Help Desk | Feature

When Students Run the Help Desk

A Massachusetts high school will take a bold step this fall by training students to handle most of the troubleshooting and problem solving for its new 1:1 iPad initiative.

Help desks are a crucial component of all 1:1 computer initiatives, and are usually manned by one or more IT staffers who handle the litany of questions, concerns, and problems that accompany any new system-wide technology rollout.

At Burlington High School in Burlington, MA., Principal Pat Larkin is taking a different approach by putting students in charge of the school’s help desk, which is supporting an iPad rollout of more than 1,000 units this fall.

Larkin said putting students in charge of the help desk was a natural choice. "My own 5-year-old can pick up an iPad and begin navigating it without any help," he explained. "From my perspective, it's a no-brainer for students to be heavily involved in supporting our 1:1 initiative."

The school--which operates on a seven-period day--is structuring the help desk as a formal class for approximately 10 students who will provide IT support to pupils on a walk-in basis. "The desk will be staffed for every period throughout the day," said Larkin. Most problems will be handled on the spot, with more complicated issues being addressed by teachers. "If the problem can't be resolved that way, we'll refer it to Apple support," Larkin remarked.

Two teachers and one district-wide instructional technology director will train the students on how to address student iPad issues. "The trio will oversee the help desk, but won't necessarily be physically in the room all of the time,” said Larkin. "It will be a triage routine, with students handling most of the questions and the IT team jumping in when needed."

As part of their help desk duties, students will maintain an online blog where they will critique different apps, tools, and programs that teachers and pupils can use both in and out of school. "We're setting up the blog to serve as a resource for our school, and for other institutions as well," said Larkin. "We know a lot of schools are getting into 1:1, and we want to help them get started."

To further enhance student training, Larkin is setting up a session for them at the Apple store in Burlington, where attendees will learn some of the most frequently asked questions that new users tend to have. "This will give our help desk support staff hands-on training, right from the source," said Larkin.

That enrichment should come in handy this fall, when the peer-to-peer help desk approach will find students dealing with multiple technology issues on a face-to-face basis. Larkin said early questions will likely involve simple problems, such as turning the devices on and off, charging the units, accessing the Internet, and downloading apps.

To get teachers prepared to use the devices in class, Burlington High School held a three-day-long training session at the end of the 2010-11 school year for a group of teachers who in turn will train their peers on how to use the iPads. An Apple distinguished educator led the session, which was accompanied by several workshops and hands-on training seminars.

"We gave the teachers their iPads at the end of the school year," Larkin added, "so that they’d have the summer to get comfortable with using the devices."

Larkin said Burlington High School’s 1:1 initiative pre-dates iPads, and was initially planned as a "bring your own device to class" approach. "We liked the idea of choice, but also realized that 24 students bringing six different devices and computers into the classroom would be overwhelming and difficult to manage," said Larkin. "That's when we decided to go with a single device."

Early on, even Apple's salespeople said they were skeptical about using the iPad as that centralized device. "They weren’t sure that it would be right for a 1:1 program," said Larkin, "but as other schools started piloting the original iPad in similar rollouts, we knew we wanted to stick with the tablet as our primary device."

Funded through the school's regular budget, the 1:1 initiative was structured as an equity lease program through Apple. "We're paying yearly, and building up equity reserves in the process," Larkin said. "When another version of the iPad comes out--and if an upgrade is warranted--we'll be able to buy the updated version."

To protect its investment, the school is requiring parents to sign a "responsibility form," that states that they will repair or replace the iPads, should they be damaged or destroyed. For just under $100 per year, parents can also take out an insurance policy that covers loss or damage, and that carries a $50 deductible.

"We're providing the devices, and much like an issued textbook or graphing calculator, students are responsible for taking care of them," said Larkin. "If they want the insurance, it's up to them."

At press time, Larkin and his team were handing out the new devices to students and getting some of those recipients prepped to handle the inevitable help desk issues that will come up once school starts. He says he's confident that the school's decision to put the pupils in charge will pay off, both in terms of fewer IT man hours spent troubleshooting and solving problems, and more tech-savvy students who solve their own computer issues.

"We want to make this 1:1 initiative as [similar to the] real world as possible," said Larkin. "Having students manage their own devices is a step in that direction."

For more information on BHS's 1:1 initiative, visit Larkin's blog at

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].