Developing Student Help Desk Programs

I’ve been working with several states and districts to help them develop student help desk programs. No, I still can’t fix your computer; although, I can probably do more than before. I’m working with them from the curriculum and instruction perspective in order to help high school students become prepared to take industry-level certifications. The following is cross-posted with Advanced Learning Partnerships, a consulting group from North Carolina that I work with.


“The solution to your workforce problem is in your classrooms!” Or so says Caroline Sullivan. And why should you believe Caroline? As the Executive Director for the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE) in the Office of the Governor for that state, workforce issues are at the forefront of her mind, and her daily work. Plus she knows about schools. She’s led numerous successful initiatives within her state that connect what teachers and students are doing in classrooms to address the needs in business and industry. One of the most recent of these, providing support for schools and districts to develop their own Student Help Desks, addresses an area of high need in schools and beyond.

A Growing Need for Help Desk Support

In 2020, as schools grappled with addressing the needs of students through remote learning, many strove to provide as many students as possible with their own computing device. This immediate need for devices was matched with funding—lots of funding! Thousands upon thousands of devices began showing up in districts and found their way into students’ hands to keep the learning going. The catch? Much of the funding could be used to purchase equipment, but unfortunately, not to hire personnel. School districts that were seeing a few thousand to 50,000 or more new devices now had to find a way to support them and keep them running, because technology is great…when? When it works!

Most school districts are already strapped for sufficient tech support. Schools have long been a setting where each tech staff member routinely supports 1,000 to 3,000 devices or more, as compared to a range of 50 to 100 in many corporate settings. As districts across the nation brought in from a few hundred to tens of thousands of new devices in the span of a few weeks or months, the need for additional tech staff multiplied exponentially. Even by the conservative estimate of 1,000 devices per support position, district tech staffing positions should have expanded anywhere from a handful to dozens of employees. The reality was that few new staff were hired.

Seeing the rapidly growing need for tech support and realizing funds were coming into the state, Caroline Sullivan led NCBCE’s efforts for a more homespun strategy that built capacity within local schools and districts—Student Help Desk programs. Working with Advanced Learning Partnerships and supported by a network of industry leaders, consultants at ALP developed models and created resources that could be used by teachers throughout North Carolina, teachers like Tiffany Taylor from Halifax County.

Halifax County recruited Tiffany for the new adventure of creating a Student Help Desk and preparing students with both the technical as well as inter- and intrapersonal skills required to provide customer service on the devices they and their fellow students now had in hand. They also were being prepared to service the devices teachers, administrators, and other staff relied on every day. Up for the challenge, Tiffany just needed a little help.

Finding Support

That help came in the form of coaching and curriculum design support from Advanced Learning Partnerships. Halifax County chose a class-based model to prepare their students to run the Help Desk. As a consultant with ALP, I worked with Tiffany to develop a simulated workplace environment in her new classroom that incorporated a problem-based approach to help students develop new skills. The curriculum was sequenced to prepare students to not only operate the Help Desk but to earn valuable industry-standard certifications, as well. Students who completed the first course would be prepared to take the certification exam for CompTIA’s IT Fundamentals+ while completing the full three-course sequence would prepare them for CompTIA’s A+ certification, widely recognized as the gateway to many IT careers.

Students developed teamwork and communication skills by creating work teams with their own norms and roles. They better understood standard Help Desk processes aligned to a service delivery model by using and updating their own Help Desk knowledge base. They developed technology skills not only with their teacher, Tiffany, but also with collaboration from IT support staff who were able to share common problems of practice from their own help desk experiences. Halifax outsourced some of its tech support to YCM Solutions, a local IT company. YCM staff created videos and, when possible, conducted hands-on labs with students focused on skills such as setting up and configuring a desktop computer, creating a wired or wireless network, and troubleshooting common issues.

Help Desk Options

ALP is replicating the Help Desk model and customizing it in additional school districts and states across the country. The need for IT support for schools can be found in districts large and small and ALP understands this need. The models piloted in North Carolina include the course-based setting as well as options for creating an afterschool club or incorporating Help Desk duties into a paid or unpaid internship. Schools can determine which of these three options best fit depending on their current course offerings as well as the skill levels of available student participants. 

Afterschool programs provide the fewest number of contact hours but can be a great way to build student interest and provide opportunities for students to develop some basic skills if they don’t have the opportunity to take a structured class. Internships rely on students with more deeply developed technical skills but then allow students to apply those in real settings while they learn about the procedures and tools used to support a Help Desk service delivery model. Many states have Career and Technical Education programs that provide guidance on student intern programs that can easily support a Student Help Desk.

Are you interested in a Student Help Desk?

One of the most enticing aspects of a student Help Desk is its flexibility. Yes, students can be provided the opportunity to earn course credit along with industry certifications, but different programs vary their focus areas to address a variety of certifications and courses, including cybersecurity, networking, and many popular hardware and software certifications. Some Help Desk programs can include aspects of training or professional development where students actually help teachers and other staff understand how to use resources provided by the district. 

Of course, schools and districts are also seeing the benefit of increasing the number of qualified personnel who can provide tech support. Sometimes these students move from interns to paid support staff, whether within their own school districts or in local area businesses that need them, like hospitals, libraries, or anywhere computers can be found.

Are you interested in establishing a Student Help Desk program in your state, district, or school? Reach out to the experienced consultants of Advanced Learning Partnerships to schedule a discovery session today. Those computers aren’t going to fix themselves! Reach out and let ALP get you started on a program that rewards both you and your students.

Equitable Grading Conversations with the Oregon DOE

I’m excited to announce that September 29 will mark the launch of a new cohort of 15+ school teams from across Oregon that will be exploring policies and practices related to grading and how they are or might be more equitable. It’s a big topic and one with many parameters, and I’ve learned so much with this fantastic ODE team.

I was asked to join the work with my ALP colleague, Bob Dillon through an offer by Dell and Advanced Learning Partnerships. (By the way, Bob is is the co-author of the great Space books on learning spaces and others–check ’em out! And sign up for his blog.) I need to share up front that I am not an expert on equitable grading, but I do have some pretty significant experiences with developing online learning communities going back, well, let’s say…before Facebook. Bob is such a great thinker and is so good at comprehending and evaluating a situation and sharing it back for reflection. I’m glad to have this opportunity to work with him on this initiative.

About the Work

The gist of the matter is that inequitable grading practices that have existed, well, possibly as long as there have been grades. These inequities were exacerbated this past year during the pressures and stress of “remote” learning. However, that experience, as difficult as it was (and still is in many places) helped to exacerbate what has like been years (decades!) of inequitable grading policies and practice. The ODE team is dedicated to helping the educators in their state grapple with the issue rather than accepting the status quo. There has been significant interest in the topic from districts across the state.

A critical component of ODE’s approach is to avoid being directive. They take a position that they don’t tell school and district educators what to do. Instead, they take a stance of empowering educators in their state to evaluate and reflect on their own needs and then giving them resources at their level of need or experience. That has been a guiding principle in this work, and I’m excited to see it roll out over the next few months.

My homework for the Oregon learning community on equitable grading.

What to Expect

Honestly, I’m not sure, but I am super excited! I have such a good feeling for this project. Luckily there is a wealth of information to support those interested in exploring equitable grading practices, as evidenced by my homework picture. I especially enjoyed What We Know about Grading by Thomas Guskey and Susan Brookhart, two education leaders whose work I have long admired on this and other topics. With these resources and others, the ODE team has been so conscientious about designing the experience for the needs of their constituents and realizing that teams may be at a different place in their exploration of equitable grading.

On September 29 we get to meet the pilot teams that have volunteered to participate. One requirement is that a building-level administrator be a part of the team, because both you and I know that if the principal isn’t on board, nothing happens. From there, the teams will be provided an opportunity to explore five “modules” on both a self-paced-PLC basis as well as interacting with the larger statewide community. The goal is to have teams develop their own for a plan for tackling the aspects of equitable grading that are relevant to their own school culture. I’m excited to see what the teams come up with. I’m looking forward to sharing this experience and learning with them.

Stay tuned for updates!

Back to the Blog

This post is week 1 of 8 in the #8WeeksofSummer Blog Challenge for educators sponsored by a member of my PLN, Penny Christensen. It’s about time I get back to my blog. It’s not that I didn’t have things to write about. With The World Turned Upside Down (an appropriate homage to my days teaching in Yorktown and my junior high fife and drum corps turn), I thought I’d have lots of time on my hands.

Last March, I was helping chaperone Virginia Tech students to Iceland on a study abroad trip when the border was about to close and we had to rush home early. I stockpiled paper and canned goods and filled up the freezer and thought I’d have plenty of time to do things like blog, work around the house, garden…anything but work. That was not the case, however. I would’ve never predicted back in the 90s that when I started working in online learning, that there would be a period of such demand. What an interesting year it has been, and with almost non-stop work with states, districts, and schools.

Describe relationships with those you taught this year.

This is this week’s prompt from Penny. I’m going to take some leeway and use those I’ve “taught, coached, or worked with” as my focus. A year ago, any of those was a challenging proposition. As educators across the world got thrown into remote learning and tried to figure it out on their own, many were reluctant to share. As a consequence of the tremendous stress they were facing, many of the teachers I worked with often acted like the students they complained about. “My students won’t turn on their camera.” “My students won’t engage online.” It was actually an opportunity for adult educators to put themselves in the place of the students they were working with and to build some empathy for what we were asking them to do.

It just took some time. I work with a cadre of coaches in a statewide network. In early March, we had just met our division teams and were gearing up for a year of promoting innovation in each district. Then, almost over night, radio silence. Who can blame them? Everything was new. My fellow coaches and I would meet every Friday morning, and all were facing similar issues. We just waited. Offer help, and when you’re ready, we’re here to help.

By the Fall, people were more prepared to interact. Many of my districts started reaching out again in the late Summer and early Fall. Summer was full of helping educators across multiple states hone their skills for the inevitability of working with at least some, if not all, of their students from a distance. Some took every webinar they could fit into their schedule. Others took things in then went off to process.

It was during that time that I updated the norms I use in these situations. I try to set norms for all of the groups I work with. Sometimes we have time to create norms together, but in some of these webinars, I just had to offer some and move on. It was during the Summer/Fall that I added the norm, “Acknowledge our reality,” to the mix, and I think people seemed to appreciate it. None of us were in a normal situation. We might have kids, or pets, or even adults that we were trying to take care of while still teaching or learning. Many couldn’t be in their offices or their classrooms, and so I think it helped many people to know that we were all in this together, and if something comes up, you’re free to go take care of it and then get back to us.

Several times, people had turn off their microphones or cameras, to go check in on a child or a pet, or to take care of something pressing and come back when they could focus. My favorite example was when I lost my Internet connection in the middle of a webinar and had to restart my router. About eight minutes later, I checked back in, and because I had shared my agenda, slides, and resources, the group had just kept on going. I’m not sure that would’ve happened in March, but it was nice to see that by late Summer, people were back on track.

There are a lot of other good stories to share, but I’m waiting to see what Penny has on tap for next week. Wish me luck! I hope to keep this up.