Student Tech Teams 101: A Toolkit for Educators
Attention school leaders:
Over the past two years, I’ve consulted with educators, administrators, instructional technology specialists, and IT professionals from throughout the nation, as well as my friend Matt Robinson who resides in Australia, about the nature and scope of the Burlington High School Help Desk program; aka our “genius bar.” Most recently I chatted with Jamie Lakey, Instructional Technology Specialist for Coppell Independent School District in Texas. Jamie discovered the Help Desk blog, currently ranked 283 by Teach 100, through a web search and reached out to me via email. She explained her district recently transitioned to 1:1 iPads and was starting a student help desk which they call the iCU (iPad Care Unit). She inquired about a virtual meeting and I was happy to oblige. During our Hangout, I shared the successes as well as the challenges associated with leading a student tech team. It was a great conversation (similar to the one I had with Sara Chai when she started the Mayan Genius Bar) and it sparked a new idea for the course that I am excited to implement. That video call prompted me to write this post…on my newly designed blog. Publishing more to my “personal blog” has been on my professional to-do list for longer than I care to admit, but I’ve been a tad preoccupied.
My focus has been on the Help Desk blog and development of the course curriculum. As I reflect back since I started in Burlington in 2013, I’m proud of how the course is evolving. I’m proud of the projects I’ve created, the 280+ posts that have been published, the way we’ve leveraged Twitter (we had 1 follower in September 2013 and now we’re close to 700) and that our blog has grown from 38,000 views to over 164,000 since August of 2013, with student authored posts receiving thousands of views. These statistics are impressive, but what I’m most proud of is the students in my program and the way they support Burlington. The content they have created for both the Help Desk blog and for their individual portfolios is exemplary. The way students have represented Burlington at state and regional conferences has been outstanding. However, our web presence and appearances at conferences is really secondary to our main goal; helping the students and teachers of our 1:1 iPad high school in Burlington. I’m lucky to witness the daily support my students provide to teachers and their peers while working in the Help Desk and the professional manner in which they conduct themselves. I’m fortunate to work with such a motivated group of learners who get excited about exploring new technologies. My students are exceptional role models for other student run tech teams, both on and offline, and through this post I’m going to share some of the strategies that have led to our success.
DESIGNING A VISION FOR YOUR STUDENT TECH TEAM
If your infrastructure is in place, your teachers have received professional development, and you are ready to rollout your 1:1 or BYOD program, then you may be considering the addition of a student tech team. Student tech teams are becoming somewhat of a trend in the edtech space and for good reason. Leveraging the technological know how of students, placing them in a leadership position within the school, and taking advantage of their desire to help others makes perfect sense, not to mention how much your IT department will appreciate the extra help during a large-scale 1:1 deployment. And if your student tech team works the way you want it to, your IT department won’t even know about all the problems your students are solving!
The initial vision of the Help Desk program in Burlington was to train students to troubleshoot technology problems and alleviate the demands placed on our three person IT department. The vision was to have a centralized place within the high school, open every period of the day, for teachers and students to visit in the event they needed tech support. Help Desk students handled common questions and concerns including, but not limited to: connecting to the network, setting up Gmail, creating Apple ID’s, navigating through iTunes, installing apps, backing up and updating their devices, and learning how to use our foundational apps were all (and continue to be) specialty areas of the Help Desk staff, or Educational Technology Consultants. They were also capable of troubleshooting hardware issues (projectors, printers, Smartboards, Apple TV’s, etc.). This “walk-in” model, designed after the Apple store’s “genius bar” eliminated the need to log IT tickets (we use SchoolDude in Burlington) and allowed our IT staff to focus on more complex technology issues. In years one and two of the iPad rollout in Burlington, there were lines out the door, and the Help Desk was packed with students and teachers needing the assistance of our student geniuses. In addition to the in-person support students were providing, they also began authoring tutorials and writing app reviews for the Help Desk blog. In two short years, the BHS Help Desk made quite a new for itself. So how did Burlington make this all work? What does your technology team need to consider if you wish to implement a similar program? Consider the items listed below your Student Tech Team Toolkit and feel free to adapt the resources I’m sharing to fit the unique needs of your 1:1 or BYOD environment.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION: IT STARTS AT THE TOP
The administration in Burlington supported the implementation of a student tech team from day one. The progressive leadership needed zero convincing to create a tech team. In fact, it was the district’s leaders who spearheaded the idea to allow students to play a leading role in the high school’s 1:1 initiative and offer Help Desk as a full-blown course, not just a volunteer experience. Heading into year four of our 1:1 initiative, the leaders in Burlington continue to support the Help Desk program not only at the high school level, but at our middle school as well, and stay tuned for an elementary level student tech team! The reason our students have the opportunity to be technology leaders within our schools is because the administration has built a culture where students are trusted. This is evident in the fact that Burlington does not block access to social media sites (at the high school level). But beyond having access to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, students are trusted to make important decisions, as the administration believes our students are the most important stakeholders in our community.
Students are given autonomy. They are encouraged (really, they are expected) to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning and ultimately develop the skills to manage their own device and use it for academic purposes. The leaders in Burlington value and respect student opinions and feedback, especially in regards to technology initiatives (we’ll be gathering their thoughts on the concept of a blizzard bag), and they are open to discussion, debates, or criticisms. Help Desk students in particular are often the first group of students to be called upon to evaluate new technologies, meet with developers, or represent Burlington and offer their technical expertise at local networking events. Our leaders publicly celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of our Help Desk students across multiple social media platforms and our program continues to thrive because of their support. So my first piece of advice in developing the foundation of your student tech team is to start at the top. Gaining administrative buy-in is a critical first step and will ultimately help your vision for a student tech team become a reality. If your administration needs convincing, show them the work of Burlington students and other student tech teams from Massachusetts and from across the country.
I’ve presented before about how Burlington’s Help Desk operates and I’ve emphasized that just as every 1:1 initiative is unique, so is every student tech team. There is no one size fits all model and many variables will impact how your program is structured. Regardless of how you ultimately design your program, you will need to think about several important details. Below is a comprehensive list of the logistics you’ll want to think about as you create your team. These are the most commonly asked questions I receive about the Burlington Help Desk.
Will your student tech team be structured as a course or a volunteer experience? Who will teach it?
BHS Help Desk is a half-year course; students earn 2.5 credits per semester and can take four semesters. The course falls under the Business Department. The Instructional Technology Specialist teaches the course.
If you’re offering a course, will students be graded or will it be pass/fail? How will they be assessed?
Students receive a numeric grade: 40% of the grade is contributing to the Help Desk blog, 40% of the grade is the development & presentation of the student’s Individual Portfolio, and 20% of the grade is the student’s Individual Learning Endeavor (20% time project)
What is the course approval process at your school? Who approves new courses?
The administration and the school committee approves new courses. New courses can be added to the BHS program of studies relatively quickly.
Are there an prerequisites for the course?
No, however students should have a sincere interest in using technology & a willingness to learn. Students should be proficient with Google Apps for Education, MAC OS, Windows, and iOS. Beginning in 15-16, because we are a GAFE district, students will be asked to complete the Google Ninja program.
Will you require students to apply for the course/program?
BHS students complete an application and must be interviewed. Students are asked to troubleshoot a technology problem presented to them during an interview.
What kind of training is provided?
Students receive training/instruction in the following areas:
When will your Help Desk be open?
The BHS Help Desk is open 6 out of 7 periods a day. There are times when I am not physically in the Help Desk. Students are expected to “man the desk” independently.
HELP DESK IS NOT A SIMULATION
Students in the Help Desk program realize almost immediately that they aren’t a part of some type of real-world simulation or case study.The teachers and students who visit the Help Desk (and they start coming in the first day of school) aren’t “mystery shoppers.” They aren’t in the Help Desk to browse or window shop. People come to Help Desk with real problems that need to be solved quickly, therefore Help Desk must operate as a real business. As a former business and marketing teacher, I brought many of the same management techniques I had used when I led Pinkerton Academy’s Gold-Level, school-based enterprise to the Help Desk. One of the first things I had my students do was develop a mission statement and design a business card (which has come in quite handy at the conferences and networking events my students have attended). If you are just starting out, you may want to have your team develop a full-scale promotional campaign and/or develop a social media presence. It’s also advisable to develop a customer service philosophy and a customer satisfaction survey for when students deliver classroom technology demonstrations.
I also aligned the course with the Burlington High School Learning Goals, the Common Core State Standards, and the ISTE Standards for Students (this can all be found in the 2014-2015 course syllabus). The impressive and modern physical space of the Help Desk is also designed to look as close to a real Help Desk as possible. Designing the space to resemble a “real” Help Desk was not only important to me, it was important to our IT Director, Bob Cuhna, and Director of Instructional Technology, Dennis Villano. If you are starting a tech team for the first time, be sure to gain support from your administration as well as your IT department. Work with the IT professionals in your building/district to discover the types of issues they need/want help with as well as the types of issues they will and will not allow student tech team members to handle. As you build the physical space, think about the types of learning spaces you want to create for students and visitors.
Located in the back of our library, our Help Desk is equipped with collaborative, as well as individual work spaces, two Apple TV’s, and a comfortable seating area for walk-in visitors. I’m hoping to add a “Help Desk iPad” in 2015 so customers can check-in, document their issues, and answer a short customer satisfaction survey on their way out. One last suggestion, and this may seem rather trivial, but I can assure you it is not, is to consider training students on how to professionally answer a phone call and the proper procedure for taking messages. Although it may be second nature to us, unless they have previous work experiences, few of our students have experience speaking over the phone in a professional manner.
Many student help desk programs begin as pilot or volunteer programs before they evolve into a course. As you start to build your team, I’d look for students with varying skills sets. Start by identifying students with an interest in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math). You will have some students who want to troubleshoot hardware and wish to spend time with your IT staff. These students typically want to learn about their school’s network, infrastructure, and device management. Other students may enroll to expand upon their programming skills and wish to explore app development. You may have exceptional design students in your art department who want to work on the aesthetics of your team’s blog or website. Put a 3D printer in the hands of your design students, show them the concept of a makerspace (we’re currently brainstorming ideas for a makerspace of our own) and the possibilities are limitless! Balance students with technical skills with those interested in the liberal arts. You may have students interested in creative writing, publishing, research, and public speaking. These are students who could serve as bloggers/technical writers, social media account managers, deliver classroom presentations, interview guests during Hangouts on Air, and speak at conferences. Clearly, there’s a place in a Help Desk program for a broad range of students. All of them can offer something unique to your program and can learn from one another. And while you certainly want to nurture your students’ strengths, it may be a richer learning experience for your students if they were to work in cross-functional teams on a rotating basis. This will allow students to receive a well-rounded experience and resembles how they’ll be expected to function in the real world, especially if they wish to work in a management or leadership position. All students, regardless of their area of expertise, should possess strong information literacy skills, know how to prioritize and handle multiple tasks, be willing to take risks, work independently and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
THERE IS AN “I” IN TEAM
Despite being able to recruit from a wide range of students, I would recommend keeping your team small. Fifteen to twenty students at the most is sufficient, depending on the size of your school and how many teachers you have available to teach the course. By design, a student tech team is the ultimate way to differentiate instruction. As the leader of your team you’ll have the opportunity to really get to know each of your students; their interests, skills, and abilities, and as a result, develop learning experiences for them based on those factors. And in terms of being college and career ready, being on a student tech team provides a wealth of opportunities for students to build impressive career portfolios filled with concrete examples of their skills and knowledge. With proper guidance from you as their teacher, this portfolio has the potential to launch a future career for each of your students; much more so than any standardized test ever could.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
If you’d like to see the BHS Help Desk in person and talk one on one with students, you’ll have the opportunity to do so on Friday, April 10th. Burlington High School will be opening its doors for the second time this school year to educators, lead learners, and IT professionals who are interested in visiting our 1:1 classrooms and hearing directly from the Help Desk students. Stay tuned for information on how to register for this exciting event and please feel free to bring students along with you!
Best of luck as you move forward with the development of your own genius bar. I hope the resources I have provided serve as inspiration and motivation.