Schools enter age of student IT

Teen tech skills help CIOs cope with staff shortages
By: | Issue: March, 2015
February 24, 2015

A cadre of students trained in IT support are providing teachers with Johnny-on-the-spot resources and bolstering the responsiveness of districts’ lean tech staffs for routine requests.

The eager students provide districts with an inexpensive and much-needed tech resource; and the students gain experience, new skills, and confidence, districts say.

On any given day, teachers are accessing new technology resources. One teacher might want her classroom to Skype with a history expert. Another might want to create websites for his courses.

But they require some guidance to incorporate the technology into their lessons. Even tech-savvy teachers need occasional IT help when, for example, monitors stop working or the resolution on a projector needs to be reset to match a specific media presentation.

“Students know how to make slideshows, make movies, import them, add social media and do much more to make a lesson more relevant,” says Debbie Kovesdy, a media specialist and technology instructor at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix’s Paradise Valley USD. “They partner with the teacher so the teacher doesn’t have to learn it. It’s brilliant for both of them.”

The district has 80 students throughout five high schools who are trained in tech support, making it likely that one of them is sitting in a classroom when a teacher needs help.

The district’s student technology leadership program is built on the nonprofit Generation YES (GenYES) curriculum. The package includes an online curriculum where students learn basic tech support and problem-solving skills, an online help request system where teachers and staff can log a request for support from students in the program, and guidelines for creating and managing a support system staffed by students.

Generation YES recommends training tech support students in the following areas:

Recommended support

Using school server space, networks, logins and email, and retrieving passwords
Simple software issuesÑrebooting, syncing, updating apps
Using school accounts or services, such as Google Docs, learning management systems, and video and library services
Use of intellectual property, copyrights and how to cite sources
Internet search strategies
The district’s acceptable use polices of school and student devices and software
Understanding triggers for internet filters, such as accessing district-blocked sites like YouTube
Troubleshooting skillsÑ diagnose, isolate and test More advanced training can cover specific software and tools, and in how to access specialty media, images and videos.

GenYES has been implemented in more than 2,000 schools. Other districts have developed their own programs to train middle and high school students to provide on-demand tech support in a classroom or in response to requests lodged through a help desk.

Staffing the Smart Bar

The latest innovation in student tech support is staffing a help desk modeled after the Genius Bars in Apple stores. In schools, they are designated areas staffed at set hours where students and teachers can go for tech help. Tech support students can assist in tasks such as transferring original videos from a students’ smartphone to a teacher’s website, or creating an animation for a media course.

At Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, “Smart Bars” at two middle schools are staffed for one hour every Wednesday by middle school students who have been trained for the program by teachers. The students provide instruction on using Google Drive, Moodle and Chromebooks. Tech support is available for personal as well as district-owned devices.

“Students sometime just need reminders of how things work and a chance to have their questions answered,” says Steve Buettner, director of media and technology at Edina.

Cracked Chromebook screens are a common problem. The repair costs about $130 if done by a local company, but the tech support students fix them on-site for the district’s actual cost of $25.

“It’s been amazing to see students work so well with each other,” says Jack Salaski, instructional technology specialist at Edina. “Some of the tech support students will sit at the Smart Bar even outside of the set hours.”

Shadow Mountain High School put its “Genius Bar” in the media centerÑa student gathering spot where all tech support takes place. It is not unusual to have hundreds of students and teachers there during lunch and after school using laptops, online resources and even Xbox games.

“Kids are already there studying and working together. The GenYES kids are around and available to help with printing or inserting a graphic or whatever anyone needs help with,” says Kovesdy.

GenYES recommends that studentstaffed help desks be located in the library, media center or other common area. The tech support students need laptops or computers to look up information. “Clients,” including other students and school staff, need space to sit with their devices. The help desk also needs power outlets and a strong wireless or Ethernet connection.

Supporting tech staff

Student tech assistants also support districts’ IT staffs. Devices for 1-to-1 programs continue to roll into schools and they don’t come ready to plug and play. They need to be configured, tested and equipped with appropriate software.

“Tons of devices are coming into schools and they need tech support,” says Dennis Harper, founder and CEO of GenYES. “The standard for IT support is one IT person for every 20 devices. In schools, it’s about one person for every thousand devices. Districts simply can’t afford to staff up.”

Edina Public Schools pays minimum wage to student interns, who are 14 and older, to help with the workload over the summer. The students ready old computers for recycling, rewire classrooms, install wireless access points, update computers and prep new devicesÑtesting and imaging them, and adding software specific to the district. Wages are paid out of the district’s technology budget, and the expense varies depending on the number of interns and the number of hours worked.

“We have peaks and valleys in our work, and summer is a big peak when the new devices come in,” says Buettner. “We don’t have enough staff on-site so it makes sense to use these kids when they are in a downtime.”

Edina’s summer tech interns undergo an application and interview process. Accepted interns start with a two-hour training course in which they learn expectations of the job, safety guidelines and how to record their hours worked. Students receive ID badges and have access to school facilities.

“They must be students we can trust because they have access to every building,” says Tim Berndt, instructor for the Project Lead the Way STEM program at Edina. “On a typical summer day, we give them their tasks and we don’t see them the rest of the day.”

Throughout the year, the interns respond to basic tech requests, like fixing printers or installing cables to relocate computers in a classroom. The staff members who manage the interns also look for opportunities to give the students additional training. For example, Berndt just started a program to teach coding to interested interns.

The program has had unanticipated benefits: “The interns stay in the school system for a number of yearsÑthey understand our software and ecosystem very well, and they become the ‘go-to‘ resource for teachers,” says Buettner. “And finding coders and programmers is a huge challenge for K12. Hopefully, this will become a feeder system for these jobs in schools in the future.”

The interns at Edina also teach technology classes to students in grades 5 through 7. The younger students learn about logging in, organizing Google Drive, staying safe online and how to take care of their devices. Each session has 15 to 20 students. Any student can apply to attend the program.

Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin has two levels of student tech support. Students in the basic computer repair class can help peers with small fixes or questions. Student interns receive more extensive training and earn partial class credit.

These student interns receive instruction on the district’s standards and repair procedures, and in-depth technical training in networking and infrastructure. The student interns can be a school technician during one or two periods within their high school. The interns also agree to work at the district during summers after graduation.

Besides providing needed tech support, the students serve as eyes and ears for IT staff. “The students bring back information about student successes and failures, so that the IT department can have real time examples of activity–good or bad,” says Jim Hawbaker, technology director at Appleton Area School District. “They extend our eyes and ears into the classroom and into the student peer groups.”

For example, the district’s Chromebooks have a tool that allows teachers to view students’ devices during class. When students found a way to disable it, a student intern relayed the issue to the IT staff, who quickly resolved it.

Several district leaders say that students who are selected for support programs should have a natural interest in technology and an eagerness to learn more about it. The students also need to be trustworthy, patient and have good people skills. Lastly, they should not have access to databases with private information like social security numbers, grades, attendance, and staff salaries.

Rewards bigger than paychecks

Districts aren’t the only beneficiaries of the student support programs. Students learn important soft skills like leadership, prioritizing help requests, working with others and managing their time. It also gives them experience in troubleshooting, and in critical and independent thinking.

At an alternative education school within Glendale USD in California, the results have been impressive. Attendance has improved and there have been no behavioral problems after only one trimester of the GenYES program. “The kids in the program are engaged and active in the school,” says Rene A. Smoller, facilitator of Glendale USD’s GenYES program. “They are achieving goals at least several times a week. It really builds up their self-esteem and self-determination.”

Kovesdy, of Shadow Mountain, had a similar experience at a special ed facility for severely emotionally-handicapped students or those with behavior disorders at a previous district. “I watched depressed, angry children develop an astonishing sense of their own abilities,” Kovesdy says. “When a teacher asks a student, ‘How do I do this on my computer?’ a student could show the teacher. It was powerful.”

Some districts offer participating students partial or full class credit. Shadow Mountain offers different tiers of participation. The most encompassing option is aligned with the career and technical education program where students earn four years of classroom credits and dual-enrollment college credit.

Participating in tech support also gives students a better understanding and appreciation of how schools operate. “Our student interns touch every computer in the district and get an understanding of the work involved,” says Berndt, of Edina schools. “It gives them more ownership of the school and their district.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.