Student-run help desk programs have been popping up at high schools nationwide over the past several years.
Burlington High School in Massachusetts created a help desk class in 2011 when the district launched a program to provide all students and teachers in the school with an iPad, says Andrew Marcinek, then an instructional technology specialist at the school. He came up with the idea for the class.
Teens provided students and teachers with tech support, which freed up time for employees in the IT department, he says.
A lot of students didn’t know much about technology before the course, but they knew how to research, ask the right questions, find answers and think on their feet, Marcinek says. Additionally, they knew when to give up troubleshooting a problem when it was clear they weren’t going to solve it, he says. It’s not about the tech skills, but the skills students need to solve these problems.
The course evolved to include other tasks, including writing app reviews and working on passion projects, says Marcinek, now chief information officer at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
“People who have been somewhat introverted, through our program develop the confidence to be able to interact with their peers and with teachers at a level that some would have thought was not possible for them,” says Sal DeAngelo, chief technology officer at Bethlehem Central School District in New York. The student-run help desk at Bethlehem Central High provides front-end tech support districtwide.
Student technicians develop soft skills such as collaboration and problem-solving – which DeAngleo thinks are even more essential than showing a teacher how to use a Chromebook, for instance – though students do develop tech skills like basic networking.
Educators can start a help desk program at their high school by following steps.
1. Figure out the logistics: Educators aiming to design a help desk course should work with the appropriate people in their district to make sure students can get credit, that it sounds good on a student’s transcript, offers skills besides tech support, such as research, and aligns with academic standards, says Marcinek.
Students accepted into the extracurricular help desk program at Bethlehem Central High, which started in 2012, don’t receive course credit, says DeAngelo, however some teens receive community service or career exploration credit. Students work during their free time, such as study hall.
2. Get the community on-board: Educators should talk with parents about a potential help desk class to ensure they understand what the course will cover to help them get comfortable with the idea, says Marcinek.
He recommends educators present the course idea to administration as a project-based class – emphasize it’s not just a computer course and showcase the skills students will learn, says Marcinek. Let them know the course will benefit the entire school.
Some people have expressed concerns student technicians displace full-time employees, says DeAngelo. There also may be union concerns, he says.
It’s true students do work that may traditionally be done by a paid employee, he says. “If you only look at it that way, you miss a big opportunity to provide students with this relevant experience and at the same time provide the full-time employees with the opportunity to work on more complex issues that typically are facing the district.”
3. Make sure students can be successful: Marcinek has seen these help desk programs pop-up in libraries and random classrooms. As long as students have access to a computer of some sort and the internet, they should be ready to go, he says.
Some educators are reluctant to give students sometimes unprecedented access to systems, says DeAngelo. That’s OK, he says, because there are ways for students to provide support without having full access.
“Just start small and build, and you will be amazed at what students are capable of.”