When I talk to teachers about the barriers to integrating technology into their classrooms, there’s one that comes up again and again: “when it doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do.”
It’s a big problem, no doubt, especially for teachers who don’t feel confident with the technology to begin with. Most of us have been there – you spend seven hours planning this great lesson and when you’re ready to teach it, the Internet won’t work. Or the projector doesn’t turn on. Or the program disappears. It’s the most frustrating piece of technology integration and, too often, it’s the piece that we tech-geeks ignore.
As the technology integration specialist at an elementary school in Phoenix, I would get calls daily from teachers asking me to come fix this or that. It became incredibly annoying because most of the time, I was in the middle of teaching, too. “I’m the ed tech person, NOT tech help,” I would grumble to myself. “I can help you write lessons. I’m not here to fix your Internet.”
But in reality, the technical difficulties were preventing teachers from integrating technology. So it was my job to find a solution. Lucky for me, I worked under an amazing district-wide ed-tech specialist.
One day, she brought up GenerationYES!, a fee-based program that uses students to train teachers in modern technology.
Use the Workforce You’ve Got
As teachers, we’re great at this concept. When we need 100 papers stapled or 50 apples cut out or our science equipment cleaned, we use the slave labor sitting right in front of us – our students. So why not use them for tech help as well?
In my school, we didn’t actually use the GenerationYES! program. Instead, we created our own version of it that fit our needs (and was free). At the time, we were in the middle of installing Promethean ACTIVboards in every classroom, and teacher training was a big challenge.
The district offered whole-day trainings for teachers to attend. Since I was my school’s tech trainer, I had received in-depth training the year before and had been using a board in my classroom for months. So my fourth-grade students were adept at using it and trouble-shooting any problems. (They even took the lead on teaching themselves when I left all my lessons in ACTIVstudio flipcharts for a substitute.)
Programs like GenerationYES! often require students to attend an additional technology class within the school day. But our school didn’t have the resources for an additional class. Instead, we decided to send some of my fourth-graders, as well as some students from other schools, to the Saturday teacher trainings. They sat side-by-side with teachers and learned all the ins and outs of the software and hardware.
Then, when they returned to school, they became our tech-help desk.
We wanted to make sure we had a range of students within our tech-help group – higher performers, lower performers, English-language learners, special ed students, even behavior challenges. If a student had an interest and an aptitude for technology, we didn’t want to exclude him/her from the program for any reason. It would give them valuable job experience, in terms of technical knowledge, problem-solving skills, and professional interactions.
But at the same time, we didn’t want to take away from their other studies. The whole point of using students was that teachers like me couldn’t be pulled out of class. Instead, the students would be pulled. So how could we do that without hurting their learning?
Our approach was two-fold: first, minimize their time out of the classroom and, second, ensure that the experience was improving their literacy skills (since reading and writing scores at our school tended to be the lowest). So we created some guidelines:
We would train 5-10 students on each school campus. Our elementary schools went up to 5th grade, so at least half of the students would be fourth-graders. That way, they could help train a new group of fourth-graders the following year, and so on. Teachers who had been using the boards chose students who had shown strong technology skills and interest.
Students were numbered. When the first call came, student 1 would be responsible for it. The next call would go to student 2, etc. Since there were rarely more than three calls per week, the students would only be pulled out of class, on average, once a month.
Also, the students’ time was limited. They would have 15 minutes to fix the problem. If they couldn’t figure it out within 15 minutes, they would note it on their report and return to class. I would then address the problem after school.
For every call, the students had to fill out a brief report. The report was a one-page handout where students would detail the time, the room number, the problem, what they did to try to fix it, and whether the problem was resolved. After their 15 (or fewer) minutes on the call, they would drop the report in a box inside my classroom door, and return to class.
If a teacher needed assistance, they would call me, and I would call the next student on the list out of class. It was still a distraction for me, so other schools might want to have an office-based procedure. However, I liked knowing exactly when a student left class, so I knew that I should expect to see them drop a report in my room within 15 minutes.
Unfortunately, at my school, we started this process just a couple of weeks before the end of my final year there. In the starting phases, it was working well, but we were still tweaking it when I left. As far as I know, the ed-tech specialist who succeeded me didn’t keep the program up, so I have no data on how well it would have worked.
Run well, a student tech-help desk can be a sustainable solution to teacher fear — arguably the largest barrier to technology integration in schools. And it’s a program that can be administered, for free, even in elementary schools. The process detailed above was the best solution for our campus, but it might not be the best approach to yours.
I now work in the education department of an aquarium. We’re planning to implement a similar program with teenagers we work with, but our resources and our challenges are very different than at most schools. Instead of offering tech help, the teens will help us train teachers on technology integration within the science classroom.
Other schools, especially those using the GenerationYES! curriculum, have students help teachers find technology integration tools. Some students even help teachers plan and teach lessons. (For programs like these, though, it can require a larger time committment, with students taking an additional technology class during the school day.)
If you’re interested in creating a student tech-help desk, I would suggest looking into GenerationYES!, as well as the similar programs outlined in this School Library Journal article, before making final plans.