Our current COVID-19 pandemic has challenged school districts across the world to react to the quick spread of a deadly virus, rising infection numbers, and panic over how to navigate this new environment. This past spring, districts immediately pivoted to online learning and often found that the digital divide was punishing their poorest and most vulnerable students and creating even greater inequities. To the extent that was possible, districts issued laptops to their students in a socially distanced procedure, issued hotspots if they had them, and embarked on a large scale distance learning experiment. However, what happens when students have problems with their hardware or connectivity and can’t fully participate?
What happens when school technology is not understood or simply doesn’t work?
In the Beaverton School District in Beaverton, Oregon (a district that is one to one chromebook district from grades 3–12) the IT department worked hard to organize and issue chromebooks for home checkout to students in a few short weeks. This work included e-mails, text messages, surveys, and partnering with our multilingual department educators and translators to connect with parents who didn’t have the necessary information or resources to participate. As technology was checked out to parents at drive through sites (or in some cases driven to families) it soon became apparent that making sure a student had a chromebook and internet connectivity was just a starting point. Normally, when a student has a technology issue they approach someone at school who can help them. But what can a student do when the school doors are shut?
After seeing this immediate and pressing need, the IT department took direct action by creating a help desk to field calls by students who were having trouble with their technology. In normal times, this effort would have taken months to organize but we didn’t have months. As a result, the department started asking “how this effort could be done with limited resources” instead of why it could not be done. When students and equity of access was centered in the conversation, the mission became crystal clear: many of our students were isolated and needed help to access classroom opportunities. Matt Hall helped lead a diverse group of technology support staff to create a system, set schedules, and to get the word out. The following is a brief interview with Andrew Stenehjem, BSD’s Manager of User Services for IT.
What was the impetus for this project and how long did it take to organize?
Once this pressing need for a student help desk was identified, I believe we had less than a week to plan and implement it while we were in the midst of distributing thousands of devices to students. Thanks to Matt Hall for working with our Telecom team and Sys Admin team to get phones and tickets up and running, creating a schedule for the Tech Support Staff, and providing quick training to help them get started.
How many students are taking advantage of the help desk and what types of issues are the students having with their tech?
Students and parents email the student help desk or call with questions or support needs. This could range from password help to Chromebook repair issues (e.g. microphones not working) to how-to questions (how to do something in Canvas, SeeSaw, etc). Families were generally very appreciative of the support.
Here are some initial numbers from the spring:
3,147 Student Help Desk tickets closed (in 1.5 months)
2,693 Phone Calls handled by Student Help Desk (in 1.5 months)
As students “return” to distance learning and new students matriculate, we expect a high demand for help — especially in the first few weeks of school.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in staffing the help desk?
Timing, staffing and starting: The biggest challenge was getting it started with a very limited number of staff in a very short time when we had to also distribute all of the devices. Here are three guiding considerations that we used to frame the problem:
- Bilingual staff: We are fortunate to have a few multi-lingual tech support folks who did an amazing job of supporting our Spanish speaking callers. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to field calls from other languages with our tech support staff so that would likely be a barrier for some families.
- Remote Support Challenge: Providing support remotely is a different challenge from doing it in person. Supporting parents and students over the phone is new for our tech support staff and it’s not often ideal. They did a great job of taking this on and assisting people and it was fun to hear about high school techs helping some of our youngest students. Really, the need to cultivate a “service mentality” coupled with a dose of humor is essential.
- Amount of Software: It can be a challenge to field calls about such a wide range of software when the tech support staff doesn’t have experience with every piece of software used by teachers in the district. Support staff who were answering questions often rely on one another when it comes to troubleshooting new problems.
What will happen with the help desk this fall?
Our plan is to continue to do it as long as we’re doing Comprehensive Distance Learning exclusively. We’ll need to evaluate how best to handle it if/when we return to a hybrid model.
What advice would you give other districts who are contemplating creating a staffed help desk?
Obviously, staff is the first piece and we’re fortunate to have the number of devices we have as well as the staffing to provide support. The advice I have may not apply to other districts due to their staffing levels, but I think that it’s nice to be able to give people limited windows when they have to provide phone support. We had enough staff that we could have the phones available from 8:30–3:30 M — F and our tech support staff only had to do 2.5 phone support windows of about 2.5 hours per week. Phones can be exhausting so it was nice that most of them didn’t have to do it all day every day. Also, trying to find ways to support families who don’t speak English is critical. Also, just recognizing everything that these tech support staff are being asked to do and making sure that it’s realistic, sustainable and as safe as possible.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to punish our poorest and most vulnerable students. Even as districts figure out ways to push out devices and to ensure connectivity, students will still have problems with connecting and a variety to tech use challenges. Some parents have the “tech background skills” to help their children be successful, but not all students are that fortunate. Staffing a district call in help desk is certainly not the magic solution and definitely not the only solution. With that said, it is essential to center practices on equity and opportunity and to meet students where they are at. The continued success of the help desk in the Beaverton School District has provided stability in a chaotic environment as students know who to call if they need help.