Tech Support | October 2012 Digital Edition

Student-run Tech Support Programs Advance at the Speed of Technology

As student-run IT initiatives evolve into full curriculum programs, schools find that students aren't just supporting technology--technology is supporting them.

mouse squad de anza middle school ventura
The MOUSE Squad at De Anza Middle School in Ventura, CA, is one of more than 80 such programs statewide.

This article, with an exclusive video and interactive slide show, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's October 2012 digital edition.

It's an age-old adage: Students pick up technology faster than their teachers. So when it comes to troubleshooting technical headaches in the classroom, it's not surprising that schools are turning to their own best resources--the students themselves.

Whether staffing a "genius bar" in the media center or troubleshooting a balky projector , students at some schools are forging working partnerships with teachers and IT staff that are a far cry from the days when a few kids helped repair old computers.

For such partnerships to flourish, though, the conditions must be right. Trying to do too much--or giving students too little support--undermines collaboration, which is the very foundation of a successful program. And given today's fiscal restraints, not many schools are in a position to build such programs from the ground up. However, a couple of not-for-profit organizations do offer established programs that allow schools to start small before scaling up.

The oldest is Generation YES (Generation of Youth and Educators Succeeding), founded in 1995 to help train students  to support technology in their schools.

"In many of our schools, the students work one-on-one with a teacher who has a project that they're going to integrate in their class," explains Sylvia Martinez, president of GenYES. "Our curriculum teaches the student a number of things: the project process, project planning, mentoring … speaking to an adult. This is not just about technology skills."

Scalable Technology
GenYES has developed a technology curriculum that is part instructor-led lessons and part student help desk. It offers certification in a number of technology areas, and promotes best practices for developing good digital citizens. To date, more than 75,000 students in 2,000 schools worldwide have participated in the program.

GenYES uses a scalable program structure that provides varying levels of support depending on a school's needs. A basic site license, for example, grants schools three basic curriculum units with projects and activities that the instructor can teach, as well as suggestions for future projects that instructors and students can design themselves.

An optional, extended curriculum adds 20 units covering hands-on topics such as troubleshooting hardware and software problems, but it also focuses on media literacy, career opportunities, and building a portfolio of work samples. Both tiers include access to an online tool to track and manage help requests, making it possible for schools to run student-manned help desks.

For schools without a history of student participation in IT, the two-tier structure makes it possible to begin with a small after-school program where students learn what's needed to provide tech support. If all goes well, schools can   then ramp up to a semester or year-round course in technology training.

In the first GenYES programs, students focused on repairing hardware. Today, most programs concentrate on leveraging technology throughout the school. This might include working with teachers on incorporating technology into their lesson plans; teaching their peers how to create a class blog or web site; or introducing kids to movie making software as a replacement for traditional book reports.

Schools are encouraged to start their programs by identifying specific needs, such as meeting a school wide objective to use more technology in the classroom. They then implement the component of GenYES that will include students in helping achieve the goal, gradually building on that success to expand the program.

For those schools using the expanded license, no special training is needed for the teacher; she simply needs time to learn and incorporate the lesson plans , which include activities and instructions.

"We first started as a club after school" with seven kids, says Debbie Kovesdy, a media specialist and GenYES adviser at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix. "Then we added a class, then two. This year, it's evolved to three specific periods. I had a few visions: to transform the media center into a tech center; to ramp up teaching with technology--core pedagogy of GenYES--and to create a solid foundation of relevant tech instruction for the kids to begin career paths in technology."

Today, 65 GenYES students contribute to the culture of technology at Shadow Mountain, providing support for teachers and troubleshooting hardware problems. But they are also learning how to use technology with the GenYES-based course work.

"I teach these amazing kids to be innovators and, in turn, put their ideas and research into cool practices to use in the classroom," exclaims Kovesdy. "Often, I give an assignment, such as 'Blender, 3D modeling' ( that uses ) a complex animation program. Then I do no instruction. Zero. I tell them the product outcome I expect, and give them two weeks to do it. The results are always fantastic. Less knowledgeable kids glean info from their favorite people--their peers."

All of Kovesdy's students can use GenYES' dedicated online forum to communicate with students from other GenYES programs, whether it's to solve problems, share resources, or simply connect with others over a shared interest. For a one-time site license fee ($2,500 to $10,000, depending on the school's size and range of curriculum needs), a school has access to an ever-growing curriculum, online tools, full training, and support.

Staff Supports
Such programs may even pay for themselves. Certainly, that's the experience of MOUSE, another not-for-profit student tech program formerly known as Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education.

"Citibank did a financial assessment based on the average number of hours that students provide tech support and a reasonable hourly rate for youth playing this role," explains Susan Schwartz, communications director for MOUSE. "They estimated that a school running a MOUSE Squad saves approximately $19,000 a year, based on how much it would cost to pay for that level of tech support."

Schwartz is quick to point out that a student tech should not be seen as a replacement for staff. The real value of a MOUSE Squad, as student tech team s are called, lies in the educational opportunities that come from handling support duties usually handled by IT staff.

"We know that our students are deepening their passion for technology," continues Schwartz. "But they also tell us that, as a result of being in MOUSE Squad, they are building their skills to work as a team, to communicate well with adults and their peers, and to handle and manage a multitude of problems. They also tell us they're more likely to want to attend college and feel better prepared for so many careers."

Like GenYES, MOUSE offers a number of curriculum units , broken up into certifications that encompass subjects ranging from garage robotics to game design, as well as a 10-module certificate that trains students in help desk skills.

For schools wishing to expand the program outside their walls, MOUSE Corps: Enhancing Skills and Career Readiness is another option specifically designed to develop "leadership, professional, and technical skills" through project-based assignments and mentoring by local IT professionals from the community. Finally, the organization's TechSource program provides schools with on going evaluations and recommendations for improving and expanding the use of technology.

Over its 15-year history, the program has grown to include more than 4,000 students, with the largest programs in New York, Chicago, and California. Individual sites pay a $999 annual membership fee  that includes access to the curriculum, as well as necessary hardware; a ticket-tracking tool for the school's help desk; and multimedia support for both students and teacher coordinators. In some geographic areas, MOUSE maintains partnerships that can help defray costs for schools.

For any program to be a success, says Schwartz, the teacher who serves as program coordinator must have the support of the school administration. This includes providing a physical space where the coordinator and students can meet, store equipment, work on projects, and even establish a help desk. The coordinator also needs time during the school day to prepare lessons and technology projects, as well as to support the work of student techs. Equally critical is appreciating the influence that MOUSE can have beyond the classroom.

"We help these students hone skills they'll need to enter the professional world," explains Schwartz. "We do business basics workshops, we help them set up their LinkedIn profiles. We give them opportunities through our partners to do 'shadowships'--they go after school to shadow professionals in different organizations. We also offer paid summer internships."

Technology Supporting Students
If school seems relevant to kids, they are more likely to become engaged. The MOUSE program uses technology as a catalyst to jump-start their interest. Last year, Matt Valia, a MOUSE coordinator at the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, watched kids build a 3D printer from a kit donated by a technology business partner. In doing so, they learned project management and teamwork, as well as technical skills such as reading a schematic drawing.

When Valia saw how excited the students were about working with technology, he realized that he could use it as a hook to get them more engaged with their other classes. A test case involved a MOUSE Squad student who failed to do his journal-writing assignments. His teacher asked Valia to take him off the MOUSE Squad to "teach him a lesson. "Instead, Valia took the time to brainstorm with the boy--a good student who simply wasn't interested in the writing assignment. Their solution combined his interest in technology with the assignment. The result? The boy blogged every day about technology.

"The students push their teachers to give them new opportunities to show what they learn," adds Valia, who teaches technology and English. "When their teacher says, 'I want you to do a project,' they're not using poster board. They say, 'Why can't I build a video game that shows that concept?'"

The realization that their skills are transferable is an intentional part of the curriculum. At GenYES, too, Martinez tries to structure programs so that students bring technology into myriad initiatives--peer mentoring around tech literacy, student-led community workshops, helping teachers retool their lessons--as a way to get the entire school to embrace technology.

"These are things that schools do all the time," explains Martinez. "Yet when you focus student efforts on technology, all of a sudden schools say , 'Wow! These students are really making a difference.' It's good for the students. It's good for the teachers. It's good for the school. It's good for the community."

Valia believes the opportunity to help others is important to his students. Their technology skills mean they have something valuable to offer, not only to their schools but to their entire community. And that translates into success, which is highly motivational.

"One of the projects we launched this year was a school-based community computer repair club," says Valia, noting that students advertised for community residents to bring in their old computers for repair or as a donation. "Students would find the parts on eBay and fix them--customers paid only for the parts.

"If that happens early on in middle school, it opens the door to the possibility of, 'I can be a service learner and I can do a community service project.'"

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error, introduced during the editing process. The October 2012 Digital Edition version of this article detailed Matt Valia's time as a MOUSE Squad coordinator at Berta A. Dreyfus School. Valia was actually teaching at the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership. [Last updated November 8, 2012] --Stephen Noonoo