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Support your 1:1 program with a student tech team

By Jennifer Scheffer
April 21, 2015
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Leaders who understand the landscape of our digital world know that they must involve a school’s most important stakeholders in their 1:1 planning and decision-making process. That stakeholder group is students. From determining the right device to recommending applications, leaders must listen to student voice, because the students, ultimately, are the end users.

This happens daily at Burlington High School (BHS) in Massachusetts.

Our student-run Help Desk, modeled after Apple’s Genius bar, plays an integral role in Burlington’s technology-rich learning environment. Student geniuses, as we call them, receive the ultimate real-world learning experience while earning credit for an academic course. At the same time, they offer vital assistance to the district’s IT department, which supports six schools and manages more than 4,000 devices districtwide.

The BHS Help Desk is a model for digital age learning that other schools are emulating around the United States. The students are technology leaders and offer first-level technology support to the entire Burlington community, including their peers, teachers, administrators, staff and parents.

Read on for the answers to some of the frequently asked questions we get from school leaders who contact us for guidance in developing their own student technology teams to support 1:1 or BYOD rollouts.

Where do we start?

Developing a student technology team requires many logistics. Begin by writing a description or outline of your program. Determine if you will offer the Help Desk as a volunteer experience or an academic course. If it’s the latter, follow the standard protocol established by your school for developing new courses. This may involve approval from a curriculum director, guidance department and/or school board. Once approved as a course, the next step is to select an instructor or team of teachers to develop a standards-based curriculum.

Additional questions to address include:

  • Will the course be pass/fail or will students earn a letter/numeric grade?
  • How will it be listed in your course catalog?
  • Which department will the course fall under?
  • Will it be a leveled course?
  • Will there be any prerequisites?
  • Who can take the course?
  • How many credits will students earn?
  • How will students be assessed?

The BHS Help Desk is part of our Business Department and is listed in our program of studies as the Student Technology Integration and Innovation course. It is a semester-long CP1 class worth 2.5 credits. Students may enroll their sophomore year and take four semesters, or two full years.

How does the Help Desk align with learning goals and standards?

Our Help Desk syllabus demonstrates how the course curriculum aligns with the Burlington High School Learning Goals, Common Core State Standards and ISTE Standards for Students. Once enrolled, students are engaged in a variety of learning activities, many of which are shared with a global audience via the Help Desk blog. Students:

How do you set up the physical Help Desk station/classroom?

When building your program, think about the physical location of your Help Desk, its visibility and how to design the space. Because it is a service area, it needs to be different from the average classroom environment. Select a centralized location with high visibility that will be easy for students and teachers to visit throughout the day to get their technology questions answered.

You also need to design a space that’s conducive to collaboration and comfortable for the student geniuses as well as anyone who visits. And don’t forget the color! At BHS, the Help Desk is located in the back of the school’s library, a central hub for learning. Equipment and furniture in the space include comfortable seating for students and visitors, a wall lined with Macs, two Apple TV’s and two L-shaped desks designed for small-group collaboration.

Our Help Desk is open six out of seven periods a day and is staffed by one to four students per period.

How do you select and train the student geniuses?

Finding the right students for a Help Desk program is vital. The ideal student is not necessarily a technology wiz, although prerequisite knowledge and experience with your school’s hardware and applications is recommended, especially if you plan to allow your students to handle advanced technology issues, such as repairing broken devices or accessing your school’s IT ticketing system.

Students with a sincere desire to help others and a willingness to explore new technologies are apt to thrive in a Help Desk program. Seek out inquisitive risk takers who enjoy new challenges, problem solving and managing multiple tasks. Students who enjoy creative writing, multimedia video production and public speaking are also good candidates. Students with an interest in IT, networking, computer programming, marketing and entrepreneurship can also help you cultivate a strong team. Business oriented students are crucial if you plan to offer consultation services to area businesses. If you strive to build a diverse staff of students, both males and females, with varying skill sets rooted in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math), you’ll be well on your way to shaping the next generation of innovators.

To market your new course and recruit students, develop promotional materials, such as a recruitment video or digital posters, and if possible, let parents know about your new program and the real-world learning opportunities it will provide.

In Burlington, students are required to complete an application and must interview with members of the educational technology staff to be admitted into the course. Once accepted into the program, we give them training on troubleshooting hardware and applications, writing for a global audience, creating screencasts, facilitating live broadcasts and delivering an effective classroom training session. A large part of their training centers on soft skills and providing excellent customer service.

Who should coach the student geniuses?

Hiring the right instructional staff to coach your Help Desk students is another important factor in building your program. A strong candidate might be a teacher with a background in computer technology/programming, business management, marketing or entrepreneurship. However, as more and more teachers of different content areas cross over into technology education, it’s not uncommon to see a former English, social studies, math or science teacher leading a student technology team. And because library and technology standards align, you should also consider librarians and/or media specialists.

Follow the licensure or certification requirements of your state when hiring your student technology team instructor. I am dual licensed in the state of Massachusetts in both business and instructional technology.

How can the Help Desk be an opportunity to make students partners in pedagogy?

Student geniuses at BHS do more than simply offer first-level technology support. Over the course of four years, students have emerged in our community as well-known technology leaders. They possess a mastery level of skill and knowledge with foundational apps including the Google suite, Notability, iMovie, Dropbox and WordPress. This knowledge of technology allows them to serve as partners in pedagogy by offering teachers new ideas for instructional strategies and project-based learning.

Our teachers have embraced a culture where they can learn from their students and can rely on them for support with technology integration. Our students also serve as model digital citizens and showcase their understanding of digital citizenship in authentic ways. They use technology to shape their digital identities, have impressive LinkedIn profiles and use Twitter as a professional communication tool to build their personal learning networks.

Prior to launching your own Help Desk, communicate with your teaching staff the purpose and mission of your program. Explain what types of tasks Help Desk students will be able to assist with and use technology to share this message. Have your students design a promotional campaign letting teachers know they have a core group of students who are willing and able to help solve technology problems and offer suggestions on the best ways to engage learners.

At Burlington, student geniuses collaborate with teachers to create impressive large-scale multimedia projects but are also available for daily workflow support. The culture embraces the tech-savviness of the students and appreciates their constant support and customer service. Include opportunities for your students to create a positive digital presence and build an online portfolio showcasing their skills and talents.

How should we get the word out about our student tech team?

Burlington’s leadership regularly recognizes the contributions of Help Desk students and shares their voice through multiple platforms. This has led to global recognition of our program. Once your student technology team is ready to launch, be sure to do the same. The unique, real-world learning opportunities the students in your Help Desk program get to experience will impress your entire school community. You should celebrate and share the talent of your student geniuses both locally and globally to garner recognition not only for them, but for your school.

Are you planning a school- or districtwide 1:1 or BYOD tech initiative? Get some guidance from ISTE's free Lead & Transform Diagnostic Tool.

Jenn Scheffer is a mobile learning coach and instructional technology specialist for Burlington Public Schools, a 1:1 iPad and Google Apps for Education district. She leads the globally recognized, student-run Help Desk program at Burlington High School, is a certified Google Educator and the Massachusetts Google Educator Group Leader, and co-moderates digital citizenship Twitter chats. Connect Scheffer through her blog, on Twitter at @jlscheffer or on Google+.