Burlington High School in Massachusetts is home to the BHS Help Desk, one of the first student-run “genius bars” in the U.S. modeled after Apple’s Genius Bar. Schools throughout the country hold this help desk program up as an exemplar, but launching it didn’t come without challenges.
Sustaining its success for both students and staff has required attention and adjustments as the technology needs of our school community changes over time.
As faculty facilitators of the BHS Help Desk, we have helped students manage the genius bar in ways that have inspired them to own their learning while gaining invaluable real-world skills.
We develop the curriculum, establish learning outcomes, design assessments and promote the help desk services to all of the school’s stakeholders. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are well worth it.
Want to launch and facilitate a student tech team in your school? Here’s our step-by-step guide for facilitators:
1. Design your curriculum
We offer the help desk as a formal course called Student Technology Integration and Innovation, a 2.5-credit semester-long technology and programming elective, offered during each period of the day. Students may take the course for four semesters, or two full years, and enrollment ranges from one to seven students per period.
The help desk curriculum aligns with the Common Core, the Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards (updated in 2016), and the ISTE Standards.
Specific learning outcomes include:
Proficiency in the use of computers and applications as well as an understanding of the concepts underlying hardware, software and connectivity.
Responsible use of technology and an understanding of ethics and safety issues in using electronic media at home, in school and in society.
Ability to use technology for research, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation.
In short, the BHS Help Desk curriculum strives to give students real-world learning opportunities through three main activities:
Providing technology support
Developing an individual learning endeavor (ILE)
Leveraging social media and blogging platforms
Providing technology support
Help desk students use critical and analytical thinking skills to solve authentic technology-related problems for our 1:1 iPad, Google Apps for Education learning community. They apply oral and written communication skills daily by consulting and collaborating with their peers and teachers about creative ways to integrate technology in the classroom and by publishing on the BHS Help Desk blog.
Developing an individual learning endeavor
We expect students to be self-driven, independent and capable of managing multiple projects, just as they would be if they were in the workplace. We encourage them to take initiative and devise an independent learning path centered on technology. Help desk students do this by developing an individual learning endeavor (ILE), our version of a 20-percent time Genius Hour project.
One such ILE project was the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot pilot program that we implemented in the spring and summer of 2018. ISTE had approached us about our interest in participating in this program, which covered the basics of using Amazon Web Service’s Lex and Lambda tools to create a chatbot. Lex is essentially the “intelligence” behind the Alexa smart speaker, and Lambda allows you to create and run additional code that uses Amazon’s servers and integrates with your chatbot.
During help desk, senior Gati Aher headed a team that researched and developed a chatbot that could assist users with basic tech support questions. She presented her work at ISTE 2018 in Chicago.
Leveraging social media and blogging platforms
Upon completion of the course, students have the technology skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college or the workplace, and their e-portfolios showcase their achievements. Many also leverage social media to demonstrate their leadership, build their professional networks and prove their understanding of responsible digital citizenship.
Want to learn more ways to build your course curriculum? Feel free to use our help desk syllabus as a reference guide.
2. Develop your learning activities and assessments
Learning activities for a student tech team vary from school to school, but the practical nature of the curriculum lends itself to college, career and life skills that are transferable to most, if not all, industries. Members of a student tech team should graduate from their respective programs with both technical and soft skills that are highly sought after by employers, and their online resumes should incorporate their tech team accomplishments along with their other work experiences.
You also need to spend time on the technical aspects of repairing and/or troubleshooting hardware and devices if your students will be responsible for those tasks. At Burlington, students are capable of troubleshooting issues with hardware and cloud-based applications, and also work on special projects for other departments such as our augmented reality sandbox project.
As help desk alumna Cat Hoyt has pointed out, it’s important to emphasize to students that they aren’t working in a simulation of the real world, but that a student-run genius bar is the real world. To that end, they need to understand that their job is to provide all school stakeholders with exceptional customer service.
We spend a substantial amount of time teaching help desk students how to greet visitors, determine what they need, solve their problems and build long-term customer relationships. Jennifer Scheffer wrote the WIRED guide to customer service to help our students understand the fundamental concepts of customer service, and Cat made this creative video to further emphasize how the level of customer service that students provide directly correlates to how people view the help desk.
We give students the autonomy and freedom to explore new and emerging technologies and then encourage them to share with the school community how these technologies can be integrated into various content areas and grade levels. Teachers at our school sometimes call upon our student geniuses to deliver classroom demonstrations and trainings on various applications. After a training session, teachers may complete an evaluation form giving students authentic feedback about their strengths and areas for improvement as presenters.
3. Identify, recruit and promote your team
When seeking students to join your tech team, think broadly. It’s important to recruit a diverse team with varied skill sets. In Burlington, we look for several different “types” of students in a number of settings, including:
Techie students. Perhaps the stereotypical help desk student type, these kids are savvy at troubleshooting device and hardware issues. They tend to be hands-on learners who enjoy deconstructing problems and offering multiple solutions. Many of these students intend to pursue careers in IT or computer programming. They are generally enrolled in computer science courses, and several are working on coding their own applications.
Artistic students. Contrary to popular belief, artsy types are the ideal fit for a student tech team. These students may be taking graphic design and art courses. Although they often don’t consider themselves “good with technology,” they can help drive innovation in your course with their innate creativity and ability to take risks. They typically excel when collaborating with teachers and students on the creation of large-scale multimedia projects, 3D printing work and game design. And should you wish to develop a makerspace, reaching out to artists and designers is a must.
Writers. If you want to create a student-run blog similar to Burlington’s, I also encourage you to seek out talented writers who will emerge as your ed tech bloggers, eager to publish for a global audience. Members of your school’s student newspaper as well as those taking creative writing and journalism classes are ideal candidates for a student tech team.
Marketing, business and entrepreneurship students. Students who wish to pursue careers in sales, promotions, customer service, business management or social media would also be a good fit for a student tech team. These students will be exceptional social media managers. They can create and maintain your team’s presence across all the relevant social networks, such as and Twitter and YouTube, to help promote your services throughout the school.
Drama, speech and video students. Public speaking and video production class rolls are two more places to find potential recruits. These students will be first to volunteer to give classroom demonstrations, speak and present at education conferences and interview guests during a live Hangout on air. Video production students who may prefer to be behind the camera can add tremendous value with their technical backgrounds. For the past few years, several help desk students organized and spoke (as part of their 20-percent-time projects) at our TEDxYouth events. Collaborating with the video production students on this event allowed me to meet a whole new group of potential help desk students.
Thinking outside the box when it comes to recruiting students will ensure you are creating an environment that represents the real world. A team built around varying interests, backgrounds and skill sets will result in an authentic learning experience for all while best meeting the diverse needs of your entire school community.
As an added bonus, it will also likely encourage more young women to get interested and excited to enroll in your program. It’s important to let young women know they are capable of success as a member of a tech team. And giving them creative, real-world learning opportunities is a smart and strategic way to bring gender diversity to your team.
Once you’ve recruited your team, assign them to collaborate on the development of a promotional campaign that may include a commercial or music video. Introduce the members of your team to a global audience via your blog and have your students do the same as one of their first portfolio assignments.
4. Establish your mission, purpose and goals.
As you prepare to launch your tech team, allow your students as much control and ownership over the direction of the program as possible. Here are a few ways to do that:
Treat the help desk like a service-based business from the start, and your students will do the same.
Work with your team to develop a mission statement and communicate that mission with all stakeholders.
Ensure your students know their purpose as members of the tech team and stress how valuable they are to supporting your school’s 1:1 or BYOD environment.
Give them opportunities to develop their leadership skills and professionalism by formally introducing them to your teachers, administration and, if possible, parents.
Create a flexible curriculum that can change as the needs of your school community changes.
While your students will thrive in an autonomous environment, you should also provide some structure and minimum expectations. Initially it is important to work with them to set attainable goals for the semester.
By the end of the course, each student should have evidence of their learning chronicled in a unique portfolio they can leverage in college and their career.
Because every school is different, every student tech team will also be unique. Feel free to modify or adapt the ideas in this article to fit the needs of your school culture.
LeRoy Wong is an instructional technology specialist for Burlington High School. He is currently the leader of the help desk program at Burlington High School. LeRoy has worked for the Office of Instructional Technology at the Massachusetts Department of Education as well as the Office of Instructional and Information Technology at Boston Public Schools. He recently co-presented at a poster session on artificial intelligence chatbots at the ISTE 2018 conference with help desk student. Connect with Wong through Twitter @leroywong or by email at email@example.com.
Gati Aher is a senior at Burlington High School. She has a strong interested in computer science and robot design and hopes to make the world a better place by pursuing a career in artificial intelligence and robotics. Watch her TEDx talk.
Jenn Scheffer formerly led the globally recognized student-run help desk program at Burlington High School and is currently the instructional technology specialist at Fox Hill Elementary School in Burlington. She is a Google for Education Certified Trainer, the Massachusetts Google Educator Group Leader, and co-moderates digital citizenship Twitter chats. Connect with Scheffer through her blog, on Twitter at @jlscheffer or on Google+.
This is an updated version of an article first published in 2015.
Images: Courtesy of Burlington High School Help Desk.