • What version is it?

During each meeting, we make sure to provide announcements, demonstrations, as well as tips and tricks. I always give a tip about how to use an application or how to find something in the handheld operating system. These small nuggets are extremely useful and helpful to group members.
In addition, I'm lucky to work in an organization with technology in the meeting rooms. I try to book the rooms for the year so that I don't have to worry about it each time a meeting is coming up. I've found that using an ELMO visual presenter, which features an overhead camera for projection, is sufficient for my purposes. I just place a handout or my Tungsten T under the camera for the entire room to see.

Tweaking the Meetings

Well, now you know how I planned the users group, implemented it and continue to facilitate the meetings. It has been about a year and a half since starting OSHUG, so I can share with you what I have learned and what needed to change along the way. First, no meetings are held June through August because that's when people go on vacation. The rest of the year - September through May - the meetings are held every two months. Since I am usually the main presenter, planning and facilitating one meeting every two months is a lot more manageable than trying to put together a monthly meeting.
Also, getting group members involved in content seems to be an ongoing struggle. Some volunteers demonstrate applications, but they are usually short demos. Many people are not confident enough to do this, while many others do not download additional applications to their handhelds. I've even asked for volunteers to demonstrate freeware at some of these meetings. To do this, I beam the freeware application to them on the spot so that they have it long enough to prepare for the next meeting.
In addition, I have offered to e-mail a PDF of the agenda to anyone who cannot make it to a meeting since people have busy schedules. This way, at least, they have some Web addresses and other information on hand, and they can also call me with any questions.


Each handheld users group meeting is jam-packed with information. A variety of items keep it fast-paced and interesting. I will continue planning and facilitating these meetings as long as there continues to be an interest.

Online Resources

About the Author

Judy Hauser has a master's in information and library studies (MILS) from the University of Michigan. She is an information consultant for the Oakland Schools' Educational Media Services Information Center. Hauser has worked at Oakland Schools since 1985. Starting in January 2005, she will be the vice president of Special Interest Groups and Regions for the Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME).
E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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