Oct 12 2006

Applying Tech: Student Techs to the Rescue

How does one whittle away IT support expenses while simultaneously challenging and engaging some of your most ambitious and tech-savvy students? In half the school districts in America, administrators do this by allowing students to help out with tech support.

At schools across the country, teachers sometimes turn to their young charges for answers—technical support answers, that is


AT CINCINNATI’S HUGHES CENTER HIGH SCHOOL FOR THE TEACHING AND TECHNOLOGY PROFESSIONS, teachers often find themselves stopping Yovoner Campbell’s students in the hallway. Here, the teachers turn to the students for assistance. The teachers sometimes cannot resist calling in Hughes’ tech support interns for support, ranging from troubleshooting computer problems to setting up projectors, says Campbell, the school’s technology coordinator. Although the seniors’ internships primarily involve assisting local elementary school teachers with technology once a week, the students also fill in around the high school like a tech support “neighborhood watch.”

Click HereThis may sound familiar because students walk the tech support beat all around the country. A survey last year of 811 school IT officials by the National School Boards Foundation, found that students perform support in 54 percent of school districts.

Though the idea is widespread, the implementations widely differ. There is no consensus on how best to include students in tech support. Among the questions: Which students should do it? How should a program fit into a student’s schedule? What should students be allowed to do?

Pros & Cautions

Educators and IT directors agree that students and schools benefit greatly from student tech support. Students often learn valuable lessons, not only from their exposure to technology itself, but also to situations that require problem solving, interpersonal communications, prioritization, responsibility and project management. At Hughes, for example, the students’ duties often involve training teachers to use technology—a task that requires poise and patience as well as technical savvy. Students in another program at Hughes even help teachers integrate technology into their lesson plans, a task that gives the students insight into teaching, says technology teacher Melissa Sherman.

Students also learn the value of service and the satisfaction they can gain, both in themselves and in those they help, says Victor Yonash, who teaches a popular tech support class at Winnequah Middle School in Monona, Wis. “The students feel really appreciated,” he says. “We could not function at the level we do without them.”

Yonash, of course, is referring to the benefits his 50 students provide to their school by handling tasks such as software and printer installation. Well-trained, capable students can greatly extend the reach of overburdened, small IT departments. In New York City, an army of about 200 students from more than 30 high schools performed tech support last year under the auspices of the Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education (MOUSE) program. MOUSE calculated the value of the 22 hours a week of service the students provided their schools, and came up with $420,000 in savings across the 32 schools, says executive director Carole Wacey.

Of course, these benefits depend on things going well, which won’t always happen when students (or even adults) confront the complexity and delicacy of technology. This concerns people like Bob Moore, who serves as executive director of information technology services at the Blue Valley Unified School District #229 in Overland Park, Kan. Moore also chairs the influential Consortium for School Networking. His district often has one to three student tech support interns in its administrative building, as well as three to five students in tech support classes in each of its high schools.

“It can be a good thing; it can be a positive experience,” Moore says of student tech support. But, he cautions, “It is not something that a school district can go into naively.”

Different Practices

This year, Moore, MOUSE founder Calvin Hastings and other educators began discussing best practices for student tech support. This October, for example, MOUSE was expected to release a white paper (not available at press time) describing who is doing what, and what standards might look like. The discussion should ultimately help schools make smart choices that make the most out of the practice, Moore says. He adds that the dialogue should answer a number of important questions, including: What are the success factors? What are the pitfalls?

In the absence of any national guidelines on how best to run a program, schools have taken varying approaches based on their individual philosophies and cultures.

Take, for example, the process of determining who should do tech support. At Hughes, students must interview to win a spot. “You have to have a certain mentality to do this,” Campbell says. “It is not always glamorous.” On the other hand, spots in the tech support class at Winnequah are offered “first come, first served.” Students in the Blue Valley schools need a teacher recommendation and in each MOUSE school, the technology advisor picks from a cross-section of students to ensure they form a diverse crew.

There are other differences too. Some schools, like Winnequah and the Blue Valley High Schools, offer tech support classes so the students have a specific time during the school day to practice their craft. At Hughes, the interns put in one day a week at their elementary schools and perform other tasks on an ad hoc basis. MOUSE students, meanwhile, address tech support “tickets”—requests for help—in their free time. Still, all of the adults in each school agree that tech support should never interfere with other studies.

But the typical wide divergence returns when it comes to just how much students should handle. When Hughes set up its network, it partitioned it to keep sensitive data separate from the systems with which students can work. MOUSE’s system relegates students to performing routine, or “Level 1,” tech support and provides a means for them to escalate to their adult technology advisor problems that are out of their purview.

Despite these productive uses of students’ time, school districts remain mindful of situations in which student support could be more harmful than helpful. For example, if students make mistakes while performing difficult task on school servers, they could jeopardize security or disrupt important operations. In those cases, what started as a learning experience could backfire, Moore notes. “We don’t want to set up the students for failure,” he says.

While educators like Moore warn against students handling network servers, Winnequah takes a different approach. Winnequah’s middle school students carry out only standard procedures, such as reinstalling a computer’s software rather than tweaking Windows registry settings, but a lone intern at the high school helps maintain the e-mail and Web servers, getting paid for her work.

This year, that student is Winnequah graduate Nicole Truskowski, an articulate 14-year-old who is clearly enthusiastic and confident about her new job. “It comes naturally to me,” she says. “It is something I enjoy.”

Although high school is just beginning for Truskowski, she may already have her career lined up. “I definitely want to go into something computer-related,” she notes. “Computers are our future.”

No Support Shortage

Students perform tech support in more than half the nation’s school districts, according to a 2002 survey by the National School Boards Foundation.

What type of tech support are students providing in your district? (Percentage of respondents)

Troubleshooting problems: 43%

Setting-up equipment and wiring: 39%

Technical maintenance: 36%

Other (Maintaining Web site, hardware, upgrades and repair, helping other students): 5%

Assisting teachers: 4%

Installing and maintaining software: 4%

Network management: 3%

Source: Grunwald Associates