MIAMI — In a Tuesday afternoon session at the Future of Education Technology Conference, Brian Zimmer and Joe Montemaro, both directors of educational technology for New York's Webster Central School District, shared how they supported a 1:1 initiative by placing students in support roles.
While this sort of initiative gives schools and districts the benefit of additional support for existing IT staff without necessitating new hires, its true benefit lies in valuable practical experience that students can add to their resumés.
“One of the things we’re finding is it’s empowering kids,” said Zimmer (pictured above), noting that they see former students who are now running student technology help desks at universities. Many are also pursuing related career paths.
But the student technology internship program, known in the district as the Webster Technical Internship (WTI), didn't just happen overnight. When Zimmer was brought on to lead the district's technology department seven years ago, he said, it was "in shambles" and in need of a major transition.
The district, which is just east of Rochester and serves approximately 8,400 students in 11 schools, had major inequities between schools in the number of devices available. Some buildings had carts equipped with dozens of laptops while others had none. Working with the district's assistant superintendent for business, the tech department set out in 2014 to make access consistent across schools with a 1:1 device program.
In doing so, Zimmer wanted to ensure that the district slowed down and took time to provide adequate preparation and planning.
Montemaro was brought in two years after Zimmer to assist with this transition, and the duo said they asked themselves — and continue to do so — how technology fits into preparing students and teachers alike for the future of work. While students must be equipped with skills that allow them to adapt for jobs that might not yet exist, for example, teachers have to learn how to innovate and enhance their lessons for students rather than simply digitizing the existing worksheets they’ve used for years, Zimmer said.
On top of this challenge, they also realized their existing IT staff would be shorthanded and unable to handle support for an additional 2,300 iPads and 7,000 Chromebooks.
"My team had seven technicians on it," Zimmer said, noting that they already serviced thousands of devices prior to the 1:1 rollout. With this in mind, they laid the groundwork for the WTI.
What does the program look like?
About 50 students across the district's two high schools are active in the WTI program.
The base program, a student-led IT help desk, spans across grade levels from freshmen “recruits” to senior leadership. Its instructor takes a coaching/mentorship approach, letting the students determine what they want out of the program while trusting and supporting them.
The help desk takes walk-ins in addition to handling building-level support with copy machines and other equipment.
The program's second phase is an elective course dubbed Technology Innovation and Exploration, or TIE, and is exclusive to juniors and seniors. At this stage, students take on inquiry-based projects. This year's, for instance, documented the history of technology in Rochester, and others have included Black Friday Cheat Sheet sites, TED Talks and blog posts.
Students in the TIE course also take field trips to places such as the Rochester Museum and Science Center's SciFi Tech Exhibit, in addition to collaborating and networking with IT professionals.
For the last three years, between 14 and 20 of the students also were hired during summer to assist with prepping and refreshing devices for the new school year as part of a paid summer workers program in the district. These roles require them to go through human resources, fill out applications, complete interviews, follow the district's employee code handbook and more.
Some of the program's “alumni” also return in the summer for these roles, sharing their experiences with current students and helping out as district employees.
More than technical skills
Students also get to take on the non-traditional role of presenting to audiences including the school board, as well as to teachers and peers learning to use various tools.
Getting student panels in front of a school board or superintendent is key to selling this sort of program's success, Zimmer said, because it serves as a reminder of the "students first" approach.
"The thing I am most proud of is the student program."
Director of educational technology, Webster Central School District
Montemaro often focuses on digital citizenship, and he tells students up front that the program is 80% soft skills and 20% technical skills. While students come out with a broad range of tech skills, he also emphasizes that companies already have plenty of people with those skills and want candidates who can effectively communicate and explain things to other people.
“It’s our opportunity to help them grow,” Zimmer said.
Those soft skill opportunities also come in the form of breaking down potential barriers with buy-in from teachers who may not be as willing to integrate new tech — or accept help from teenage workers. Zimmer noted that at times they've advised some students to avoid teachers who shut their doors and won’t let anyone help them, but one attendee noted even the “grumpiest” teachers will usually give.
A lot of it comes down to trust and accepting that a student might know the answers to something they don’t.
“We haven’t broken the barrier down with everybody, but it’s been a nice transition,” Zimmer said, adding that once the barrier is broken, these educators are open to more and more help.
How to get started
Planning for the program largely followed the implementation stages laid out by the National Implementation Research Network at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. But Zimmer and Montemaro also provided advice for attendees hoping to draft proposals for a student technology internship program.
Among the questions they advised a pitch document should consider are:
- What resources do you have available (staff, grants, etc.) that you can rally to your cause?
- What community connections do you have that could support a student tech worker program?
- What is the value add of a student worker program for your students/school/district?
- For your district, how would your environment be enhanced by adding a student tech worker program?
- What are the barriers or challenges you need to overcome to start a student tech worker program?
- What connections/conversations need to be had to support a student tech worker program?
- What school connections could be made to support a student program?
- What community connections could be made to support a student program?
In line with these implementation stages, a proposal should allow for a two- to- five-year time span to fully implement a program.
Addressing a common question that may arise during the process — whether a 9th grader can handle fixing a broken Chromebook or if students should just stick to basic troubleshooting — Zimmer said the district gives students in the program broken devices so they can problem-solve and fix them, in line with the spirit of inquiry-based learning.
The district uses Chromebooks from Dell, with extended warranties to cover replacement parts, and as an added bonus receives around $38 back every time they can fix a device and Dell doesn’t have to send out a technician. The turnaround time, he said, averages around 24-36 hours on most devices once student help desk workers put the information in Dell Tech Direct’s system and get the replacement part in.
The devices are replaced around every three years, and Zimmer said the program is now reaching the point where students are teaching the adults and "we trust them enough to represent the department as an employee and to do that job."
Though he added it's still important to check their work and offer pointers.
In addition to the existing summer training "boot camp" for the program and certifications for Dell Chromebook repair and Microsoft, the program is also exploring certifications in A+ and Cisco, among others.
"The thing I am most proud of is the student program," Montemaro said, calling it the best thing the department has done "bar none."