Rosalina Escandon (left) and Heather Jancoski of the Cartwright School District in Phoenix say the help-desk program teaches students technology and helps them develop real-world work and social skills.

Jan 07 2009

Tech Savvy Students Offer Assistance to Administrators

Student-run help desks offer educational opportunities that sharpen problem-solving skills

School districts say supporting student-run help desks saves money and offers students a taste of the real world.

The number of help-desk personnel at Cartwright School District in Phoenix is huge compared with that of many other school districts. It comprises about 40 people and is expected to double or even triple during the next few years. Although the technicians are extremely helpful, not one has graduated or even attended high school — yet.

Cartwright’s help desk is made up of third- to eighth-grade students. And while this team of young technology gurus offers an essential service to end users at their schools, the experience delivers educational benefits that go far beyond technology. Students on the help desk sharpen their problem-solving abilities, increase their vocabulary, improve reading skills, learn responsibility and hone their social skills.

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“I feel strongly that if we get students involved in technology projects, they will find achievement in many different areas that will be helpful to their success in life, whether they eventually choose a technology career or not,” says Rosalina Escandon, a teacher on special assignment for technology training at Cartwright.

The Cartwright School District is one of a handful of districts that use students in their help-desk and technology support programs. In all cases, there are two goals: to beef up technology resources without busting the district’s budget and to offer educational opportunities without the cost of bringing in new technology education programs.

How It Works

Cartwright School District, which consists of 23 schools, has three full-time adult technology personnel and five to seven part-time staff. This group is augmented by 45 onsite “technology leaders,” one to three teachers in each school who are comfortable with technology and can respond more quickly to calls for help. That system relieves the technology department from handling minor problems.

Often, these technology partners are busy teaching their own classes. That’s where the junior help-desk “apprentices” come in. Because the students cannot be away from class for an extended period and are not trained to take apart equipment or do complex troubleshooting, they have about 10 minutes to identify what’s wrong and fix it. If they can’t solve the problem, they return to their class and tell the technology leader, who takes care of the issue as soon as he or she has free time.

Heather Jancoski, a second-grade teacher and technology partner at Cartwright, selects students for the help desk from those in her computer club. The help-desk kids take the same technology training courses that Jancoski and her other partners took. Because the programs are aimed at adults, the students are challenged with higher-level vocabulary, but Jancoski says the kids have met that challenge. “They’re very excited about the program, and that motivates them to stretch and learn the vocabulary and concepts they need,” she says.

Jancoski says the students generally deal with minor problems, such as a router that’s not plugged in or a whiteboard that needs to be aligned.

Act Your Age

The student technology program at Cartwright complements an extensive faculty support group. But at the Gateway Regional School District in Huntington, Mass., students play a more extensive role in delivering technical support. One reason is their age: Many of the student technicians are high school seniors.

Gateway Regional Data Manager Josie Florence, who initiated the student help-desk program, says she was having trouble supporting the growing number of technology resources by herself. Her supervisor realized something had to be done, and hiring more help-desk personnel was not an option given the district’s budget. “My boss saw how tied up I was, and he told me, ‘I’d rather see you managing students than trying to handle all the technology issues,’” Florence remembers.

At that time, Florence had one assistant, a student who was interested in technology and who had approached her about helping. “He was working out so well, we decided we could do even better with a team of student volunteers,” Florence says.

Once the decision to expand the student technology team was made, Florence did not have to do much to attract applicants. “This was spread by word of mouth,” she says. Now eight students help out in the district technology department.

Tammy Paiva, the district’s help-desk manager, who has assumed Florence’s technology responsibilities, says students who want to join the program must submit two recommendations from teachers and one from a guidance counselor. They must have a clean record and maintain good grades while working in the program.

“If their grades start to fall, I talk to them to find out why,” Paiva says. If she suspects the technology work is adversely affecting the student’s academic performance, she will remove the student from the program until their grades improve.

While student technology aides reduce the technology workload overall, Paiva does have to spend time managing them. “I’m now responsible for students, and I want to make the experience as positive for them as I can,” she says.

Both Paiva and Florence say they try to dispatch students to work on interesting projects. They also stress to the students how this program can help them succeed academically and in their career goals.

In addition to their official duties, student techs often help teachers and other students when there is a technology snag in a class they are in. They have even become unofficial help-desk resources for their friends who have trouble with their home computers. “Everyone knows that I’m in the program; so when they have a problem and I’m free, they ask if I can figure it out for them,” says eighth-grader Kyle Morrissey.

An unexpected benefit of the program is that it helps students gain confidence in dealing with adults, and because they often call software and hardware manufacturers, students improve their phone skills.

John Pommenville, the first student help-desk volunteer in the district, remembers his initial feeling when he first helped a teacher. “I was just a student, but I was helping an adult, so I was the expert,” he says. “It was a bit of a weird feeling, but it was also a good feeling.”

Pommenville has since graduated and is studying technology and business at a local college, but he continues to work as a paid part-time help-desk technician at the district.

For now, students at Gateway Regional School District do not earn extra credit for their participation in the help desk. But Paiva hopes that eventually the extra computer work will be recognized on the student’s report cards.

Work Compensation

At the Tallmadge City School District in Ohio, student help-desk staffers are so essential to the district’s technology efforts that they are paid for their work. The district has five student and two administrative buildings with about 2,800 students and 1,200 computers, supported by only two full-time adults in the technology department.

Like other districts that have initiated student help-desk programs, an important goal for Tallmadge City School District is to teach technology. “We have no true curricula around technology, and we wanted some place where students who were interested could go to get some experience,” says Brad Croskey, the district’s director of technology.

But the benefit to the district is equally essential. For example, last summer, the district consolidated two buildings into a single high school. “We couldn’t have set up the technology in the new building without help,” Croskey says. “And professional help would have been much too expensive for us.”

The district received help from 12 students, each of whom was paid minimum wage or a bit more if they had worked for the district before. The entire annual budget for the student-based technology program is $6,000 to $8,000 — at least five to seven times less than the cost of hiring technology professionals.

Croskey says that paying students for work is a “fairness” issue, but that it also teaches students how to handle the responsibility of a real job. “If you pay students, the expectations are different — more demanding — than if they are volunteers,” Croskey says. So while Croskey is flexible with work hours to accommodate other extracurricular activities, once a student commits to working at the technology center on a specific day, at a specific time, he or she is expected to be there.

All students must complete a one-week training program that includes nuts-and-bolts technology, but also soft skills such as how to deal with people professionally. During their training, students get an opportunity to visit a professional help desk — recently, at Allstate Insurance.

Croskey is quick to point out that paying a wage and offering a training program doesn’t eliminate the need to supervise the student workers closely. “We [adults] get the work orders, we distribute them to the students, and we make sure that the jobs are completed to the satisfaction of the end users,” says Croskey. But he also notes that the longer students are in the program, the less he has to micromanage them.

Common Help-Desk Problems

The most common problems that student help-desk staff handle are loose connections, devices that are not switched on or paper jams. Students are trained to check connections first.

Next are simple software complaints. For example, a teacher may not know which menu item to select, or a user may have lost a file that was saved the night before. Student technicians also encounter system issues of unknown origin, most of which require just a restart.

Finally, there are hardware issues, such as corrupted disks and broken printers, that the students cannot fix and that must be referred back to the technology department.

Start With the Training

The Tallmadge City School District in Ohio turned to an existing educational compact among six districts to train its student help-desk workers. Brad Croskey, Tallmadge City’s director of technology, says the districts’ technology directors or coordinators worked together to create the “Technical Work Experience” program.

Each technology director is responsible for some of the training or instruction. Training sites rotate from school to school, depending on which school’s computer lab is best suited for a particular topic of instruction. Classes are typically hands-on, with computer and networking equipment available at the school site. Over the years, each tech director has developed a unique subject or topic to present.

The group meets annually to determine the syllabus. Topics may change from time to time, but in general they include the following:

  • Computer hardware familiarization (students may build computers)
  • Networking concepts, from the desktop to the Internet (how it all works)
  • Software and communication protocols
  • Network and communication hardware
  • Logical troubleshooting (includes a break-and-fix lab)
  • Customer service (class discussion on district expectations)
  • Wireless technology applications
  • Imaging computers for volume setups