Tech Support

They're Taking Requests: Student Techs Command the Help Desk

Programs such as Generation YES and Mouse Squad put students at the helm of IT support and classroom technology integration.

In these belt-tightening times, some might say that Varun Kumar, the technology coordinator at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, NY, has it good. With a team of 12 capable technicians on standby, he's able to quickly and efficiently handle almost any request for tech support that comes his way. Networking new laptops? Piece of cake. Troubleshooting a temperamental printer? He's got someone for that. A frustrated teacher needs a refresher on Smart Boards? Done. Any one of his techs can be dispatched to sit down with the teacher for as long as it takes for the teacher to get it.

That is, if the teacher gets it before the end of the tech's class period.

The rub is that Kumar's workforce consists of Bryant High students, members of the Mouse Squad, a student-based IT support program. The program is the ultimate everybody-wins solution: Schools have at their disposal a team of eager troubleshooters who work for cheap (course credit, for the most part), and students acquire a foundation of technology skills that has academic and real-world benefits. "When they don't know how to fix an issue, they refer to online resources," Kumar says. "This allows them to practice their research skills and enhance their IT knowledge."

The intention is that the knowledge the students acquire will have far-reaching effects. "Our hope is we're empowering students with the skills that will help them be successful as they continue their academic careers and move into their future professional careers," says Susan Schwartz, director of communications for Mouse, the New York City-based nonprofit organization that developed the Mouse Squad program to aid schools that lacked the funding necessary to support and maintain technology in their classrooms. Since its inception in 2000, the program has spawned affiliates nationwide.

There are 60 Mouse Squad schools in the five boroughs of New York City, and 190 regional Mouse Squad programs scattered throughout schools in Chicago, Texas, California, and Connecticut. Mouse Squad staff sit down with each school's program coordinator to analyze the best way of organizing the program to suit the specific needs of the school and its students. As a result, implementations differ. Bryant High School, for example, offers the program as an elective course. Meanwhile, at Bea Fuller Rodgers School, a New York City middle school, the team of Mouse Squad techs meets with its adviser after school from Monday through Thursday.

Students repairing a PC

MOUSE IN THE HOUSE Students at a participating Mouse Squad school in New York City learn a base of practical technology skills, including the ins and outs of computer repair.

Regardless of the nature of the implementation, every participating Mouse Squad school has access to a collaborative hub of support on the program's Web site, including a case-tracking tool that allows
users to receive, assign, and monitor tech support tickets. Also on the site is a 10-module course that drills students in the skills they need to manage a help desk and carry out troubleshooting requests. Completion of the course earns the student formal Mouse Squad certification. Additional training is done in two-day workshops that bring Mouse Squads together from throughout the local area, supplementing hands-on technical learning with attention given to leadership and team-building skills.

Based at the opposite end of the country is Generation YES (Youth and Educators Succeeding), a student-tech program introduced a few years before Mouse Squad. It was the brainchild of Dennis Harper, who while he was working as the technology coordinator for the Olympia School District in Olympia, WA, began to involve students in IT support. In 1995, Harper won a US Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge Grant for his plans to scale up his program by designing a curriculum of best practices and a toolset so that other districts could replicate the success he'd had with the model.

At the end of the five-year grant, the program's membership exceeded 600 schools, and the growing demand led Harper to develop Generation YES. In the years since, more than 1,200 schools around the world have participated in GenYES, while the program's curriculum and toolset have been regularly updated to adapt to changes in technology-based best practices.

Among those updated tools is the online help desk, which was revamped two years ago to allow teachers and staff to submit trouble tickets as well as request help with integrating their classroom technology into instruction. The help desk keeps a record of every job completed by the students and generates reports that show the hours spent on each type of service call.

"At the end of the year you have a resource that says your students provided, say, 117 hours of support on our new interactive whiteboards, or that they provided 32 hours of support on network infrastructure," says Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES. "You've got facts and figures so that the GenYES students changing the way the school is using technology becomes more than an anecdote."

Graham County Unified School District 281, a small district in northwest Kansas, runs all of its technology troubleshooting through the online help desk, according to its technology coordinator, Scott Parker. "When a support request comes in that I need to handle myself, I can handle it, and when something comes in that a student or a group of students can handle, I can delegate it to them," Parker says.

The arrangement compares to a real-world job call, he explains. Once receiving the ticket, the student has to set up a time to meet with the teacher to find out what the teacher needs done. That involves working around the schedules of both parties, and may mean meeting during a student's study hall time or after school.

In the 10 years that GenYES has been in place in Graham County, the students' role in the district's tech support infrastructure has become essential. Mandatory, in fact: The program is a required course for all sixth-graders. Parker's students apply the skills they learn in the class to providing help for teachers of all grade levels on technology-assisted projects.

"The projects can be as small as assisting a teacher who is having trouble rebooting his computer, or as large as a full technology project where a teacher wants to implement technology in a lesson," Parker says. "It can be a short visit down the hallway or it can take up a couple of nights."

Parker says that using students for tech support is just the sensible thing to do. "The students have become additional staff for us," he says, noting that he uses as tech aides former GenYES members who are now high school seniors. "Once they've gone through the program, they're always a resource
for us even if they're not in the class.

"When I ask students, 'Who has the tech skills in the school?' they always go, 'Well, we do.' And that's correct. So if we don't use them, then we're [keeping] ourselves from probably 90 percent of the tech skills that we have."

Hard and Soft Skills
Since 2004, Bryant High School has run its Mouse Squad program as an elective class; students must apply to enter it and only 12 to 15 of them are enrolled each year. "We're not screening students for their knowledge, necessarily--although that's a plus--but for their hunger to learn and grow both individually and collectively," says Katherine Flori, the school's Mouse Squad faculty adviser.

The course blends skills learning with troubleshooting tasks and covers 10 training modules that are meant to build a competent IT technician. "The curriculum includes not only technical training, but soft skills, such as teamwork, customer service, professional etiquette, and problem solving," says Flori, who teaches the class in close concert with Kumar, the technology coordinator. She says she teaches the very basics, which most in the class have already mastered. "The knowledge base of many of our incoming students substantially exceeds the Mouse curriculum, usually in several, but not all, areas. These kids come into this class because they like the technology, they want to spend time with it, and they want to get better at it."

Every newbie, as Flori calls the students entering the program, must attend the hands-on Mouse Squad workshops. "There are usually two per semester, so they can choose whichever one is convenient," she says.

Once their in-class tutelage is finished, generally by the middle or end of October, the students continue to reinforce their training online. They're also ready then to join the seasoned techs--Mouse Squad graduates from previous years--on troubleshooting calls, providing support for Bryant High's arsenal of classroom technology: laptops, desktops, tablet PCs, interactive whiteboards, document cameras, and more. The students recently networked four Apple laptops for the music department and refurbished several computers for the art classrooms. They regularly work on projects, such as designing, building, and maintaining department Web sites.

"The [veteran] tech becomes the teacher, asking the newbie how to troubleshoot the call, making corrections, suggestions, etc. Of course, the tech is right there to see that all is done properly, but the newbie gets his or her feet wet."

At Bea Fuller Rodgers School, where Mouse Squad is offered as an after-school program for seventh-graders, participation is also selective, but the faculty adviser, Luz Minaya, isn't searching for the tech-savvy students she can plug right into problem solving. She goes for just the opposite.

"I normally select the kids who are having academic deficiencies or behavior issues," she says. "The kids who are technology savvy have the technology at home, they're really good in academics, so they really don't need my assistance or the program itself. There are a lot of kids also who have behavior management problems, so the technology works to calm them down and keep them busy."

Minaya teaches them how to operate basic software applications such as PowerPoint and Microsoft Office and how to navigate the Internet. The more technical aspects are handled at the Mouse Squad workshop that students must enroll in and complete as a requirement of joining the after-school program. They leave the workshop with the skills to resolve the issues that Minaya says make up the majority of the help requests they will get as school techs: fixing a printer that isn't printing, and servicing a computer that has lost its Internet connection. The one fix-it skill she teaches the students on her own is how to troubleshoot a Smart Board interactive whiteboard, a device found in every classroom in the school but not covered in Mouse Squad training.

Minaya says her students are in high demand during the four days a week they provide tech support after school. "There are times when we don't have enough hours in the day to fix what needs to be fixed or to help a teacher," she says. "All of our teachers use technology in their lessons in one way or another. I'm actually trying to implement a community service period once a day during which the Mouse Squad kids will be able to work on projects."

At Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, which employs GenYES at all levels of K-12, project-based technology integration is the focus of the program. "There really isn't a lot of troubleshooting," says Jeff Billings, the district's director of technology. "The curriculum is less nuts and bolts, more helping teachers learn how to do things--from the small to the big.

"The real value of technology is in the integration--the ideas, the applications, the creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. If something is truly broken beyond the appropriate student capability or time to fix, enter a ticket and my staff fixes it."

The district's student techs have also gotten involved in the building of technology, helping recently in the adoption of interactive whiteboards that run on open source software developed by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. The software turns any flat board or wall into an interactive tool with the use of an infrared pen and a Nintendo Wii gaming console. High school and elementary school GenYES students paired off and worked on the project over a period of months, writing specs, setup instructions, and best practices with input from Billings and his staff as needed.

"We'll see how it goes," Billings says. "Not all the capabilities of a commercial interactive board, but for less than $70 it sure positions itself nicely against the $1,300-or-more commercial variety." Plus, the ensuing professional development day, in which the students helped train 200 teachers on the new device, had its own economic implications.

"Without GenYES we'd have to pay an outside company to come in and do that professional development," Billings says. "But, more important, these kids are learning project and presentation skills. They learn how to communicate with adults and other students. We all want our students involved in project-based learning. Well, our district can't think of a better way to have 21st century project-based learning than this."

Confidence Booster
Student-led professional development sounds great in theory, but is it effective in practice? GenYES data says it is. In a recent survey, the organization asked teachers if working with a student was a good way for them to learn about technology. More than 95 percent of the teachers responded yes. Moreover, more than 95 percent of them also said they preferred working with students rather than getting trained by adults.

"That's not to say that traditional professional development isn't important, but it shouldn't be the only option," says GenYES' Martinez. "Teachers overwhelmingly agree that working with a student will change the way they use technology in the classroom."

At Bryant High School, the Mouse Squad program has helped change the school culture, as faculty members have grown more accepting of technology in education. "The kids make that happen," Flori says. "Mouse techs learn and then teach software to willing faculty members. They are the ones who volunteer to work with computer-phobic teachers on using the electronic gradebook system to input grades. And once a teacher discovers there is a Mouse tech in the class, the tech is asked to help with whatever technology the teacher wants to utilize, be it a PowerPoint presentation, a lesson on the Smart Board, or showing a film."

The greatest value, though, of this interaction is its impact on the students. "For students, the Mouse Squad opens up new lines of communication with the teachers," Minaya says. "The students know that the teachers trust them to fix their Smart Board or computer. I've found that even one positive communication with the teachers has made students feel more confident. They can go up to a teacher and speak as an equal. You can see this change in their confidence develop over the school year."

Minaya seeks out students that she knows will benefit from these types of positive exchanges. "I usually pick kids who are quiet and need a little extra push to come out of their shell," she says. "These kids need that hands-on activity, and to feel that they have a responsibility within the building."

Instilling that sense of responsibility among students has helped produce demonstrable benefits at Bryant High, Kumar says. He points to numbers showing that since the school began offering Mouse Squad as an elective course in the 2004-2005 school year, only one student who participated in the program left school before graduating--he later received his GED--and all of the program's seniors, including the one who left early, have gone on to higher education. This is in stark contrast to the overall graduation rate of the high school, which was 54 percent for the 2009-2010 school year.

"The students have gained that confidence that they are able to handle situations professionally, where they are dealing with an audience that is older than they are," Kumar says. "This communication skill is a great asset that will be used on numerous occasions in their future."

"I think they stand a little taller," Flori says. "They recognize that they have special skills and are respected for it."

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of THE Journal.