Tech Trends | Feature

IT in the Virtual World

Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School's IT staff taps technologies like videoconferencing and desktop sharing to provide live help desk support to students and faculty scattered across the state. Even during crunch time--the first few weeks of school--the team is able to handle the load with barely a handful of people.

Running the IT department for a virtual K-12 institution can be challenging, especially during the first few weeks of school. New students need assistance getting their online setups in order, and returning pupils need help recovering the passwords they forgot over the summer. Instructors also need assistance, which is why Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School devotes several weeks to pure IT support at the start of every school year.

Crunch Time
"The first two weeks are always complete bedlam as far as IT support goes," said Michael Rublesky, senior director of technology at the Norristown, PA-headquartered institution, which serves students statewide. "There are anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 new students coming online every year, and they all need help getting up and running."

Unfortunately, those students can't just schlep down to the IT department to get their issues straightened out, since most of them are located hundreds of miles away from the school's headquarters.

And for most of those students, the school's Blackboard classroom hosting system is new territory and as such tends to generate a high number of IT requests. Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School uses the technology platform to provide parents with access to school announcements, community, and the online school.

Real-Time Collaborative Help
To handle the Blackboard-related issues on a case-by-base basis, Rublesky and his three-person team set up a webcam in their offices, plop themselves in front of it for about two weeks (depending on the volume of IT support requests), and address the questions "live" as they come in.

Rublesky spreads the word about the live, online support via e-mail blasts and welcome letters that are sent out during the enrollment process. When students log onto Blackboard for the first time, they can hit the "click here for live support" button (which typically connects to a help desk) and begin collaborating with the school's IT team.

Easy requests--"My microphone isn't working" or "I forgot my username"--are handled instantly by the team while it sits in front of the camera, working with students via a live chat session.

More complex issues--"My computer won't allow me to access the school's Web site"--are dealt with directly through the application-sharing system, which allows Rublesky to take control of the student's computer virtually and identify and fix the problems.

During the first few weeks of school, Rublesky's team deals with issues that range from Microsoft Office-related challenges (I can't cut-and-paste in Word) to Internet accessibility problems (I can't get online on my mom's computer from home).

"Whether it's hardware, software, connectivity, or the like, we knock it all out during those first few weeks of school online, in a collaborative format," said Rublesky. "This is not only easier on our IT team, but it also gets students learning and studying faster than if they would have had to wait around for us to get back to them."

Challenges and Organization
The virtual support system isn't without its challenges. Rublesky said prioritizing calls, particularly during heavy-traffic times, can be an issue. Another hurdle is handling calls that require more than one contact.

"When we're chatting onscreen, sometimes we have to ask, 'Okay, where are we at?' or 'Where did we leave off?'" said Rublesky. "We rely on our own organizational skills and open communication with users to help work through these issues."

Rublesky said the IT support format blends well with the school's overall mission to deliver curriculum over the Internet in a streamlined fashion, knowing that it "can't possibly be everything to everyone at the same time." The webcam setup is used for other functions, including Special Olympics training, where students use it to teach students specific sports and events.

"Using text or instant messaging isn't an option with many of these children," Rublesky said. "Instead, our teachers use the webcam to demonstrate the correct execution of a broad jump or a leap, for example. Students use their laptops to view the demo, attempt the event on their own, and then ask questions and work to meet certain benchmarks set forth by the teacher."

Being able to collaborate online to solve student and teacher IT problems is cost-effective for the statewide school--a point that makes travel to individual students unaffordable and inefficient. "I'm able to knock out questions from 1,200 to 1,500 users with just four personnel," said Rublesky. "That means no expense, no travel, no training, and no problems."

Plus, said Rublesky, it's just downright fun to play actor for a few weeks every school year.

"Very rarely do you find the department heads opening themselves up across the entire community, but here I am live and accessible to everyone," said Rublesky. "Our students, faculty and administration really enjoy it, and benefit from the support."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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