When Computers Break Down, Schools Are Turning to Students

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If the computer network in the Jessamine County, Ky., school district crashes this week, administrators will have to rely on high school students to get it up and running again.

The district's only adult computer-systems employee--hired part time--left his job last month, but no one is very concerned. That's because a team of students fixes most of the computer problems in the district's nine schools anyway.

"Until we find someone to replace him, my students will be able to handle [the network] just fine," said Carol Utay, the technology coordinator for the 6,300-student district.

Do schools abdicate their financial responsibilities when they rely on students to maintain computers? Share your opinion in our on-line Town Meeting.

Giving students responsibility for maintaining school computers is a growing trend across the country, according to Margaret Honey, the deputy director of the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology in New York City.

As schools acquire new technology, many find it impossible to hire enough computer technicians to maintain it, Ms. Honey said. So they're turning to students, some of whom know as much about computer maintenance as adults.

In Jessamine County, Ms. Utay supervises 12 student network managers in a structured technology program that is part of an effort run by the Kentucky Department of Education. Students typically are sent out on computer calls during a technology class one period a day and get paid minimum wage for working for the district outside of school hours. Sometimes they're called out of their regular classes to fix problems.

"They get their computers fixed, and I get a better education," said Seth Fleckinstein, one of two 8th graders who manage the computers at West Jessamine Middle School.

"It's an even trade," agreed Ryan Lucas, an 11th grader and the student network manager for Tigard High School in Tigard, Ore. Mr. Lucas participates in TigerNet, a computer refurbishing and learning program in the 11,000-student Tigard/Tualatin district.

Schools "are getting a free thing out of it, and I'm getting experience," Mr. Lucas added.

Learning To Manage

But student technology programs are "not all roses," said Jerry Westfall, a school-to-work counselor for the Tigard/Tualatin district, who created the TigerNet program in 1994.

"It's hard for kids to manage kids," Mr. Westfall said. "They lack the maturity. A lot of their training is learning to be a manager. They're always pretty good at the technical side."

Mr. Westfall tries to help students learn about management by inviting managers from companies in the community to visit the school and talk to them about supervising other people.

Asking students to maintain computers also runs the risk that people will turn the program into "a kid sweatshop," Mr. Westfall said.

To prevent that, he limits the refurbishing of computers to one day a week and encourages students to get involved in a variety of technology learning projects.

Mr. Westfall also sets himself up as a gatekeeper to make sure schools don't take advantage of his students. "They don't just take my students. They have to apply to me," he said.

Superintendent Russell Joki of the Tigard/Tualatin district downplayed how much his school system relies on students to maintain its computers. He said in an interview that with the exception of Tigard High School, where "students are carrying the day," the district mostly relies on its four adult technicians.

With 15 schools, the district needs the consistency of having some adult technical support, Mr. Joki said.

"Students are there to learn. They're not there as employees," he said. "They have saved us money, but I don't see using them purposefully for that reason."

Full-Time Job

One of the early pioneers in involving students in computer-network management was the 9,000-student Olympia, Wash., district.

Four years ago, two educators and a core group of students--none of whom knew much about computers--took on the task of setting up five file servers in five different schools and keeping a districtwide computer network running.

The students divided up the tasks of managing the network and maintained it on their own for about 2 1/2 years.

Abby Polzin, who managed the network's e-mail file server, the machine dedicated to handling the district's e-mail software program, remembers the experience as valuable.

"We were completely devoted to the network. It was our thing, and we wanted it to be the best possible," said Ms. Polzin, now a second-year computer science major at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. "It was difficult at the time, but everything I did then has been good background for what I'm doing now."

There were limits to the students' technical skills, however. Ron Morsett, a former photography and graphic arts teacher who helped the students set up the district's network, recalled that data occasionally got lost or corrupted.

The Olympia district now uses adult computer technicians--with some assistance from students--to manage the network.

The network "got so big that we needed someone who was there all the time and didn't have to run to class," Assistant Superintendent Patrick Gill explained. "In some degree, we probably were taking advantage of the kids," he added.

Computer-savvy students now have a different role: training teachers.

Through a program called Generation Why, students work one-on-one with teachers on projects that help them integrate technology into the classroom.

"Our whole philosophy is to train kids first," said Dennis Harper, the director of Generation Why.

Security Issues

One important issue when students manage school computers is how much access they have to administrative information.

"The more you give someone access to the system, the more you expose yourself," Ms. Honey of the Center for Children and Technology said. "There are issues about students' managing aspects of the network because of security."

Students shouldn't work on a network that gives them access to confidential student records, Ms. Honey said, but she has no problem with students' running networks for e-mail or the World Wide Web.

In the Olympia school district, students never worked with administrators' files, but they did, in the early days, manage a file server that contained teachers' files, including grades.

Because teachers felt uncomfortable with that access, the district eventually set up a separate file server for teachers' data that was not managed by students, according to Mr. Morsett.

Mr. Morsett said the student managers generally proved themselves to be trustworthy. While they were sometimes left alone working on the network, they never took advantage of their position by playing pranks, he said.

But Mr. Morsett did have to deal with a case in which a student manager stole a computer memory chip.

In Tigard, Mr. Westfall lets students manage his own files--including grades for TigerNet--but otherwise has students manage only students' files.

In Jessamine County, Ms. Utay trusts some students to manage administrative files, though they are not given the individual passwords to look inside them. "The students have the passwords to the entire network. The program that runs the grades has an additional password," she said.

Ms. Utay said she sometimes gives one of her student managers access to the program with the grades for a "limited amount of time."

'Big Opportunity'

Most students who manage school networks seem to savor the experience.

"I can't wait to get out there in the world and apply what I've learned," said Paul Lamb, one of the 8th graders who manage computers at West Jessamine Middle School. He doesn't have a computer at home; everything he knows about computers, he learned in school.

Speaking for his fellow student computer managers, he said, "We definitely have an advantage over other people."

"It's a big opportunity," agreed Jonathan "J.D." Archer, a senior at East Jessamine High School and one of the student network managers for his district. "When you're walking around school, and a teacher says, 'J.D., can you come help us?,' it makes you feel good that teachers are relying on you to help them fix computers. You're becoming a teacher and they're becoming students."

Asked if he ever gets bored with his school computer responsibilities, Mr. Archer said no.

"You can never learn all there is to know about computers," he said. "It's almost like counting to infinity. You're never going to learn every piece of hardware or software. You'll never know everything."

Web Only

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read the full text of Report '97, a report by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology that is critical of schools' efforts to integrate technology.
  • Read "CCT Notes," the Center for Children and Technology's newsletter which provides tips on instructional technology. The site hosted by the Education Development Center also includes abstracts of papers published by CCT, including "Technology as Support for School Structure and School Restructuring."
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