How invested are your users in their own computing experience?

Computer users who are truly engaged can be a pleasure to support. How can the help desk encourage a healthy self-interest in its clients?

Joe Rosberg is a prince for drawing attention to Jessie's problem, and the challenges faced by the techs who provide support to schools. Let's face it, whether they're raised in an urban or rural setting, whether they attend a public or a private school, kids can be a handful. Even the good ones sometimes break stuff. Mostly this is because children are sociopaths.

Seriously. Kids aren't born with an understanding of the conventions of proper behavior. As children, we have no considerations beyond our own needs and desires. The whole process of maturation is about each child—with the help of parents (hopefully) and other adults—discovering how he as an individual fits into the larger community.

Lots of people have chimed in with thoughts about how Jessie's problem should be addressed. Treating the symptoms don't address the root problem, though: whether this vandalism is due to a lack of pride in their school (or themselves) or due to an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, these students aren't personally invested in the computing resources provided for them. Having some experience in educational IT myself, I've encountered this issue before, and I've seen it overcome.

Emotional intelligence and empathy take time to develop. Until then, what are we left with? Self-involvement. Most kids are great at looking out for their own interests. It's possible for the school's help desk to turn this to their advantage.

The university I work for in Chicago has started a number of elementary and secondary schools in underprivileged neighborhoods. One initiative they've undertaken allows students to participate in a program that gets them their very own laptop. Basically a heavily discounted leasing program, the deal is that if the kid can take care of the computer, she'll be able to use it all through junior high. When she matriculates to high school, the computer will be hers to keep, free and clear.

The first year of the one-to-one laptop program at our charter schools, most of us techs thought that the failure rates would be astronomical. We'd seen lab computers trashed in much the same ways Jessie has, and I figured that the moment those student laptops left campus, all bets would be off. I thought that we'd see the computers turned to junk.

And I was wrong.

Sure, there were some cases where a notebook was damaged or lost due to carelessness. One was even run over by a car. The vast majority of our students, though, rose to the responsibility that owning a computer demanded, and our school's computers stopped being so heavily abused. Another pleasant side effect of the one-to-one laptop program is that students seem more engaged in their own schoolwork than before. This shouldn't be too surprising, though. Once it's present, it's hard to keep a sense of responsibility from trickling over into other areas of life.

Now, obviously, not every school can afford to start a program offering individual laptops to students. But there could be other ways that IT managers and help desk pros can encourage in their users a personal investment in the computing experience. Fostering that sort of morale can benefit business environments as well. After all, how many times have we seen a business user wander off while a tech was solving their problem, missing out on a potential teaching moment?

So, for schools and businesses, let's start brainstorming some ideas how techs can encourage a healthy self-interest in our users.

  • Students could take turns doing "lab duty," cleaning up computers, helping to install software, and generally maintaining the school's computers, perhaps as part of an after-school activity. This can provide support techs a pool of much-needed helping hands (and eyes), and give students a chance to develop their computing skills. It might also keep kids from damaging computers if they spent some time taking care of them.
  • Help desk techs can leverage skilled users to provide training for their peers. Sometimes, it's easier for someone to learn from a colleague, rather than ask a tech for help. Recognizing a particular user's skill can also increase morale.
  • Techs and managers should consider polling their users periodically. By feeling like they have a say in training opportunities or purchasing decisions, your clients will naturally be more engaged.

These are just a few ideas I've come up with. I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments.