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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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).