How Geek Became Chic: With Budgets and Staff Stretched Thin, Schools Are Turning Tech-Savvy Students into Technology Leaders and a Popular, Important of IT Support

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THE WAY THEY SEE IT IN MISSISSIPPI, it's an if-life gives-you-lemons-make, lemonade solution. The computer technology that has transformed K-12 classrooms through-out the Magnolia State over the past decade and a half hasn't come with the benefit of any professional tech support, Providing that support is too expensive a proposition--staggeringly so, if you do it right--so budget-strapped districts from Tupelo to Greenville, and from Hattiesburg to Columbia, are enlisting students to fill the gaps.

But this is no ad-hoc geek grab; the districts are participating in a state-sponsored initiative called Challenging Regional Educators to Advance Technology in Education (CREATE) for Mississippi. Launched in 2001 under the auspices of the Center for Educational and Training Technology (CETT) at Mississippi State University, the initiative provides, among other things, skills-development pro, grams for cadres of computer-savvy middle and high school students, who troubleshoot the IT in 32 districts across the state.

CREATE's Student Tech Team program is a disciplined example of a generally less formal phenomenon with which most K-12 schools are very familiar. In fact, in 2002 the National School Boards Association reported that students were providing IT support in more than half the country's school districts.

Groups of specially trained or simply specially inclined students have been helping teachers with their electronic equipment since the AV club began rolling 35-millimeter projector carts into 1960s classrooms on film day. Of course, there's a big difference between untangling a strip of perforated celluloid and sorting out computer glitches--hence the emergence of focused programs such as CREATE.

Through CREATE, full-time technology facilitators stationed on-site at the school level train and supervise the Student Tech Teams. The TFs also provide ongoing "just-in-time" technical and instructional support on a daily basis to teachers as they integrate technology into curricula. The TFs train Tech Team members, selected by the school after an application process, to handle a range of tasks, from updating antivirus software to installing computer hardware and troubleshooting malfunctioning gear. The students sort out printer and projector problems, burn CDs and DVDs, and even create instructional PowerPoint presentations designed by teachers. They also mentor their classmates to help them develop their own technology skills.

The average size of a CREATE Tech Team for a school with 200 to 300 students ranges between 12 and 16 kids, says CETT Project Manager Betty Latimer. "Sometimes they meet during a particular class period and pick up assignments there," she explains. "In some schools, they come in during their free periods and see what's needed, work on computers with the teachers, or go out into the classroom. It depends on the school."

Enlisting trained students to provide technical and instructional support in Mississippi classrooms has provided unique learning opportunities for students, and given many teachers the in-the-trenches support they need to fully embrace the technology, says Latimer.

"It's a win-win for the schools and the students," she says. "The program bridges that tech-support gap while giving the kids a chance to develop important skills, take on some real job responsibility, and even learn to deal with the accountability that goes with that responsibility."

The CREATE Tech Teams have also reduced equipment downtime in the classroom, says Dan Brook, CETT's project director, which has helped to improve the integration of technology in those very classrooms.

"Something as simple as the teacher's not being able to get the projector to run, or the resolution being wrong, can hold up the class in ways that cause the teacher to say, 'Forget it, this doesn't work for me,'" he says. "If teachers have problems with technology, they'll drop it instantly and go on teaching the lesson without it. …