How Geek Became Chic

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With budgets and staff stretched thin,schools are turning tech-savvy studentsinto technology leaders and a popular,important source of IT support.

How Geek Became ChicTHE WAY THEY SEE IT IN MISSISSIPPI, it's an if-lifegives-you-lemons-make-lemonade solution. The computertechnology that has transformed K-12 classrooms throughoutthe Magnolia State over the past decade and a halfhasn't come with the benefit of any professional tech support.Providing that support is too expensive a proposition-staggeringlyso, if you do it right-so budget-strapped districts fromTupelo to Greenville, and from Hattiesburg to Columbia, are enlistingstudents to fill the gaps.

But this is no ad-hoc geek grab; the districts are participating in a state-sponsored initiative called Challenging Regional Educators to Advance Technology in Education (CREATE) for Mississippi. Launched in 2001 under the auspices of the Center for Educational and Training Technology (CETT) at Mississippi State University, the initiative provides, among other things, skills-development programs for cadres of computer-savvy middle and high school students, who troubleshoot the IT in 32 districts across the state.

CREATE's Student Tech Team program is a disciplined example of a generally less formal phenomenon with which most K-12 schools are very familiar. In fact, in 2002 the National School Boards Association reported that students were providing IT support in more than half the country's school districts.

Groups of specially trained or simply specially inclined students have been helping teachers with their electronic equipment since the AV club began rolling 35-millimeter projector carts into 1960s classrooms on film day. Of course, there's a big difference between untangling a strip of perforated celluloid and sorting out computer glitches- hence the emergence of focused programs such as CREATE.

Through CREATE, full-time technology facilitators stationed on-site at the school level train and supervise the Student Tech Teams. The TFs also provide ongoing "just-in-time" technical and instructional support on a daily basis to teachers as they integrate technology into curricula. The TFs train Tech Team members, selected by the school after an application process, to handle a range of tasks, from updating antivirus software to installing computer hardware and troubleshooting malfunctioning gear. The students sort out printer and projector problems, burn CDs and DVDs, and even create instructional PowerPoint presentations designed by teachers. They also mentor their classmates to help them develop their own technology skills.

The average size of a CREATE Tech Team for a school with 200 to 300 students ranges between 12 and 16 kids, says CETT Project Manager Betty Latimer. "Sometimes they meet during a particular class period and pick up assignments there," she explains. "In some schools, they come in during their free periods and see what's needed, work on computers with the teachers, or go out into the classroom. It depends on the school."

Enlisting trained students to provide technical and instructional support in Mississippi classrooms has provided unique learning opportunities for students, and given many teachers the inthe- trenches support they need to fully embrace the technology, says Latimer.

"It's a win-win for the schools and the students," she says. "The program bridges that tech-support gap while giving the kids a chance to develop important skills, take on some real job responsibility, and even learn to deal with the accountability that goes with that responsibility."

The CREATE Tech Teams have also reduced equipment downtime in the classroom, says Dan Brook, CETT's project director, which has helped to improve the integration of technology in those very classrooms.

"Something as simple as the teacher's not being able to get the projector to run, or the resolution being wrong, can hold up the class in ways that cause the teacher to say, ‘Forget it, this doesn't work for me,'" he says. "If teachers have problems with technology, they'll drop it instantly and go on teaching the lesson without it. But when you have students who can step in and get the class moving again with a few keystrokes, you see a real change in that attitude.

"It's fair to say that this program is making the best of a bad situation, but this particular batch of lemonade has turned out sweeter than even we expected."

In other words, student tech support has evolved from a stopgap measure into something with real benefits for students, teachers, and school districts.

Sylvia Martinez"If you want to reduce student hacking in your district, I can'tthink of a better strategy than getting the hackers on your side."-Sylvia Martinez, Generation YES

Pride of Ownership

Love them or fear them, programs like CREATE for Mississippi aren't going away any time soon. They can't; tech-support staffing simply hasn't kept pace with the grass-fire spread of information technology in our schools. How far behind are we? Consider this: IT industry analysts at market researcher Forrester maintain that, currently, the typical ratio in large corporations of one tech-support person per 50 PCs is inadequate. According to the Center for Education Leadership and Technology, in larger school districts that ratio is closer to one per 1,500.

"I sometimes mention that Forrester statistic during sessions with district tech-support guys, and everyone just laughs," says Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES (Youth and Educators Succeeding). "These are people who are supporting hundreds and hundreds of machines-50 would be a luxury!"

Generation YES is an Olympia, WA-based commercial provider of student-centered technology programs. The company's flagship offering, GenYES, is billed as a "solution for schoolwide technology integration." Essentially, it provides an online platform and tools through which students and teachers collaborate for project-based learning and staff development.

Generation Tech is the company's student tech-support program. The program offers training for students and staff aimed at developing a "sustainable student technology program" within a school. It consists of a curriculum for training students in grades 8 to 12; online tools for project tracking, social networking, and collaboration; and many other applications.

"I agree that it's a win-win," Martinez says. "The teachers need the help, and the students are learning valuable skills. Tech support is excellent training for problem solving in general. Troubleshooting is something that students can translate to other subjects and activities. And students who have a knack for it are getting a head start on developing a marketable job skill."

The Generation Tech curriculum covers both hardware and software, focusing on things like ghost machines, component cleaning, and inventory. More than half of the curriculum relates to documentation and customer service.

But what about the risk? If districts allow roving bands of tech-savvy students loose in their systems and networks, aren't they just begging to hacked?

"If you want to reduce student hacking in your district, I can't think of a better strategy than getting the hackers on your side," says Martinez. "Students are looked at as the enemy. When schools make the students who have these kinds of abilities part of the team, we see incredible reductions in hacking and cyber vandalism. It works because you are supporting student ownership of the technology."

"You have to use a little bit of common sense in the techsupport tasks you assign to students," adds the CETT's Latimer. "You wouldn't assign them to work on any missioncritical systems-e-mail or the payroll. You just establish policies and require them to abide by them if they want to stay on the team. We have never had a student abuse the privileges of being on that team. No one has tried to get into a teacher's computer, or even surfed to an unacceptable website."

Lucy Miller-Ganfield, who runs Students Working to Advance Technology (SWAT), a nationwide program aimed at promoting student leadership through technology training, says she hears "the security question" all the time. "When you enlist students for tech support, you don't let them run your network," she says. "You don't let them into areas with private information. You don't give them the keys to every closet. You give them limited access. The technology allows you to give them appropriate roles and responsibilities. If you don't have segregated access to your servers and your critical data, you've got much bigger problems."

Moreover, student tech-support teams become stakeholders in their own education, Miller-Ganfield says, which makes them even less of a security risk. "Students like helping people with the technology," she says. "It becomes a very natural way for them to step into a leadership role. It allows them to own it."

Miller-Ganfield began to codify her ideas about student tech support back in 1996. She had just started a job teaching fourthand fifth-graders at Davis Drive Elementary School in Cary, NC. Frustrated by the lack of tech support for the computers used in her classes, she came close to quitting, but her principal offered her the technology coordinator position. More frustration followed: "I had so much hitting me I just couldn't keep up," she recalls. "I didn't have the time or the resources for the job, so one day I asked if there were any kids at the school who might be interested in helping with the technology. One hundred thirty-five students came to me and said, ‘Yeah!'"

Have No Fear

How Geek Became ChicIN ITS 2004 white paper, "Youth Technology Support Programs: Meetingthe Challenge of Technology Support in Schools," the Youth TechnologySupport Collaborative, established a yearearlier with the goal of advancing the role of student technology leaders,argues that, whatever a school's IT budget, enlisting students to help withtech support is actually a good idea.

"Some technology directors will admit that such an approachmakes them nervous," the paper's authors write. "Yet, it shouldn't,if for no other reason than the fact that many students arefar more familiar with technology and conversant with its usesthan many adults in schools. Also, students tend to have moretime to troubleshoot and learn new technology skills."

Seventy-five of those students formed Miller-Ganfield's first SWAT team. They took on relatively simple jobs, such as cleaning printers. But they also helped with online research, worked on the school's website, and became mentors, teaching other students how to use a computer note-taking program to save paper. Miller-Ganfield's work earned her recognition as National Technology Teacher of the Year in 1997 from Technology & Learning magazine and Microsoft. She later struck out on her own, and now runs SWAT as a for-profit enterprise that provides related content and resources. Registered users of the program receive a SWAT Kit, which includes program guides, team models, forms, presentations, and other materials.

Miller-Ganfield sees students as "a natural resource of the school community," but adds that it would be a mistake to view them as free labor. "It wouldn't be fair to them or the school," she says. "This has to be about improving learning for everyone. You've spent a lot of money on a lot of equipment that doesn't get used because teachers don't have the tech support or the training they need. It's just a fact of life that students can help."

And though she's not suggesting that SWAT teams can replace staff development, she has found that when students teach the teachers about technology, the teachers pick it up faster. "When teachers are paired with students, it can be a less intimidating situation," she says, "and they're more comfortable with the technology. And the students are more likely to be up on the cutting-edge stuff-things like social networking, blogging, podcasting, and other things associated with Web 2.0. In some instances, I've even encouraged schools to provide credit for teachers who learn with students."

Building Leaders

Elaine Harrison, coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Education's Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP), agrees that students often prove to be the best trainers of teachers. "We started the program because we felt that students would help us to get teachers involved with the technology," she says. "It is a very natural relationship."

The STLP is a project-based learning program designed "to empower students in all grade levels to use technology to learn and achieve." It was established in 1994 by the STLP State Advisory Council, which is composed of teachers, students, and community leaders. Harrison, a former teacher, was lured away from her classroom to help form the program.

"The program is about more than just tech support," she says. "We think about all this in terms of student projects that fall into four categories: instructional, community, technical, and entrepreneurial. When you look at those areas, you find that, from primary school to 12th grade, there are students working on projects that make a difference in their classrooms, schools, and communities. And along the way they are providing services-whether it's newsletter publishing, a help desk they're trying to man, or doing minor repairs in the classes."

The STLP program is open to all students in all grade levels in every school in Kentucky, and it encourages activities across grade levels and geographies. It's designed to produce so-called student technology leaders-students with good technology, communication, and "teaming" skills. The STLs help to train other students, teachers, and members of the community in the use of technology in and out of the classroom. And they also provide much of the technical support needed to maintain the technology in schools and districts.

Harrison says that students who don't seem to thrive in conventional classrooms often flourish in the STLP environment. Why? Because they're doing something they're good at, and they get to share their expertise with their peers and teachers.

"Tech support is definitely a part of this program, but the leadership piece is absolutely essential," she says. "Students who aren't necessarily the sports stars or might not be involved in other, mainstream school activities come to STLP and find that just about everyone wants to do things with technology, which opens up an avenue for those students to excel."

Harrison says there are active STLP programs in roughly 900 of Kentucky's 1,200 K-12 schools. With all these students out there pitching in to provide IT help, won't districts be tempted to ramp up student tech-support programs to save money and replace paid tech-support staff? Harrison dismisses the idea.

"There's never enough tech support," she says. "It's a catch- 22: The more technology you expect your teachers to use, the more tech support they need. You have to be able to provide expanding technology support without expanding your budget infinitely-never mind that budgets keep getting cut."

For districts considering a more formal approach to a relationship that probably already exists in many, if not most, of their schools, Harrison strongly recommends getting buy-in from parents and the administration first. But when it comes time to recruit the students, she says, go to the teachers.

"After all," she says, "the students are going to be working in the teachers' classrooms, and they know them better than anyone else."

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Mountain View, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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