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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Angels in the Network Architecture: Student Techies

Need tech expertise? Look to the students (but avoid the imps).
By John Blyler

Suggestions for building the trust necessary to go along with programs like Generation YES:



* Encourage students to share their technological know-how, but don't fret if they seem more tech savvy than you.



* Work hard to show students the importance of trust and responsibility, but don't be surprised if some fail in their duties. Use such failure as a growth experience.



* Encourage the use of technology in the classroom, but don't let it dominate your lesson plans. In the end, technology is only a tool.

Credit: Bill Duke

Ryan Neill was the perfect person to help set up a wireless network at McKay High School, in Salem, Oregon. At age seventeen, the self-described benevolent hacker was as knowledgeable about the technical issues involved as someone twice his age. If all went well, he'd have the security problems fixed and the network up and running in no time.

Good thing McKay's administrators were open to allowing the teenage techie access to their network. Kids often know more about technology than their teachers -- they grow up steeped in it, after all -- but incorporating their know-how into school computer systems can be a vast undertaking that requires just the right confluence of trust and expertise.

Programs like Generation YES can help by teaming students and teachers together to integrate newer technologies -- digital photography, Web cams, email, and basic spreadsheet or presentation software -- into lesson plans. For example, a high school student might assist a third-grade teacher in preparing for an ecology field trip to a local marsh by helping set up digital cameras and preparing a Web site to display the photos. Generation YES supplies resources to help schools implement such integration programs. Annual licenses cost $3,000 to $5,000, though some schools pay only $100, and others even make money because they run training sessions for other schools.

Assisting teachers with the electronic nuts and bolts is critical, because instructors will often stop using a given technology if operational issues pop up during the day. Here, too, Generation YES students lend a hand, through a related program called Generation TECH that sets students up at a school to provide same-day help to teachers.

What if the students hinder rather than help, though? Ryan's expertise almost went to waste because a student had been caught hacking into the school's grading system in 1998. Since then, McKay's network administrator had been reluctant to give students access to the network.

Ryan overcame apprehensions by working as a department aide, which established him as a trustworthy student. (It also gave him an edge for an after-school job.) Along with the network administrator and a few other students, he got the network running. It now supports an Internet Web-design course, as well as the Telesecundaria Program, which allows young immigrants from Mexico who work in the United States during the harvest season to continue schoolwork -- on wirelessly enabled laptops -- when they return to Mexico in the winter.

Best of all, McKay now uses students for technical help all the time. A little trust goes a long way.

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