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Student Techies Keep Computers Running

By Ted Nellen


V of E

Educational technology innovator Ted Nellen discusses the benefits schools can realize when they train students to both use and maintain classroom computers.

About Ted Nellen

'Cybrarian' Ted Nellen is an educational consultant, staff developer, adjunct professor at Fordham University, Marlboro College, and New School University, and a guide and teaching assistant for Classroom Connect University. He is also a full-time teacher and staff developer for the Alternative High Schools of New York City, currently working at Bronx Tech High School.

Nellen, a high school English teacher since 1974, began using computers in his NYC public high school cyber English class in 1983. He began using the Internet in his classroom in 1985 and the World Wide Web in 1993. A Shakespeare scholar, a Carnegie scholar, a doctoral candidate, a conference speaker, and a published author, Nellen has twice been named teacher of the year for the NYC public schools. He is actively engaged on many foundation educational advisory boards and on National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) technology assemblies, commissions, and committees. A detailed list of publications, presentations, education, and honors can be found at his online resume.

To read more Education World articles by Ted Nellen, see The Filter Is Bad for Education and Assessing Staff Technology Needs: Do the Current Tools Work?

"Hey, mister, my mouse is broken."
"Yo, Nellen! Some of the keys are stuck on this computer. Maybe someone spilled soda on them."
"Mr. Nellen, how do I log on?"
"Hey, teach, I'm new to this class. Can you catch me up?"
"Can you help me with this program? I have a paper due next period."

Those are just a sampling of the requests an instructor in a computer lab might hear first period Monday morning. And the problems and pleas only grow as the day and week progress. When you teach in a computer lab, you're automatically -- and often unrealistically -- deemed to be a technology know-it-all! As someone who is definitely not technologically omnipotent, my first instinct has always been to ask my students to help solve the problems that arise. Heck, they learned to use it; they should be able to help others use it too!

I remember from my primary school days those kids who pushed the projectors around and ran the movies. I envied the "AV" kids their technological skills and their relative freedom. Although I never achieved that exalted status myself, I now find myself in the role of teacher in today's version of the AV club -- the computer club. How did it happen?


I was completely overwhelmed in 1984, when I sat down in front of my first classroom computer -- with books and manuals at the ready -- and began what I expected to be an extensive process of solitary self-training. It wasn't long, however, before kids began appearing in the doorway, asking if they could work on the computer too. I was amazed at how skilled those students were. They made the machines sing -- in cacophonous resonance, it's true, but still, they did sing! Those young hackers knew their way around the circuitry, and they explored the disks expertly. When the bell rang and they had to go to class, I was overcome with disappointment.

As I sat there alone, I had an epiphany -- and I immediately began to create my first word processing file. The document was a font-frenzied banner announcing the formation of a computer club. The club, the banner revealed, would meet every day after school in my new computer-equipped classroom. I printed the announcement and posted it on the lunchroom bulletin board. Within two weeks, I had a core group of more than 60 students.

In the years since, computer club members have served as technical support crews, Web page designers, and software tutors for both students and teachers. I've used students to provide technology help in staff development sessions, to answer questions and solve problems for teachers who are new to technology, and to make sure the computer room is not abused.


Probably the club members' most surprising contribution, however, has been in the area of technical support. The club, by providing teachers and students with the opportunity to learn more about hardware and software, also allows members to develop the skills necessary for providing on-the-spot technical support. Getting outside technical support can be a taxing endeavor, requiring several phone calls and a waiting period before a technician arrives. Creating in-house support crews keeps the computers online. Even when outside technical support is needed, knowledgeable students are on hand to learn from the outside experts.

Not everyone has been completely comfortable with this internal support system. I recall, in particular, a presentation I made to the New York State regents in 1996. Harold Levy, who is now the New York City school chancellor, asked about computer maintenance. In response, I related an incident in which a student had lost a metal protector from a 3 1/2-inch floppy inside the disk drive. I told the audience how I had given the security keys to another student and asked her to get the metal sleeve out of the computer's A drive. The student took off the security locks, pulled out the CPU, opened it using a classroom tool kit, disconnected the A drive, opened the drive up with a smaller screw driver, retrieved the lost metal sleeve, returned it to the owner, closed the CPU, and had the computer back online in just 11 minutes. She even complained that the sneezing caused by the dust inside the computer had slowed her down!

The audience was shocked that I had let a student do that repair -- and I was flabbergasted by their reaction! Students are taught how to use technology in schools. To me, it seems only logical that they should know how to maintain the technology as well.

Schools have a huge investment in the technology they use; students have a tremendous need to learn as much as possible about that technology in order to help secure their future. Teaching kids to both use and maintain computers addresses those mutual concerns. The proof of the program's success can be found in the computer lab itself: The 34 computers installed in our school in 1992 were still 100 percent functional in 2000. The technology in our school works -- continues to work -- because we rely on our greatest resource, our kids.


Article by Ted Nellen
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