Students as Technology Support Staff?
by Rob Reilly Ed.D.
Copyright 2000, Information Today Inc.
Computers in Libraries 2000 Proceedings
After reading Judy Shasek's article in the January issue of MultiMedia Schools magazine, which was entitled: Students as Technology Leaders: New Collaborations, I thought back to the time when I was a techno kid in middle school and high school—Ike, JKF and LBJ were presidents. It was nothing like the current day situation that Shasek described in her January article. The Audio Visual Aids (AVA) crew, which was the place for techies in-my-day, just handled the operational side of things. There was no need for teachers to learn how to use the reel-to-reel projectors or to splice broken film and such. The equipment 'in those days' was simpler—it did not possess nearly the potential that today's technology has to impact education. For a fleeting moment I thought 'it might be nice for me to be in high school today, as there is much more technology to play with'—but I decided to let that just be a dream. I think there are better dreams to work on, such as utilizing students as we once did in AVA crews in our schools.
Today there is a well defined need to increase the support staff to deal with the increases in technology that we see in our schools. As Shasek observes that "the amount of technology" in her Miramar, Florida middle school has "dramatically increased" in recent years. And this current-day nation-wide trend has caused everyone in education, from the library-media specialists, to the classroom teacher, to the magazine publishers to ponder the question of how all this technological stuff is going to make education occur in a better way, how professional development and staff training can occur, how the new technology will be integrated into the curriculum. But the reality is that the electronic janitor aspect of the job appears to overwhelm attempts to address technology integration into the curriculum in a meaningful way. Judy Shasek has begun to shed light on this topic, I hope to continue and evolve this discussion, which involves integrating technology and supporting it once it's in place.
The good news is that I see modern day AVA organizations reemerging. Schools are beginning to understand the benefits (and liabilities) in using students to support their technology efforts especially since students are usually more knowledgeable about computers and computing than is the average teacher or administrator. I know that there are school districts that make use of students as support staff, but these programs seem to be anomalies just now. Perhaps if we explored some student-run technology support programs, we might be inspired to launch one.
High school library-media specialist Polly Conlon from Falls Church, Virginia notes that the use of students as support staff is an "interesting question, with no absolute answer." Her position on this issue has evolved over her 30-year tenure. On one hand, Conlon "feels strongly" that "since students are in school to learn,... their time should be oriented toward somewhat structured curricular topics, not vocational training, and certainly not just helping teachers." On the other hand, Conlon has "seen kids benefit from learning/using skills of a more practical or vocational orientation. For example, [she] had a small group of kids several years ago who built a simple TV studio in a high school and created a daily news program. A few of them went on to rather spectacular careers in broadcasting. In spite of their success, though, [she] question[s] the time, expense, and allocation of resources to such a small group."
High school librarian Maryjane Fromm in Lee, Massachusetts is grateful to have had a "a student who is technologically savvy and who is willing to work within a library setting... with a librarian who has little technological expertise... it [was a] terrific" experience. Fromm learned "a great deal from the student" and others can if they are "willing to learn from students." She observes that the students "seem to enjoy being the teachers for a change... you [just] need to have some trust... pay attention... be interested and appreciative for the process to work well."
Third grade teacher Mary Streeter reports that in Rockport, Massachusetts "the school system has a great program for elementary kids called Master Mac Mentors." A number of selected 2nd through 6th grade children are trained by Streeter and fellow teacher Eileen Daneri. Streeter observes that the "the younger kids are often good with teachers who are technological novices and may need help with screen freezes, loading paper, loading ink cartidges into printers, finding/copying files, and using various software applications especially paint programs and doing word art in MS Word." "Third and fifth grade students have done scanning and used PhotoShop as a help for their teachers," according to Streeter. On the lighter side she muses that: "Unfortunately sometimes the younger kids can be a bit too eager in their effort to fix a problem. A couple of my third graders wanted to "fix" a stuck disk by suggesting they try to pry off the whole front of the computer! I then gave a lesson in what not to try to fix."
Former Charlotte, North Carolina elementary school principal Marianne Hickman, now a director of leadership development for her school district, tells about Ryan who was "your typical computer nerd—he looked like a mini Bill Gates." She notes that "Ryan had a creative knack for drawing cartoons, using KidPix and creating animated programs of the classic fables." His teacher suggested that Ryan might expand his abilities, confidence level, self-image, and the school itself might benefit if his talents could be shared—needless to say his talents were quickly put to good use—"it wasn't long before he had taught the computer teacher, the gifted teacher, and the classroom teacher his techniques."
Dr. Martin McKay of the Ohio SchoolNet began his SWIFTIES (Students Working in Future Technologies) program with just 3 high school students and it eventually grew to 20 students. This was "a student corps that would do basic repairs and then some, including run all the networks... we even sent them for advanced training." This was a "terrific program, it allowed me to concentrate on working with the teachers on curriculum support." McKay bemoans that fact that "SWIFTIE did not continue when [he] left the school system for a position in the regional office."
Dighton, Massachusetts middle school teacher Ray Medeiros has a Tech Team, which is open, by application only, to 7th and 8th graders. "Once an application form has been filled out, I contact all teachers who have had any connection with the students for their recommendation. After this process, I have an interview with each applicant to make sure they know what the job entails and also to meet with them personally."
Medeiros notes that "the responsibilities these student’s have are rather broad. Each Tech Team member is assigned a set of classrooms, or offices… [for example Tech Team members] will upgrade computers, install software, and assist in some lab sessions with staff training or with elementary school classes that may utilize our lab." Medeiros reports that the Tech Team "has been a very rewarding activity for me personally and I know that each of these youngsters receives quite a bit of pride in knowing that they are the only student organization in the school that has a direct relationship to the running of the school."
Like many of his colleagues, Rich Zalneraitis, LAN Administrator at Quabbin Regional High School in Massachusetts is concerned about the students' level of responsibility; he does not "like to eliminate students merely for some prior 'bad' behavior, but doesn't want to get kids that are going to be problematic and deceitful." "Right up-front," Zalneraitis advises the students "that if selected, they will need to have outstanding attendance, and must be 100% trustworthy."
Middle school teacher Neal Skrenes in Kenosha, Wisconsin has tech assistants who "help with basic trouble shooting such as assuring that all the cords are plugged into the right spots, identifying error messages, etc. This saves [him] time as [he] can arrive on the spot with the right diagnostic/repair tools." Skrenes’ tech assistants are allowed to "do basic software setup/configuration, install hardware (e.g., network cards and peripherals), and move equipment from one part of the building to another." But he does not permit them to "do anything that involves security, can't easily be corrected or duplicated, is a rush job, or is of a sensitive nature."
High school librarian Nancy Peck in Longmeadow, Massachusetts has "used students to help with tech support" but has "at least for now, given up on the idea." While Peck found the students to be "helpful," when she would ask "them to trouble shoot particular problems on the library network, [she] found that they almost always thought they knew more than they actually did. After a few times where they made the problem worse to the point that [she] ended up with more work than before, [she] gave up on the idea" of using students as tech support staff.
Math teacher Sheila Zabko utilizes students as technology support staff in a less wide-scale program. She identifies "a few talented computer-literate students who can help [her] learn how to use the computer and help the students" in her Turners Falls, Massachusetts middle school classroom. Zabko also make an interesting comment about her student support staff—"often the student expert is known as the 'computer geek' and she/he gains peer-respect during the computer interactions… [and they acquire] confidence and [improve their] social skills."
University of Massachusetts professor David Landrigan reminds us that "perhaps there are both benefits and liabilities in using students as technical support people" and we need to assess what they are in our individual situation. Landrigan advises that we "not think of students as staff because that seems to convey a notion of personnel who are paid professionals and not nearly so transient as students." "Remember that the students’ main role is still as a student and not as a tech support professional." They cannot be expected to have the same continuity and availability as paid professional staff—first, last and above all, they are not adults, they are still children.
Certainly more professional staff with specific job responsibilities such that the electronic janitor needs of a school does not drown out curriculum and staff development responsibilities of the individual is the first choice. But it is rarely an option to hire more non-classroom staff. The first priority these days is to hire more classroom teachers. Even with Skrenes' sage advise that: "it is still a lot of work on the part of the ITS advisor/instructor" to create and manage a student-run technology support service, it would appear that utilizing students as technology support staff is an effective and viable option that will dramatically improve the situation. However even with supporting testimony from experts in the field, the major obstacle to utilizing students will be the argument that: 'the students are not in school to teach anyone how to use computers or to fix computers.' But the bottom line, beyond any benefit or liability to school and to its staff, is the fact that students receive a great educational experience. Just take into consideration what has been said by experts in this article concerning students as electronic janitors/'teachers' then reread Judy Shasek's excellent piece about technology integration utilizing students as support staff and it should be apparent that students as support staff is a quality educational experience.