In US classrooms, 'tech sherpas' assist teachers with computers

In a role reversal, students provide the tech support, creating a 'culture of respect' between teachers and teens.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Doran Smestad walks through the empty gym to the office in the back corner. The high school sophomore's mission: to recover an important file that physical education teacher Jim DiFrederico can't seem to open on his new Macintosh laptop. Doran's long fingers cover the keyboard as he taps at it with cool concentration.

It's a typical call for students known around the halls of Nokomis Regional High School as "tech sherpas." Whether they fell in love with computers when they were 2, as Doran did, or when the state of Maine issued them a laptop in seventh grade, the digital world is so familiar to these teens that they can guide their teachers up some steep learning curves.

Within a few minutes, Doran has a file open on screen and asks, "Is this what you need?" With a relieved smile, Mr. DiFrederico gives him a pat on the shoulder. "Something that would take me a couple hours, they can do it in five minutes," he says.

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The timesaving for teachers is a big plus, but it's not the main point of this informal program in rural Maine. For students who are keen to keep up with technology, helping adults is a way to broaden their own experience and practice communication.

"They're learning that it takes a lot of patience, a lot of diplomacy," says Christina Gee, technology director for MSAD#48, a school district of about 2,100 students in Newport and nearby towns. "It's certainly helping some of their social skills to be able to work with adults and find out that ... you might have to go back two or three times.... They're understanding what we [as teachers] have been doing."

As American schools look to incorporate 21st-century technologies into everyday lessons, some teachers are intimidated by technical glitches or the prospect of being left behind in a generational divide. Teachers have even become targets of cyberbullying, with students taking secret videos of an angry or embarrassing moment in class and posting them on popular websites such as YouTube.

But this district and many others are trying to foster more collaboration – staving off problems by putting students' enthusiasm to constructive use.

It "creates a culture of respect" says Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES in Olympia, Wash., which is hired by about 200 schools each year to set up curricula in which students assist with technology. "A lot of kids have a very empowering experience when they teach someone something.... And teachers see the kids as not these scary tech-savvy aliens," Ms. Martinez says.

Jayson Chandler, an exuberant Nokomis senior sporting bold glasses and a metal-studded wristband, says he wants teachers to see that technology isn't as hard as they might think.

"Some teachers don't want to do it – they want to stick to the old-school way," Jayson says. "In the future it's going to be kind of forced upon them.... Right now, we're gently pushing them towards it."

The sherpa instructor

What makes the help provided by students like Jayson reliable is partly the structure and skills layered into the tech-sherpa venture by Kern Kelley, a fast-talking former fifth-grade teacher who is now the district's technology integrator.

"Just because a student can create a MySpace page doesn't mean they know all the ins and outs of technology," Mr. Kelley says.

These students do tend to spend hours of free time teaching themselves the latest programs, but many of them also take the intro and advanced broadcasting communication classes that Mr. Kelley coteaches in a temporary trailer classroom just outside the high school's main building.

The sherpas are often on hand to help teachers spontaneously in class – either to troubleshoot or to operate digital equipment. They work with academic departments to build custom websites. When they have free time, they respond to requests teachers have sent in to Kelley that he knows can be handled by a student rather than a member of the small IT staff. He recently started asking tech sherpas to log the work they do with teachers so they can earn credit.

This fall the group also launched a weekly live Web-stream show called "The Tech Curve," in which students field questions about various Internet teaching tools and the new Mac laptops that the state is issuing to high school teachers (see www.nokomiswarriorbroadcasting.com).

Kelley says the most valuable assignments he can give are "authentic" tasks – of real use to the school or the community.

Project-based and student-driven learning have been an emphasis in this district for about 15 years, adds Ms. Gee, so teachers here are generally open to the creative options offered by new technology.

Other benefits realized

There's some evidence that having students teach teachers in this way is linked to improved academic performance. A study of the Generation Yes model, for instance, found that over the course of three years, students in the program had higher increases in math and language-arts test scores than their peers.

Maine recently joined the state leadership initiative of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which encourages school systems to incorporate technology, critical thinking, teamwork, and other key talents that will be required in the future workforce. In a national poll of 800 registered voters, the Partnership found that 87 percent thought computer and technology skills are important, but only 48 percent thought they are being taught well in schools.

At Nokomis High, social studies teacher Dan Viles has embraced digital technology to the fullest. Students who are used to blithely reading through textbooks face a new challenge, he says, because he asks them to collaborate on documents and discussions online.

"At first they tend to think this is going to be great, and then they realize it's going to be more thinking and sometimes more work, and they kind of reflex against that. But after the dust settles, they tend to stick with it and enjoy it," he says.

In Mr. Viles's honors history class, Doran sets an iPod – with a small black microphone popping out of it – onto the center table. Later he'll post the recording of the class on iTunes, where students can access it if they want to listen again. Students hash out their views about truth, faith, and science – with several veering into a debate about creationism and evolution. As they prepare to write persuasive essays, Viles makes clear that part of the point of this class is to practice having civil discussions when they disagree.

One student tells him she's excited to have her mom listen to today's class recording. "Transparency is really important," Viles says after class. "I want every parent who thinks this may be a sensitive topic for their child to have the option of hearing every word that's said in class."

Kelley, the technology integrator who works with the high school and middle schools, has found that some of the students who are used to success with technology need to be nudged into situations where they might hit roadblocks.

"If you never fail at anything, you never really learn anything," he says. "The biggest thing I can give [them] as a teacher is not the tech stuff ... it's the opportunity to speak with others and learn how to teach – that empathy; empathy is huge."

By relating to people and not just computers, Kelley says, "later in life, they won't be the ones sitting in the cubicle working, they'll be the boss."

In the broadcasting trailer – where paths are cleared between jumbles of cords, computers, cameras, and creaky furniture – the words "geek" and "nerd" are tossed about unselfconsciously. That reputation is one reason only a fifth of the 20 or so tech sherpas are girls. Kelley says he's working hard to recruit more girls, and now that digital technology is becoming a part of everyday life even in middle school, he thinks he'll see the gender gap in the high school start to shrink.

An issue of filtering Internet content

Schools here have had their share of incidents in which kids break the Internet-usage rules. A common complaint among the techno-teens is that the school district blocks too much with its Internet filter, which teachers can override with a password.

"Our job is to protect students," says Gee – to help them discern what's valuable online and what's inappropriate or dangerous.

But at the same time, she's working to build that culture of mutual respect – involving students in discussions about whether some rules need to change to give them more flexibility to do legitimate work. "What I'm really trying to do is open up the communication with them.... We're trying to teach them to be ethical citizens," she says.

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