Expanding faculty support with Academic Technology Student Assistants

**cross-posted on Carly’s blog**

I was in a conference session recently when the topic of using student workers to provide instructional support of faculty was raised as a tangent to how to engage faculty in technology training and instructional design. I was surprised to hear that many in the room felt that it was inappropriate to have students supporting faculty in the use of the LMS or other curricular technologies. This is completely counter to how we’ve been providing curricular and technical support at Carleton, so I thought I would write about how we do it and why.

 

Why have student workers supporting faculty?

The immediate reason is obvious: we can’t do it all alone! Most of us in the field of instructional technology have more than enough to do, learn and keep up with, so the chance to get a little help along the way is gold. This is especially true when you have big initiatives, such as switching your LMS or implementing a new tool. But if all I did was hire students to do the many boring or mundane tasks that I don’t want to or have time to do, there would be little else to write.

A big consideration when I’m hiring students is what the student is going to get out of working in the Academic Technology office. I want them to be excited about the work we are doing and learn as much as they can on the job. And I want them to be able to have several new skills they can add to their resume when they start to pursue internships or jobs after graduation. Hiring students in our office is as much for them as it is for us.

Because of this, I look for very specific things when hiring students. First, I look for students who are personable and comfortable talking with staff and or faculty. I look for some background in technology, but it’s not as important as the people skills.  Tech can be taught and changes so quickly anyway, it’s much harder to teach people skills. I also look for students who are excited to learn new technology or just learn new things in general. I have found that if I find students who fit this bill they are able to get a lot of working in our office.

The Hiring Process

One of the most important skills that our student workers need to have or develop is the ability to figure out the answer to a question. I also feel that understanding how a shared calendaring system works is just a basic life skill at this point. So in my job ad, I ask the students to email me a resume and make a 20-min appointment on my calendar. I also send them the Google help pages if they don’t know how to propose a meeting in Google. If a student can’t figure out how to propose a meeting time with documentation, they may not be well-suited to working in our office. So that usually only gives me a short list of students to interview.

During the interview, I ask them why they are interested in working Academic Technology and about their own academic or personal interests. I ask them to describe a time that they had to teach or tutor someone in something difficult, and then listen to how they describe the interaction.  Are they being derogatory or mean about the person they were teaching? Are they able to name some issues pertinent to training adults? Do they mention any particular teaching strategies that also work well when working with faculty?

Student Training

Once I hire a student, I try to make sure I spend a lot of time with them at a few points early in their work in our department. My primary job is to support the faculty in their use of the LMS. So we get some questions how to do this or that, or what module is the right one to use for their activity. So I make all first-term students learn how to edit a page in our LMS. Because I have a primary goal of making sure they know how to find answers when they don’t have them, I don’t actually train them. I give them a blank site, a sample syllabus, and then point them at the documentation.  I also make it clear to them why I am making them learn on their own. I want them to know that their goal should be to get better at finding answers.

Once they have the LMS down, I try to get them involved in a project. I rarely have one lined up for them from the get-go, but I usually don’t have much trouble coming up with something for them to do. If it happens to be related to their academic interests, that’s a double win.  But they know that they won’t always get to do that.

I also focus on making sure they have good customer service skills. I teach them how to answer the phone and invite the caller to ask their question. I tell them how to address people who just wander into our office. I also teach them how to write polite and informative responses in our ticketing system to faculty. These skills will be valuable to the students no matter what industry to go into, and I make sure they know that, as well.

Finally, I talk to them about boundaries. We don’t have graduate students at our institution, so we have undergraduate students who are potentially sitting down with faculty to help them use some technology.  There is an inherent power relationship there that does not work in the favor of the student. We are very small, the chances that this student either will or currently is in a class taught by that professor is quite high. And I know that all faculty have only the best intentions when working with students, but sometimes they end up unintentionally using that power position to get the student to do more than they should be doing. I have never met anyone who did this on purpose, but having a student there who you know can just do what you need done for you is so very tantalizing! After explaining this to the student, I tell them that if ever they are asked to do something that is outside of the work they should be doing then they can say “Carly won’t let me do that.” or “I have to check with my supervisor first.”  I essentially let them have me take the blame. Almost every student who has worked for me has come back to say that this was very important to them at some point. They all appreciate the feeling that I have their back, and that helps them to learn that boundaries are important.

The Results

The results have been amazing. I have had numerous years of excellent student workers who have been invaluable in helping our office to support the faculty.  They have taken on the bulks of answering or triaging technical how-to questions, and successfully escalate to professional staff as needed. Many of my students who came in with no particular interest in technology, have gone on to take CS courses because they were no longer as afraid of programming as they had been before working on our office.

Faculty have also reported that most of our students have been wonderful to work with. I have had faculty come to our offices and tell me that they don’t want to talk to me, but want to speak with one of my student workers about their question. And faculty who have gotten the help they need from our student workers are often repeat customers.

I have had student workers that have gone on to do amazing things! They work in high-security computing, are doing graduate research in labs, going to medical school, pursuing their PhD in Computer Science, and more. I have written letters of recommendation for so many of them and helped them get some of these positions, but mostly they have been successful because of how awesome they are to begin with.

Working with students is one of my favorite parts of my job. I love introducing them to new and creative uses of technology.  I love seeing them get excited about education + technology, and watched so many of them grow into confident people when they started out super shy. It’s been a wonderfully rewarding part of working at a small college.

I hope this post has been helpful. I’m happy to answer any questions about how I work with student workers any time!

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Carly J. Born

Academic Technologist at Carleton College
I have worked in instructional technology since 2000, primarily at Carleton College. Trained as a teacher of Japanese, my disciplinary focus started in foreign language education and has gradually shifted to instructional design, the pedagogy of online learning and innovative uses of technology in education. In addition to working as an instructional technologist at Carleton College, I also teach Japanese language at a local charter school.

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