More than half the school districts in the United States depend on students to keep their communications networks and computers up and running, according to a survey released last week. And that figure troubles some technology experts, who say that relying too much on students exposes districts to potentially serious problems.
“You have to give out network passwords [to students], things like that, that would expose your networks to people that have no accountability, essentially,” said John A. Zook, the technology coordinator of the 4,000-student Owen J. Roberts School District in Pottstown, Pa.
Fifty-four percent of the 811 district “technology leaders” surveyed reported that they use students to provide technical support.
The telephone survey was conducted by Grunwald Associates, a Burlingame, Calif., market research firm, for the National School Boards Foundation, based in Alexandria, Va. School leaders in 90 of the nation’s 100 largest districts were called between last December and February of this year, as were leaders in 398 medium-size districts and 323 small districts.
Among other findings, many technology leaders reported that students were taking on major technical responsibilities. In 43 percent of districts, students troubleshoot for hardware, software, and infrastructure problems. In 39 percent of districts, students set up equipment and wiring. In 36 percent, students do technical maintenance.
The survey did not examine why districts use students for those tasks. But Peter Grunwald, who led the research project, said he believes districts aim to give technology-minded students valuable experience while stretching their meager budgets for technology support.
Mr. Zook said his Pennsylvania district hires students in the summer to set up computers and perform routine installation and testing of software, but does not allow them to work on the connections to the district network.
“Troubleshooting infrastructure problems [means] they have access to a network monitor, or sniffer,” he said, referring to software that analyzes the functioning of a network and that can reveal security weaknesses. That could give a person the ability to gain access to confidential records or to launch devastating computer viruses, he noted.
Sensitive tasks should be restricted to district employees, Mr. Zook said. His district uses its own technicians to link desktop computers to the district network and set up initial Internet accounts; then, student helpers are permitted to perform tests using their student accounts.
Mr. Zook added that the overreliance on students is a symptom of districts’ tendency to “trivialize” the requirements of operating technology or to get by on the cheap.
“Volunteers are great—it’s nice having them there—but would you want to base the operations of your company on volunteers?” he said. “At any given time they might say, ‘I don’t want to come in today.’”
In other survey responses, many leaders predicted that the use of the Internet in their schools would grow rapidly over the next three years. Nearly 30 percent said they thought that at least one in five of their students would receive a substantial portion of their instruction over the Internet during that period.
About 80 percent of the respondents reported that, in their districts, research is the primary instructional use of the Internet, including teachers’ research to prepare lessons. History, social studies, and science are the main subjects in which the Internet is used, the survey found.
Still, a greater shift toward Internet-based learning will require improving teachers’ skills in using technology, said Robin Thurman, the director of the National School Boards Foundation, an arm of the National School Boards Association. “If they’re going to be using the Internet beyond research, we need to make sure teachers are adequately prepared in online learning, not as a supplement but as an integral tool,” she said.
But many technology leaders surveyed indicated that they were unimpressed with the technology skills of their new teachers. Forty-three percent of the technology leaders rated new teachers as only “average” in their ability to integrate the Internet into instruction.
“With increasing pressures to improve student achievement and bridge the digital divide” between students of different backgrounds, Ms. Thurman said, “school leaders need to better integrate technology into the curriculum as a major learning tool.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Survey Finds Schools Rely On Students for Technology Help