Oct 31 2006

How Students Can Help Save IT Budgets and Computers

Schools can earn income from PC vendors by handling computer repairs themselves. In some cases, students play a big part in those repairs.

IT departments are notoriously overworked and understaffed. So why not get students to help? That’s the thinking at Lausanne Collegiate School, where students fix computers and provide teachers with help desk support in exchange for class credit.

The private Memphis, Tenn., school, which emphasizes technology in its curriculum, offers an elective class on information technology that teaches students to diagnose and fix computer problems. With every seventh- to 12th-grader sporting a notebook PC in the classroom—and a total of 700 computers on campus—the school’s four-person IT department could use some help.


“For a lot of schools, students are an untapped resource as far as technology goes,” says systems administrator Don Stalls, who teaches the elective IT class. “They are the ones in school who often have the most tech-rich lives. A lot of the things that normally would take up my day are now taken care of by students.”


Lausanne is one of a growing number of schools involved in a self-repair warranty program, called a “self-maintainer program,” that PC vendors say will earn schools money and result in a faster turnaround. PC makers pay school IT departments to repair their own computers that are still under warranty. When schools need computer parts, the computer makers ship them to schools at no charge.

Under the program, both sides benefit: PC vendors save money because they need fewer employees to make warranty repairs; schools benefit because they can fix computers faster and get paid to do it, which boosts their IT budget. To qualify for the program, IT staffers must become certified technicians, but some PC vendors offer free training programs.

By eliminating the need to mail computers back to the manufacturer, school technology managers say repairs that used to take a week get completed in two to three days. The only caveat is that the repair jobs add more work to already swamped IT departments.

“It’s more work for us, but it’s worth it,” says Gus Sabogal, network administrator for Miami’s Palmer Trinity School. “Every time we touch a machine, we get a reimbursement. It’s a way to get income, and, at the same time, we are speeding up the repair process for students, faculty and staff.”

Some schools, like Lausanne, take self-maintainer programs a step further by using students as part of their IT staff. It’s a winning proposition for both schools and students. Schools develop the skilled individuals needed to take advantage of the self-repair warranty programs, while tech-savvy students learn additional job skills, gain work experience and receive class credit.

Christine Coleman, director of technology for the City School District of New Rochelle in New York, hasn’t used the self-maintainer programs, but she does have some elementary school student volunteers who assist their schools with tech repairs during their lunch hours. In one after-school program, middle school students even learn to build and repair computers. Coleman believes self-repair programs and student participation are a great combination.

“It fosters teamwork and respect for the equipment,” she points out. “Students are less likely to vandalize and hack into machines if they have ownership of them.”

Saving Time and Money

Stewart Crais, Lausanne’s director of technology and media services, came up with the idea for an IT class three years ago when some students helped with tech support after school. He proposed the class to the heads of the upper grades, who gave their approval.

“It’s a great time-saver,” says Crais, whose school takes in about $1,500 a month from doing its own computer repairs. “We really didn’t have the manpower to be able to fix all our notebook PCs. The key is to find responsible, trustworthy students who can work independently.”

Stalls currently has 10 students in his elective IT class, two of whom are girls. To ensure there is enough work for everyone, he limits his classes to two or three students per period.

When his students come to the tech room, Stalls gives them work that he’s saved especially for them. Sometimes, it’s reimaging the computers, performing diagnostics or making other repairs, such as replacing hard drives, wireless cards or memory. Other times, he gives students a handful of help desk requests from teachers and staff and sends them out to fix the computers. Students also staff the tech desk. When classmates walk in with broken notebook PCs, the student IT team checks in the machines and distributes loaner notebooks.

Kevin Bell, a 15-year-old freshman at Lausanne, is in his second year in the program. His favorite job is diagnosing computer problems and repairing them. He’s even considering IT as a future career. “It’s really interesting, and it’s pretty easy once you get into it,” Bell says.

Growing Pains

Stalls, a former English teacher, took classes on his own to become a certified, trained technician. He enjoys teaching IT because it keeps him involved with student instruction. The first time Stalls taught the class, it was a slow process with lots of repetition, but the students quickly caught on.

“We walked through things step by step, and sometimes it took three days,” he recalls. “The next time, it took two days—then one day. Then the next time, I would say, ‘Show me you can do it.’”

Now several years into the program, the more experienced students mentor the new recruits, freeing Stalls to focus on taking care of the more pressing IT problems. Still, when students are repairing computers, the less-experienced ones check with Stalls to make sure they’re making the right decisions.

The program has become so successful that when a new middle school opens in the district, the IT department will create a satellite IT office staffed entirely by students.

“We’ve come to a place in most of my classes where veterans can teach the new students,” Stalls explains. “At one point, I took care of the harder stuff, but now they can do everything.”

A Matter of Trust

To get the most benefit from students’ technology skills and capabilities, teachers must have the patience to train students and give them responsibilities, Stalls says. “Don’t be scared,” he advises. “You can’t limit what they do. Otherwise, you won’t get the full use of them. They can do every bit of what I can do if they have the training.”

Stalls holds classes four out of the seven school periods each day. In the beginning, he packed every period with students, but then realized he needed quiet time to work on projects without constantly being responsible for students.

Overall, the students are tremendous assets as they use their newfound IT prowess to help the school earn extra income and resolve its IT needs, Stalls says. The students, in turn, develop self-confidence as they hone their newfound IT skills.

For instance, Justin Kumar, a 15- year-old freshman at Lausanne, enjoys solving teachers’ technology problems in their classrooms. But his parents and sister also appreciate his IT expertise, so he serves as the de facto IT manager for the family. “I can fix stuff at home without calling people,” he says proudly. “I know what I’m doing.”

Wylie Wong, a veteran technology reporter based in Phoenix, writes for a variety of CDW•G and other publications.

Troubleshooting IT Problems in the Classroom

Having students troubleshoot tech problems in classrooms is one way to ease a heavy IT workload. Deploying a variety of new technologies and policies can also help IT personnel perform their jobs faster and more efficiently, says Christine Coleman, director of technology for the City School District of New Rochelle in New York.

In the past, teachers and staffers flooded the 28-person technology department with more than 150 phone calls a day, asking for help with problems ranging from broken computers to jammed printers. When Coleman joined the school district last summer, she created a general IT e-mail address that’s forwarded to the technology staff. The IT employees take turns answering the e-mail messages about once an hour.

If it’s a simple problem, such as a jammed printer, IT staff members can e-mail step-by-step instructions that tell the user how to fix it. If it’s a more complex issue, the technology department can use e-mail to update users on when it expects the problem will be fixed. The e-mail system allows staff to quickly address users’ issues and better track their needs. And it’s cut down on phone calls—from about 150 a day to between 15 and 20 a day.

“Our teachers and other users are getting more answers and information than before,” Coleman reports. “They say they can’t believe how quickly we respond. The phone calls were killing the department, and we weren’t getting the daily work done. This [the e-mail system] allows me to target our resources to the most important issues of the day.”

Useful Software Tools

New Rochelle’s school district has about 4,000 computers strewn across 10 school campuses and school district administration buildings, so any software that speeds up IT work is a huge help. The technology department uses remote connectivity tools and software to take control and troubleshoot employees’ computers.

It’s also beginning to use spyware tools that automatically scan the district’s computers at night. The spyware software saved the district from having to hire an extra employee, she says.

Coleman has also discovered a quicker way to reimage machines when students do something that corrupts their computers. Reimaging provides the ability to reset a computer’s operating system and software to its original state, so unwanted settings that a student may have changed can be erased. The school district recently purchased new notebook computers for Isaac E. Young Middle School’s library, which allow librarians to reimage the notebooks quickly and easily.

That technology will save the technology department a lot of time, Coleman points out. “It stores the original image locally on the machine and reverts back to that image by pressing a button,” she explains.