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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tech Without Support: IT Snags Hamper Schools' Technology Use

Schools get creative when untangling PC problems.
By Alexandra R. Moses

Harry Costner's eighth graders trickle into class, get their assignments for the day, and grab the tools they need to complete them. Like a real TV newsroom, these video-journalism students take small video cameras, hook them up to computers, and launch the necessary programs to edit hours of raw footage into a polished graduation video.

Outside Costner's Gunston Middle School classroom, in Arlington, Virginia, students in a geography class see part of their lesson on an interactive whiteboard. After school, kids in a podcasting club produce the Buzzwords podcast, available on iTunes. Drama and art students collaborate with the video-journalism kids to create claymation videos for Black History Month.

These creative technology initiatives couldn't happen without Gunston's five-person technology team. The school's English teacher likens the tech experience at Gunston to a honeymoon compared to other schools where he has taught: schools like many across the country that get the computers, the network, and the latest digital teaching tools, but don't have anyone at the school -- or in some cases, the school district -- to get it all up and running, fix it when it breaks, or show teachers how to use it.

Bad, and Getting Worse

Nearly half of educators surveyed by the National Education Association said insufficient support impacted their use of technology. The result: Tech support may be setting the speed limit for how fast new technology makes it into classrooms. And it's hardly a racecourse for some. It's not that having a tech person is new; it's that technology has rapidly become integral to education, from keeping attendance records to using digital video to teach Chaucer, and the demands on that one person have multiplied exponentially.

In schools lacking even a single support person (and many do, with large districts like San Francisco Unified Schools reporting the equivalent of one tech support person for every 3,000 students), the result is that teachers simply don't use technology -- not just the advanced stuff, but basic items like classroom computers.

Rene Mitsui, a second-grade teacher at San Francisco's Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, says she got rid of two of her five classroom computers because they were "junk" and she had better uses for the space. Mitsui adds that work orders put in for repairs or to get applications installed take days to fill because there is so little tech support for the district.

Students to the Rescue

Without the money to add support staff, schools must use alternatives such as teachers and students to make the most of cutting-edge educational technology.

James Tenbusch, superintendent of District 181, in Hinsdale, Illinois, says one such alternative is getting the tech-savvy people at the school to be part of the support chain. "Sometimes that means paying them stipends," Tenbusch says. "Sometimes that means having the kids earn a little money on the side."

At Zion-Benton Township High School, in northern Illinois, for instance, students in the TechCrew club spend a couple of hours after school fixing computer problems. Over the summer, a select group of TechCrew members can earn $8-$9 an hour, thirty hours a week, fixing and upgrading the school's computers.

Schools in Chicago, New York, and California use the Mouse Squad, a program that trains students to be their school's tech troubleshooters -- installing operating systems, setting up printers, performing hardware-related tasks, and learning industry-standard processes for resolving support requests. Ted Bongiovanni, director of programs at Mouse, says schools that use a Mouse Squad save about $17,000 a year in tech support.

Teachers and administrators do have concerns about using students as tech support, especially if they can access the school's network or data files. Bongiovanni says administrators can limit where students are allowed -- plenty of work can be done even within strict parameters.

The student helpers are a bit like teacher's assistants or interns, says Hannah Kim, who teaches art and computers at the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology, in Queens, New York City. Though the school has a computer technician, Kim says she fills in the gaps in addition to full-time teaching duties. The Mouse Squad students and faculty are working to establish a help desk to make her job easier. "These students can assist me in troubleshooting problems like, 'My computer froze.' It won't be just me doing this alone," Kim says. "There are routine tasks that take up precious time."

Students aren't the only ones who can provide support. Just as Kim pitches in at her school, techie teachers often play the role of troubleshooter, as well as try to show their colleagues how to use new technology in their instruction. At Gunston, Harry Costner often works with other teachers to find ways to incorporate digital video. "Half of my world is figuring out a way to walk into a class and say 'OK, how can we utilize this?'" Costner says. "When I sit down with a teacher, I don't even talk about technology. I say, 'What do you want your students to have accomplished at the end of this project?' And then we talk about how the technology can get them there."

Concerns exist about leaving tech support to the teachers, too. If having good tech support allows teachers to focus on lessons, then adding extra duties to already busy teachers isn't ideal. Other alternatives include outsourcing some or all of a district's technology to an application service provider or turning to the Web to get help from others who've encountered a specific tech problem.

One Way or Another

Ultimately, the tech support must be there for schools to move forward with new programs and ways of educating, including online classes and one-to-one computing. In Virginia, a state mandate calls for two technology positions per 1,000 students in grades K-12, with one to fix hardware and network problems and the other to work with teachers on incorporating the latest educational tools. But such efforts are costly: The state's share of the cost in 2004 was just under $82 million. Districts also pitch in, with varying cost depending on resources.

What's going on at Gunston is, in many ways, the ideal tech-support situation, blending the official support mandated by the state with tech-savvy teachers, including the school librarian, who maintains the school's Web site and offers Internet help, and Costner, who troubleshoots and helps teachers use video and other multimedia in their instruction.

In Costner's classroom, called Network 21 because the school's two television shows are shot and produced there, students produce segments for the shows and create videos using programs such as Apple's iMovie, GarageBand, and Final Cut Express. For an interdisciplinary drama, art, and video-journalism project, the middle school students create claymation videos.

For a claymation project, the students took ordinary art supplies -- clay, cardboard, and paint -- to create the scenes and sets to tell the life story of Oprah Winfrey. The sets are nice, but leaving clay figures to sit on a table like an elaborate craft project is so last century. In the twenty-first century, video cameras and computers capture the project as a mini-movie, with titles, music, narration, and animated, colorful clay figures moving across the screen. Burned onto a disc, this project can be seen by anyone, anytime.

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education issues.

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