Monday, March 11, 2013

Untapped Resource

In the book I'm Feeling Lucky, Douglas Edwards relates the story of his initial interview with Sergey Brin when he applied to work at Google in 1999. Near the end of the interview, Sergey got up and told him, "I'm going to give you five minutes, when I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don't already know."1 He could pick any topic he wanted, but would explain it to Sergey in great detail. After the interview, when he asked why he had to cover a topic that had nothing to do with his work, Sergey explained, that if he hadn't been hired and time he spent in the interview was a waste, he would have still learned something.

It's the same having students provide tech support in education. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a mantra I'll share with anyone willing to listen. The most underutilized technical resource that we have in education is the students themselves. And, most importantly, it's not about the technical work that they're doing at all, it's about everything else they get from it. The experience of helping others, building relationships with their teachers and learning how to communicate.

The value of their involvement in a 'Tech Team' is twofold:
  • First, the school has them using their powers for the forces of good. Rather than spending their time finding ways to thwart the content filter, they can be helping out. If you think this the equivalent to letting the animals run the zoo, understand that last year National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander addressed DEFCON, a yearly gathering of the hacking community, and asked for them for help. The NSA chief said. "You know that we can protect networks and have civil liberties and privacy; and you can help us get there." Seeing all those   intelligent, motivated people as a group to work with rather than against. In most schools if you need to know how to get around the security, ask the students. It's having the discussion with the students about the why we do what we do that is crucial.
(Using students as classroom webmasters.)
  • Now, that doesn't mean that every student is up to the task. It's imperative that the organizer   connects the right students with right teachers. Not everyone is a fit, but if you are familiar with  both groups then when a teacher asks for help, you can match them with a willing student. I am often asked, how do I find these students? And the answer is that I start young. You don't start a winning sports team in high school. I work with kids as young as fourth grade and start thinking about which kids I believe will be interested and able to handle the responsibility when they're older. When I talk to the kids I'll ask them, "What am I looking for in a Tech Sherpa?" The response I usually get is: 'Someone good with computers' or 'Has straight As' and I tell them that, tech wise, I can teach them what they need to know and that good grades are great, but not required to take part. The number one requirement that I'm looking for is trust. I need to trust that the students I send out to work with others will be professional and be able to deal with whatever situation arises. Including not knowing the answer. There's no harm in saying, "Sorry, I'm not sure how to answer that question, but I'll get back to you." Then the student does their research and tracks down the solution.   

This was the impetuous behind the Tech Sherpas. A weekly live tech support show that is run by students. They take questions during the week on the site and every Tuesday at 3:00 EST (UTC-4) where the students run a live Google Hangout. Everyone is welcome to connect, ask questions and join the conversation. You can find show notes from previous shows here  and for the full story, visit Actem's Electronic Educator. When students don't have the answer, they use the week to research the topic and have it ready for the next week.


  1. "The most underutilized technical resource that we have in education is the students themselves."

    I couldn't agree more! And I honestly do not understand why we don't use the expertise, interest, enthusiasm or our students just as you have described. I love the work your Tech Sherpas do...the show each week, their work with fellow students and their teachers, and the leadership they demonstrate in your district.

    Every school has a group of students who could do the same...but they need an advisor/mentor/teacher to help them get started. We are missing out a huge resource right in our own buildings.

    Thanks for your leadership on student tech teams, Kern.

  2. It's an honor for MICDL to be partners with Kern and Ed, both of whom are helping students take on these roles.