Jennifer Scheffer
Student-run genius bar: The facilitator' 's guide

I am the facilitator of the Burlington High School Help Desk in Massachusetts, one of the country’s first student-run “genius bars” modeled after Apple’s Genius Bar. Today our student tech team is held up as an example that many other schools throughout the nation emulate. But launching it didn’t come without challenges, and sustaining its success for both students and staff requires continued attention and adjustments as the technology needs of our school community change over time.

Watch my ISTE Ignite talk from ISTE 2015 to learn about our program:

As the faculty facilitator of the BHS Help Desk, I have learned firsthand how to launch and help students run their own genius bar in ways that inspire them to own their learning while gaining invaluable real-world skills. Facilitators of a school’s student tech team are responsible for developing curriculum, establishing learning outcomes and designing assessments. They must also identify and recruit students and promote their team’s services to all school stakeholders. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are well worth it.

Want to launch and facilitate a student tech team in your school? Here’s my step-by-step guide for facilitators:

1. Establish learning outcomes and design your curriculum.

We offer the help desk to students as a formal course called Student Technology Integration and Innovation. It is part of the Burlington High School Business Department and is a 2.5-credit, semester-long elective. Students may take four semesters, or two full years of the course, which we offer all seven periods of the day. Typical enrollment is between one and four students per period.

The Help Desk curriculum is rooted in Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills and aligns with the Massachusetts Technology Literacy Standards, the Common Core and the ISTE Standards. Specific learning outcomes, as stated in the state Massachusetts technology standards, include:

  • Proficiency in the use of computers and applications as well as an understanding of the concepts underlying hardware, software and connectivity.
  • Responsible use of technology and an understanding of ethics and safety issues in using electronic media at home, in school and in society.
  • Ability to use technology for research, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation.

In short, the BHS Help Desk curriculum strives to give students real-world learning opportunities. Just like an actual working environment, we expect students to be self-driven, independent and capable of managing multiple projects. We encourage them to take initiative and develop an independent learning path centered on technology. Help desk students do this in Burlington through the development of an Individual Learning Endeavor (ILE), our version of a 20 percent time Genius Hour project.

Help desk students use critical and analytical thinking skills to solve authentic, technology-related problems for our 1:1 iPad, Google Apps for Education learning community. They apply oral and written communication skills daily by consulting and collaborating with their peers and teachers on creative ways to integrate technology in the classroom and through publishing to the globally recognized BHS Help Desk blog.

Upon completion of the course, students possess the technology skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college or the workplace, and their e-portfolios showcase their achievements. Many also students leverage social media to demonstrate their leadership, build their professional networks and prove their understanding of responsible digital citizenship.

Want to learn more ways to build your course curriculum? Feel free to use our Help Desk syllabus as a reference guide.

2. Develop your learning activities and assessments.

Learning activities for a student tech team vary from school to school, but the practical nature of the curriculum lends itself to college, career and life skills that are transferrable to most, if not all, industries. Members of a student tech team should graduate from their respective programs with both technical and soft skills that are highly sought after by employers, and their online resumes should incorporate their tech team accomplishments along with their other work experiences.

To that end, I recommend focusing on customer service, writing blog posts and reviews of applications, creating screencasts, facilitating video conference calls, and developing e-portfolios. These learning activities allow students to perfect their oral, written and interpersonal communication skills.

You also need to spend time on the technical aspects of repairing and/or troubleshooting hardware and devices if your students will be responsible for those tasks. At Burlington, students are capable of troubleshooting issues with hardware and cloud-based applications, and this school year they will receive additional training from a local business partner in repairing damaged iPad screens.

As Help Desk alumna Cat Hoyt has pointed out, it’s important to emphasize to students that they aren’t working in a simulation of the real world, but that a student-run genius bar is the real world. To that end, they need to understand that their job is to provide all school stakeholders with exceptional customer service.

As a former marketing and business management teacher, I spend a substantial amount of time teaching students how to greet visitors at the help desk, determine what they need, solve their problems and build long-term customer relationships. I wrote the WIRED guide to customer service to help my students understand the fundamental concepts of customer service, and Cat made this creative video to further emphasize how the level of customer service students provide directly correlates to how people view the help desk.
In addition to the customer service guide, our students use a blogging rubric, educational app review guidelines, screencasting best practices and Hangout on-air facilitator guidelines to complete their standards-aligned learning activities and assessments. Once students complete these projects, they are prepared to drive their own learning for the remainder of their time in the course, during which they complete several other projects, including Shark Tank Tech Edition, Google Glass in Education and the Career Portfolio project.

We give students the autonomy and freedom to explore new and emerging technologies and then encourage them to communicate to the school community how these technologies can be integrated into various content areas and grade levels. Teachers throughout the school also call upon our student geniuses to deliver classroom demonstrations and trainings on various applications. After a training session, teachers complete an evaluation form giving students authentic feedback about their strengths and areas for improvement as presenters.

3. Identify, recruit and promote your team.

When seeking students to join your tech team, think broadly. It’s important to recruit a diverse team with varied skill sets. The types of students in your program can make a huge difference to its long-term success. In Burlington, we look for several different “types” of students in a number of settings, including:

Techie students. Perhaps the stereotypical help desk student type, these kids are savvy at troubleshooting device and hardware issues. They tend to be hands-on learners who enjoy deconstructing problems and offering multiple solutions. Many of these students intend to pursue careers in IT or computer programming. They are generally enrolled in computer science courses, and several are working on coding their own applications.

Artistic students. Contrary to popular belief, artsy types are the ideal fit for a student tech team. These students may be taking graphic design and art courses. Although they often don’t consider themselves “good with technology,” they can help drive innovation in your course with their innate creativity and ability to take risks. They typically excel when collaborating with teachers and students on the creation of large-scale multimedia projects. And should you wish to develop a makerspace, as we plan to do in the 2015-16 school year, reaching out to artists and designers is a must.

Writers. If you want to create a student-run blog similar to Burlington’s, I also encourage you to seek out talented writers who will emerge as your ed tech bloggers, eager to publish for a global audience. Members of your school’s student newspaper as well as creative writing and journalism classes are ideal candidates for a student tech team.

Marketing, business and entrepreneurship students. Students who wish to pursue careers in sales, promotions, customer service, business management or social media would also be a good fit for a student tech team. These students will be exceptional social media managers. They can create and maintain your team’s presence across all the relevant social networks, including Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and Facebook, to help promote your services throughout the school.

Drama, speech and video students. Finally, public speaking and video production class rolls are two more places to find potential recruits. These students will be first to volunteer to give classroom demonstrations, speak and present at education conferences, and interview guests during a live Hangout on air. Video production students, who may prefer to be behind the camera, can add tremendous value with their technical backgrounds. This past year, several help desk students helped organize and speak (as their 20 percent time projects) at our first ever TEDxYouth event, and collaborating with the video production students on this event allowed me to meet a whole new group of potential help desk students.

Thinking outside the box when it comes to recruiting students will ensure you are creating an environment that represents the real world. A team built around varying interests, backgrounds and skill sets will result in an authentic learning experience for all while best meeting the diverse needs of your entire school community.

As an added bonus, it will also likely encourage more young women to get interested and excited to enroll in your program. It’s important to let females know they are capable of success as a member of a tech team. And giving girls creative, real-world learning opportunities is a smart and strategic way to bring gender diversity to your team.

Once you’ve recruited your team, assign them to collaborate on the development of a promotional campaign that may include a commercial or music video. Introduce the members of your team to a global audience via your blog and have your students do the same as one of their first portfolio assignments.

4. Establish your mission, purpose and goals.

As you prepare to launch your tech team, allow your students as much control and ownership over the direction of the program as possible. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Treat the help desk like a service-based business from the start, and your students will do the same.
  • Work with your team to develop a mission statement and communicate that mission with all stakeholders.
  • Ensure your students know their purpose as members of the tech team and stress how valuable they are to supporting your school’s 1:1 or BYOD environment.
  • Give them opportunities to develop their leadership skills and professionalism by formally introducing them to your teachers, administration and, if possible, parents.
  • Create a flexible curriculum that can change as the needs of your school community changes.
  • While your students will thrive in an autonomous environment, you should also provide some structure and minimum expectations. Initially it is important to work with them to set attainable goals for the semester.
  • By the end of the course, each student should have evidence of their learning chronicled in a unique portfolio they can leverage in college and their career.

Because every school is different, every student tech team will also be unique. Feel free to modify or adapt the ideas in this article to fit the needs of your school culture.

Still need to convince your administration to launch a student tech team? Send them to my previous article, Support your 1:1 program with a student tech team, targeting school leaders.

Jenn Scheffer is a mobile learning coach and instructional technology specialist for Burlington Public Schools, a 1:1 iPad and Google Apps for Education district. She leads the globally recognized, student-run help desk program at Burlington High School, is a Google for Education Certified Trainer, the Massachusetts Google Educator Group Leader, and co-moderates digital citizenship Twitter chats. Connect with Scheffer through her blog, on Twitter at @jlscheffer or on Google+.

Image: Courtesy of Burlington High School Help Desk