QUINCY, Ill. — Students in Kate Schumacher’s classes at Quincy High School use computers almost every day, and when the devices don’t work, Schumacher needs them repaired as soon as possible.
But she might not turn to the Quincy Public Schools Information Technology Department because QHS students are solving some of the building’s technology needs.
Students in Andy Nelson’s eighth-hour class at Quincy Area Vocational Technical Center work with an online curriculum to build skills in taking computers apart and putting them back together — and put those skills to use.
“We’re the first line of defense for the tech department. We might go out and do an initial assessment. If we fix it, everybody’s happy,” Nelson said.
“If a teacher has something not working, a presentation not projecting through a projector, we can sometimes take care of that issue immediately or if a laptop is not connecting to the network, we can usually solve those problems right away,” he said. “In this type of environment, there’s an immediate need for things to work.”
Jacob Moore, who was in Nelson’s class but recently graduated, often headed to classrooms to troubleshoot problems like faulty computer carts or problems with a port.
“I kind of find it fun. It allows me to gain experience in this field which we all know has not only a big market but plenty of people interested in doing it,” Jacob said. “It also allows us to interact with people around the school, go to random classrooms in different parts of the building.”
QHS science teacher Cheryl Vogler has called on Nelson’s class for help when her laptop cart isn’t charging or a student has issues with sticky keys on a computer.
“They can do them in house, very quick, and we don’t have to go to the techs dealing with bigger issues,” Vogler said. “Kids get the opportunity to learn things they might learn if they were in a tech field or a tech support person.”
The students gain job experience in what Nelson calls a “comfortable” environment.
“We have a meeting on what might happen, what equipment to bring now to help you if this is the problem or that’s the problem. I’ll try to give them some confidence in things to be prepared for,” Nelson said.
“It’s fun to do with other students. We had a three-man job recently with a faulty inside part that charged computers,” said Moore, who has built his own computer and helped friends built theirs. With two friends, “we went to the room, unplugged the cart, took it apart and checked each supply. We laughed a bit, joked a bit and still got the job done. It makes me feel good that I helped someone in need.”
Schumacher said it’s convenient to work with the students.
“Sometimes I can’t get a hold of IT. They’re out and around in the district. If I need something small, Andy and his students always seem to have the answer,” Schumacher said.
“We switched our classroom to a lot of blended learning, so we’re using computers almost every day for something,” she said. “We need to respond to issues quickly to get back to the lesson quickly. Those kids are amazing. They’re quick to respond, know what they’re talking about and always willing to help.”
School officials nationwide say it only makes sense for students who have grown up with technology to be part of the upkeep of what’s used in the classroom, and the students gain practical skills.
It’s a strategy playing out around the country as schools increasingly supply devices to every student.
In 2018, 59% of high schools and 63% of middle schools reported that each of their students had access to their own device, according to an annual survey by the Consortium for School Networking, up from 53% and 56%. Elementary schools with 1:1 programs, which supply each student with a device, increased from 25% to 29%.
Student techs learn hardware and software fixes for the inevitable cracked screens, stuck keys, freeze-ups and dead batteries from school staff, each other and online tutorials.
“A lot of teachers feel it’s beneficial to have some kids who just know, who can help us make technology more integrated,” Schumacher said. “Sometimes the kids know a better way, a shortcut, a more efficient way of using the software. They’re pretty intuitive. They’re great.”
In 1:1 districts, unlike Quincy, QPS IT Coordinator Dan Ware said tapping into students for technology support is common.
“They have so many devices it makes sense to try to find all the help they can get,” Ware said.
Those districts might offer a “depot” where students bring laptops if something is wrong, turn it in and get a temporary laptop — often with other students making the repairs. “It’s a good use of resources,” Ware said. “It gives students interested in stuff like that some work experience.”
The Pikeland school district will go 1:1 for grades 6 to 12 next year, and Pikeland Community School Principal Lisa Jockisch expects both PCS and Pittsfield High School to rely on students for help with technology repairs and support.
“You have those kids that are really good,” she said. “They will kind of be those peer mentor type things when it comes to the technology.”
Other area districts don’t have a program in place but say it’s something to consider.
“That’s a really cool idea,” said Vicki Phillips, superintendent in Brown County where the district is 1:1 but computers stay at school instead of going home with students. “I’m sure that there are times in a classroom when a teacher is struggling with something and might know a go-to person in the classroom and say ‘give me a hand.’”
Liberty Superintendent Kelle Bunch hopes to see her district add such a program for students who “know a lot” about technology and want to use that knowledge.
“It’s a good way to get things done, get computer repaired and also for them to have a great learning experience at the same time,” she said. “It’s really no different than how we try to get kids out in the workforce and having them do things to practice what they’re learning.”