Aug 19 2020

Student-Run IT Help Desks Adapt to the World of Remote Learning

With their student helpers at home, help desk instructors have found new ways to put them to work.

As educators dive into remote learning this fall, many will lean heavily on IT staffers for help. Some, however, will have additional tech support — from the very same students they’re planning to teach.

Student-run IT help desks, where trained students address tech-related questions from teachers and others in their school communities, were popping up in districts across the country before the coronavirus pandemic set in. Generally overseen by school technology professionals and offered as an elective to middle and high school students, such programs provide participants with hands-on experience in a field they may wish to pursue as a career.

Prior to the pandemic, these help desks typically required students and IT teams to work together in person. But now, instructors note, that model has changed: With remote learning in the mix and their student helpers at home, they’ve had to find new ways to put them to work.

“The thing is, we really need these kids to be involved,” says LeRoy Wong, the student help desk instructor and an instructional technology specialist with Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. “It’s not like we have a giant IT staff, so we actually depend on them to help us do our jobs.”

How a Student-Run Help Desk Went Remote

At BPS, Wong says, the physical student-run help desk is a computer-lined room located in the library of the district’s high school. Launched in 2011 to help the school manage its one-to-one program, it’s now referred to as the institution’s “Genius Bar,” in reference to the Apple help centers of the same name. Up until last spring, students had mostly focused on maintaining the thousand-plus tablets the high school had in circulation. With remote learning, however, the district’s computer fleet has expanded — and so too has the help desk’s responsibilities.

“We’ve had to shift quite a bit,” Wong says, explaining that students who work on the help desk do so through a technology integration class that also includes projects like designing games and building drones.

Now, instead of troubleshooting problems on the spot, his students are tackling other jobs from their homes — “everything from contributing to the help desk blog to dealing with random technical issues,” Wong says. Two students, for example, helped him produce a video tutorial explaining how to use Google Meet in Google Classroom. “A teacher had questions about it, and everyone’s videoconferencing now, so we decided that could be useful to a lot of people.”

Remote Student-Run Help Desks Can Get Tricky

Also focused on videoconferencing at the moment is the student-run help desk at Bethlehem Central School District in New York. The district relies primarily on Google Meet and Zoom, explains Navaar Johnson, the help desk supervisor and senior network and systems technician. “Our students will be supporting both, and they’ll be helping instructors with any issues in Google Classroom as well,” he says.

Much like the BSD help desk, the one at BCSD was born of necessity. Budget cuts had forced IT to downsize, so the department approached district leaders to suggest students fill in the gap. The approach they settled on has the team in IT managing the student help desk as an internship program, Johnson says.

READ MORE: Find out how BCSD launched its student-run help desk program. 

“Students apply and they go through a full interview, and we look at recommendations and prior work experience, if they have any,” Johnson says. Many do not, but that’s usually OK. “Last year we had 36 students. We try to take as many as we can.”

When the district closed its buildings last semester, there wasn’t much his help desk students could do, Johnson says. Under normal circumstances, they would have been repairing Chromebooks, either by hand or using Chrome Remote Desktop. But with students at home, “it was a tricky situation,” he says. “We’d always provided supervision as they worked, and that was impossible. We really didn’t have a good solution.”

For the new school year, Johnson says, everything depends on the district’s operating model. When his help desk students are onsite, he’ll welcome them into the dedicated service room to tackle any issues that need to be addressed. “Anything they can feasibly take care of, I’ll absolutely be handing it over to them,” he says. That includes the repair of damaged Chromebooks used for remote learning and possibly conducting remote instructional sessions with students or teachers having difficulty with videoconferencing and other software.

And when his student-run help desk interns are in the throes of remote learning themselves? “What I know for sure is we’ll be staying in touch with them,” Johnson says. “They’ve always been a huge help to us, and moving forward, we hope to continue utilizing them in any way that we can.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Here’s what it takes to run a successful student help desk program.

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