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How To "Use" Students

Students can be a great IT resource for school districts. Just make sure you set a program to train

What's an administrator to do? On the one hand, you have a growing need for adequate tech support. On the other hand, there have been so many cuts and deletions in recent years your budget is beginning to resemble Swiss cheese. On the third hand, which seems increasingly needed, there is a student population who potentially embody a cheap sustainable reservoir of computer skills. You have too many hands. And the head in between them all is wondering if student-run computer support is practicable, feasible and most of all, secure. So what should you do?

First, relax. The solution uses the best efforts of both your tech staff and your students. A well-structured, well-supervised student-staffed computer maintenance program run by a trained and actively involved staff of IT professionals is a district's best defense against any concerns that might exist around the use of student labor. "With a competent adult at the helm, kids can do 95 percent of IT tasks," says Dennis Harper, the founder and CEO of Generation YES, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting student involvement in school computer networks.

"For the first time, you have kids knowing more than their teachers about something important. We're foolish not to use them."
-Dennis Harper, CEO of Generation YES

Schools have always used students as part of their workforce, from AV techs to library aides to office assistants. It's not exploitation, it's a way to allow students to learn, to problem-solve, gain self-esteem, and become important members of the school community. Tech training is another learning opportunity for students, not a distraction from the business of school. If it becomes a distraction--if, for instance, students are being called out of math class to leap to the rescue of some other teacher's crashing hard drive, that's an inappropriate use of student labor.

How To Structure a Program

Students can be trained to perform many of the routine tasks that a school's network requires. This process builds community and saves the district money. The temptation, however, to only use student labor is best avoided. Any student involvement in school tech maintenance "has to be built around a solid core of full-time employees," says Steven E. Miller, the project director of CoSN's Cyber Security for the Digital District initiative. "You can't rely on student assistance alone. ... If you're not willing to budget seriously for maintaining your network, you're in trouble. What happens when your technological wizards graduate?"

Tasks for students follow a rough hierarchy. At the most basic level, kids can be taught to put together resources and work with teachers on specific projects, like setting up e-mail lists so teachers can easily send e-mail to students and parents. They can troubleshoot hardware problems, install software, run anti-virus updates, perform routine back-ups, de-fragment hard drives, and refurbish hardware. From there, they can advance to tasks like cleaning out old computers and installing new operating systems, Web site building and some system administration.

There should always be levels of access in which students take no part. There are no guarantees of safety on any network, but there are standard precautions any district should take. "Keep your sensitive material--grades, staff information, and the like--behind password-protected shields, says Miller.

Get Students On Your Side

While it is important to trust students to do the right thing, it is more important to do it prudently. When Harper finds a student who has the potential to be a problem--one with the smarts to hack the network, for instance--he "brings him onto the good side of 'The Force' " by training him in network maintenance. "Get that kid working for you instead of against you," he says. By making students part of the team, you lessen the incentive they might otherwise feel to hack into the system just to prove they can, he says, adding that it becomes "their" system, and the pride they feel in their involvement is enough to keep them from messing it up.

One thing you don't do is hand over the passwords to the school systems. "You wouldn't just walk up to some kid in the hallway, hand him a football and say, 'Here. You're quarterbacking for Saturday's game. See you there,' " Harper laughs. "No. You screen kids, train them, give them appropriate tests that they have to pass or they can't be on the team. It's the same for computers. You're not going to tell some kid in the hall, 'Ok, you're the new system administrator. Here's the passwords, go to it.' You have to train the kids up to handle tasks, and you have to choose carefully which tasks can be student-run."

"For the first time, you have kids knowing more than their teachers about something important," says Harper. "We're foolish not to use them."

Elizabeth Crane is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.