IT Infrastructure

Homegrown Talent Keeps Tech. Repairs In-House

District technicians do company warranty work.
By Ian Quillen — March 22, 2010 7 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Every student at Alvarado Junior High attends class with a netbook computer. And when students at the Texas school have maintenance or repair concerns with those devices, district technical experts troubleshoot for problems and try to diagnose if there is a warranty issue.

In most districts, the next step would usually involve shipping the netbook to the manufacturer for repair, which costs the company money and prevents the school district from using the computing device for an extended period of time.

But that is not the case in the 3,200-student Alvarado Independent School District near Dallas. Its educational technology department takes part in what is known as a “self-maintainer” program, in which district technical-staff members are certified to do warranty repairs on site by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co., earning compensation for the district of $30 to $200 per job.

It is seen as an effective approach as more districts employ 1-to-1 computing programs, and as ed-tech leaders look for cost-effective tactics for maintaining and fixing the computing devices for those efforts.

“It’s actually very popular in education,” said Tim McDaniel, the manager of the PSG Americas Field Assistance and Support Team, which is responsible for Hewlett Packard’s self-maintainer program, one of a number of such programs offered by computer makers. “In the education space, working on stuff themselves is part of their DNA.”

And with many school districts still struggling with budget challenges at the same time that they are facing an increase in the demand for using technology, experts say the self-maintainer trend, as well as efforts to train students to be technical-support workers, has the potential to accelerate.

Mr. McDaniel said total North American enrollment in HP’s self-maintainer program grew 60 percent during the past three economic quarters, though schools have been early arrivers to the self-maintainer trend. Nearly 1,000 companies and organizations in the United States are HP self-maintainers, and Mr. McDaniel estimates that hundreds of those are either K-12 or postsecondary institutions.

“Now, the technology is so integrated in the classroom—those days without that device, it’s a big loss instructionally,” said Kyle Berger, the Alvarado district’s executive director of technology services. “Every kid is using it all the time.”

Mr. Berger said that by using parts mailed from HP or already on hand, the technical staff is better able to have students return to an e-learning environment as quickly as possible.

Different Approaches

But while districts eager to save time and money could view self-maintainance as the perfect solution, Mr. Berger said each has to consider carefully its individual needs.

Some districts may not be able to purchase enough hardware to qualify for some manufacturers’ programs. Hewlett Packard, for example, does not have a minimum purchase for districts to participate in the warranty service, but it mandates that districts buy $100,000 worth of equipment to receive compensation for repairs.

Not all manufacturers operate exactly the same way. Lenovo, for example, only has a suggested, rather than a required, volume of hardware purchased for its participants, and programs offered by Apple Inc., Acer Inc. , and other manufacturers offer their own nuances.

In some cases, the consequences of keeping repairs in-house may outweigh the potential long-term benefits.

Danny Adams, left, and Frederico Torres work in the back of the computer lab after repairing computers at North Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga. The students are enrolled in the school’s ForTech program, which essentially certifies students as technical-support workers.

“If anything, I can see where we would stop doing self-maintainer and take advantage of on-site warranty support that [HP] would provide,” said Mark Klingler, the director of technology services for the 22,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., school system, about 40 miles north of Atlanta.

Early in the 2000s, Forsyth County had earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most technologically advanced districts. (“In Ga. District, Leaders Put Technology at the Center,” March 8, 2006.) Its self-maintainer program has operated for nearly a decade, Mr. Klingler said, and the district boasts an apprenticeship program, called ForTech, that essentially certifies students as technical-support workers.

But with the district opening five new school buildings and now suffering from a hiring freeze that has lasted more than a year, there may simply not be enough technical support to keep up with warranty repairs. Enrollment in ForTech has declined from more than two dozen to about 16, with some students opting for different technical-training programs off campus and others shying away because of a decreasing amount of elective time allowed to Georgia students.

Apprentices are cut a check for about half of what HP compensates the district for repairs, Mr. Klingler said, but only after taking two introductory-level courses to qualify for the program.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for the county technicians if we weren’t here,” said Danny Adams, a 12th grader and an apprentice from North Forsyth High School, one of two high schools out of five in the county that offers the apprenticeship.

Tim Keyser, Mr. Adams’ instructor, said that the program’s size may make it vulnerable as teaching resources grow thinner, but that students who complete their certifications are ready to be employed upon graduation.

“I’ve been fortunate that they keep supporting this position,” Mr. Keyser said. “Even though it doesn’t cater to as many students, the ones that do take it get a lot out of the program.”

While Forsyth County’s self-maintainer future may be uncertain, Rich Kaestner, the director of the “green” computing project for the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, which advocates better use of technology in schools, said the general trend appears to be toward growth in such programs in K-12 districts.

“A key to success for this operational model seems to be enough volume with a specific vendor to support the warranty authorized technician,” Mr. Kaestner said in an e-mail, “and that is the case whether schools have 1-to-1 computing progams or not.”

Training Students

Being self-maintainers isn’t the only approach schools are taking to keep technology repairs on campus and save money.

For example, about two dozen student interns at Walled Lake Central High School near Detroit are enrolled in the Cisco Networking Academy, a technical-training program for teenagers and young adults offered by the San Jose, Calif.-based technology company that has 9,000 academies in 165 countries.

Interns generally refrain from making warranty repairs; those are handled by a local third-party provider at the 15,000-student Walled Lake Consolidated School District, which has had a 1-to-1 computing program for more than a decade. But interns, who are paid $7.50 an hour, are dispatched across the district’s 23 buildings to tackle challenges such as setting up computers, running cables, loading software, installing desktops, and configuring switches.

The district’s coordinator of career technical education, Jenny Griffith, estimates interns help save the school about $60,000 just on the first day of their internships, when they run the hard drive reimaging, or reinstallation, process on students’ laptops at the beginning of the school year.

Digital Directions

Education Week recently began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.

Visit Education Week Digital Directions Web site for regular updates on news, trends, and ideas in education technology.

But economic woes have made it more difficult to justify paying the students their current rate, and changing academic standards and school schedules are making it harder for students to participate in the program.

“We’re dying out right now,” said Ms. Griffith, who pointed to a new six-period class schedule as one culprit. “We’re trying hard to survive. If you want to be an intern now, you have to take an online class for one of your core classes. Basically you’re paying for one of your outside classes.”

Offering Opportunities

Still, educational technology leaders say such efforts to involve students in technical support are important and should be preserved.

The New York City-based nonprofit MOUSE program, or Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools & Education, for instance, aims to establish similar programs in disadvantaged schools where supporting basic technology infrastructure is challenging.

“The idea is there’s been a tremendous investment in technology,” said Carole Wacey, the executive director of MOUSE. “[But] there hasn’t always been forethought of how to keep this infrastructure up and running.”

In partnership with Microsoft Corp., MOUSE has established technology education programs in more than 250 locations in and around New York City, Chicago, and including about 70 districts in California. The organization contends that the basic technology support desks staffed by its 2,700 students—who serve in schools where 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches—can save each school up to $19,000 a year in technology-support costs.

Ed-tech advocates say schools should work to preserve such programs, even if there is no financial benefit. They point, particularly, to the benefits students get from participation, in terms of career preparation and morale building.

Mr. Adams, the senior at Georgia’s North Forsyth High School, says he’s experienced those first hand. He now plans to couple a job with more technology education after graduating this spring. He also says he feels a new respect from teachers in his role as a ForTech apprentice.

“It’s kind of a new feeling,” he said. “It feels kind of good to know you’re not being treated as a student who is there. You’re being treated like you’re actually working.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Homegrown IT Talent Can Save Time, Cash With In-House Repairs

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