Apr 15 2011

Fresh Thinking

Redefining tech support for one-to-one computing programs begins with the technology team.

There's no "one size fits all" when it comes to building a one-to-one computing program. It takes years of self-evaluation and cultural analysis to determine the best approach to the investment that will redefine the educational experience at your school. Taking the plunge will exhilarate some of your constituents, but it will terrify most of them. A number of issues that can arise during the implementation of such a program, such as how to integrate the machines into the curriculum, will fuel this uncertainty.

The particulars of running technical support for a one-to-one initiative will vary by school and by program. Questions to address include: How many IT staff members will you need? Will technology staff teach classes? How do you attract highly qualified team members? When will the tech center be open to students for repairs? But answer this one first: How will your IT team help to define the success of your one-to-one program?

It's important to remember that, in education, IT is more than the servers and wireless access points that keep critical technology infrastructure humming. Among other things, the technology team ensures that a school's one-to-one program meets the needs of the educational community by collaborating regularly with its teachers and students.

Learning by Doing

The Lausanne Laptop Institute is a think tank for school officials who are using or considering notebook or tablet computers as tools for learning. Created and hosted each July by the Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tenn., which launched its own one-to-one computing program in 2001, this annual event gives educators, technology support personnel and administrators a chance to collaborate with their peers and learn strategies for incorporating these devices into their classrooms.

At the 2010 Lausanne Laptop Institute, a new Tech Support track raised the key issue of involving, from a one-to-one program's inception, the IT staff whose job it will be to keep the program afloat. Other topics of discussion among attendees included imaging with Microsoft's newest activation methods, managing multiple platforms and network security.

The collaborative spirit of these discussions, in which ideas were shared freely, reflects the creativity that today's educators are pushing for in our classrooms. The same collaboration and professional development that we know help our teachers succeed with technology in the classroom also help our technical staff to better meet the needs of our schools' one-to-one programs.

The 2011 Institute promises to provide even more collaboration. In addition to focusing on the integration of cloud-based technologies, we'll offer more multiplatform discussions and a post-conference session in which attendees will be encouraged to redefine the typical round-table discussion and rethink the traditional ways we approach problems.

The first step in this "rethinking" of one-to-one tech support is to treat IT staff as the educators they are.

Teachers are instructors, leaders and a shoulder to cry on when a student's life is falling apart and homework is the last thing on his or her mind. They face mounds of paperwork, strict educational standards, and time demands ranging from lesson planning and grading to conferences and extracurricular activities. Educators also must be creative thinkers who can present subject matter in innovative ways that will captivate students and elevate the learning experience.

IT staff, on the other hand, deal with maintenance issues and typically are seen as people to come to only when a problem arises. Technical support personnel rarely are greeted with a "Good morning." Instead, they tend to encounter hyperventilating colleagues who are frantic about having lost crucial files (which they never backed up) after spilling a drink on their notebook keyboard or dropping the device on their way to school.

And so, like superheroes, the tech team swoops in to rescue data from certain doom. Once the crisis is averted, that same heroic team should use the opportunity to educate their colleagues about the importance of backing up important work, keeping a safe distance between their beverages and their notebooks, and using padded carrying cases.

"The line between educator and technician is becoming less defined," says Chad Clark, technical support specialist at Lausanne Collegiate School. "It's becoming more and more important that we step in to educate and train when the opportunity arises and seize that teachable moment."

The next move in this "rethinking" exercise is to get out and mingle.

Sitting at the help desk does afford an IT staff member the luxury of meeting teachers and students, but there's so much more we can do. It's impossible for us to explain to teachers how to use the tools we've chosen for them without understanding – and seeing for ourselves – how they are being used in the classroom.

Many of our support staff step into a classroom only when something breaks, but we could prevent numerous issues just by offering to take over a teacher's class for a day. Who better to teach a class of students how to avoid breaking their notebooks than the person who has to fix them? A little preventive maintenance goes a long way.

Jesse Lara, technology services and support manager at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif., sees this approach as the answer to a problem. Most tech support teams are needed only when things aren't working. As a result, they're often seen as either harbingers of bad news or the saviors of the day when a printer jams or a surge protector trips off.

"We need to get out, be seen, sit in a class, have lunch with a teacher, engage the students and become part of the community – not just because we're needed to fix things, but because we are part of the community," says Lara, who's working actively to change this mindset.

Collective Bargain

As we all move forward in creating immersive one-to-one notebook programs – ones in which technology isn't a separate part of the classroom but an integrated component in the learning process – we must remember that IT personnel aren't a separate component of the schools they serve. By being more involved in the educational community (and more in tune with the curricular needs of teachers and students), the technology team can do far more than just fix hardware: They can create systems that better meet their community's needs.