Hundreds of thousands of digital devices flooded into American students' hands in recent years.
Some went directly to students in the Aiken County Public School District in South Carolina. The district's 41 schools, which serve about 22,500 students, include North Augusta High School. North Augusta expects to welcome about 1,800 students this academic year.
At the height of the pandemic, Aiken County school leaders decided to embrace 1:1 technology. 1:1 technology, or 1:1 computing, means every student has a personal computing device to support their learning. Supporting over 22,000 devices is a big task for any organization.
It was an ideal opportunity for North Augusta High students in Dell's Student TechCrew program to step in, Michelle O'Rourke told ZDNet. She's the school's business education and computer repair teacher. She also facilitates the TechCrew program.
Dell's Student TechCrew program offers pro-level hardware repair training and certifications for high schoolers. Students earn a Dell TechDirect certification. They also get hands-on learning experience repairing their peers' devices.
The program's flexibility allows schools and teachers to offer TechCrew as a standalone program or integrate it into the academic curriculum as a for-credit class. That's the approach that North Augusta uses. It's part of the school's computer repair and service program.
"So in the two years in the course, the first thing that they do is they get their Dell certification. And then the next year and a half, they're repairing laptops and they're also working through getting their CompTIA A+ and their TestOut PC Pro certifications," said O'Rourke.
That means students can graduate with three industry-standard tech certifications and two years of experience in hands-on device repair, which is "a really cool thing to do."
O'Rourke said she expects 140 students in the TechCrew program at North Augusta this fall. About 15 are returning second year students. The rest will be new to the program. North Augusta students must take a prerequisite course in the fundamentals of computing before enrolling in TechCrew.
Students get lots of practice repairing cracked LCD screens, faulty power ports, and keyboards. Screen bezels and device cases also take a lot of abuse when they're in students' hands, explained Kim Boutwell. She created Dell's TechCrew program and continues to run it today.
Students start with about 40 hours of training to earn Dell's TechDirect certification.
"Once they finish that, they're certified. They know what they're doing. I shouldn't be able to tell the difference [between] a 9th grader and a 20-year veteran tech at that point," Boutwell said. "They know what they're doing, and they are also certified in our portal, our self-maintenance portal at Dell."
TechCrew's in-school adult facilitators complete an eight- to 10-hour course to lead the program. Boutwell said the facilitators usually hold other roles at school. They may be teachers, librarians, parent volunteers, or even a principal.
Boutwell stressed that TechCrew students don't have to piece together a working device by cannibalizing the remains of old devices stacked up in a closet. Instead, they use the online self-maintenance portal to order new parts, just like a regular enterprise customer.
"They're in the same tool. We didn't make a fake tool. They're in the industry tool," Boutwell said. "They are industry certified. Within that tool, they put in the serial number of their friend, they have been trained to run diagnostics, then they're given a parts list. They know which parts to ask for. And they're sent to them overnight."
Student devices sometimes have hard knock life
In terms of repairs, Boutwell said LCD screen replacements are pretty common in schools.
"Kids will put their pencil on the keyboard and close it when the bell rings. …Or they're walking down the hall and they reach out to say hi to their friend and the laptop slips out. Or they're running to get to class and they go to open the door and they forget they've got their laptop in their hand."
Boutwell said school-issued devices also fall victim to spills and water damage. This might happen if a student walks somewhere or rides a bike home in the rain and their digital device unintentionally gets wet.
Existing service contracts cover repair costs. The program itself is also free for schools. Boutwell said Dell funds it through an annual grant agreement with each school.
But mastering the technical aspects of digital device repair is only half the program, said Boutwell.
"The focus of this program is 50% technical and then 50% what I call career skills," Boutwell told ZDNet.
The career aspect includes aspects like customer service and communication — valuable skills for anyone, regardless of what kind of career you pursue.
"And that's where the soft skills part of the program comes in," O'Rourke said, "and that's something that I think is more important than knowing how to repair a laptop, is knowing how to start up a conversation with someone. Or how to keep a level of professionalism when someone is not listening to what you're telling them. These kids are learning how to do that."
"The career skills [aspect], that one's hard to get kids into," Boutwell said. "They don't want to read 'Chapter three: communication, how to communicate effectively with your team.' Gen Z is like, 'Can you put that in a TikTok for me?' I had to find a way to make that career skills [component] cool and fun.
Students helped shape a newly revamped TechCrew curriculum that launched last month.
"It turns out they don't like videos more than a minute and a half long," Boutwell explained. And, she added, students don't like to read long passages of text before having an opportunity to go hands-on with what they're learning.
The updated course also takes into account another important point of student feedback: Kids like learning from each other. So as part of the revised curriculum, students in the program created videos that help other students learn important ideas.
Dell has also partnered with the Conrad Foundation to help students learn and connect.
Supporting education's continuing digital transformation
Boutwell established the TechCrew program to address an issue she experienced firsthand.
She's a former middle school teacher. In 2015, she was also a Dell customer. That year, her district decided to move to a 1:1 technology model. Back then, the idea — and the ability and best practices to implement it — was still new.
I was so excited to give out 35,000 devices to kids in my community and transform education that I forgot a little piece of it, and that is that high schools are crowded, kids run really fast, they ride bicycles, they forget to tie their shoe strings. Things happen, and they drop their devices.
She realized potential hardware repair technicians were in the classroom: The students.
Boutwell later began working for Dell and pitched the idea to the company. It officially launched in the 2019-20 school year. The pilot program proved successful even with the introduction of an unexpected variable — the COVID-19 pandemic — which accelerated remote learning.
"It was an interesting time to have piloted a hardware support program, and I honestly didn't know how it would be affected," Boutwell said. "It turned out that more than ever, schools needed that support and kids needed that place to belong. It's gotten more successful since that."
Boutwell said she likes the path her career has taken so far. "It's been an amazing journey. And I think my path from education to corporate helps me stay relatable to both people from the corporate world and people from the classroom. I like not being one or the other."
Even without the pandemic, Boutwell said, school systems were still moving toward a 1:1 technology model for students. As a result, "we knew that education was still transforming. And we knew that the opportunity gap was closing for the students who didn't have their own devices."
Right now, there's a big push to get kids into coding. That's a valuable skill. But O'Rourke said it's important students get to learn about the hardware that software and apps will live on.
"Coders' laptops break too. Their hard drives go out too," she said.
Early success and global growth of Dell Student TechCrew
The 2021-22 school year was the North Augusta TechCrew program's first.
"I had all 25 students get their Dell certification before Thanksgiving," O'Rourke said. "My goal was to have it done in the first eight weeks of school, but with quarantines and Covid was still happening, a few of them took a little longer."
By Christmas break, the students were handling 98% of repairs "not just for our school but our two feeder middle schools and the elementary schools around us," she said.
Taking care of devices is a big responsibility for the district's full-time, adult technicians. On some Monday mornings, the crew would arrive to find a dozen or more students whose laptops needed repairs.
"And that is a lot for one person to do, especially when some of our school technicians support more than one school and the 1:1, the laptops, is just one part of their job," O'Rourke said.
"They still have to take care of the teachers, and the other things that are going on. So those [full-time] technicians were able to scoop up those laptops and bring them in to us. My kids would take them in, troubleshoot them, order the parts, get the parts the next day, repair the laptops and then I'd send the technician a text and say, 'Hey — you got laptops ready,' and they'd come and get them."
O'Rourke said students had repaired more than 500 devices by the end of last school year.
Boutwell said she expects that 175 schools in the U.S., Australia, and Ireland will participate in TechCrew this year. The students connect virtually to share their experiences and insights.
As the program's creator and leader, Boutwell also stays connected. She acknowledges it's sometimes a challenge with students in so many different time zones. Sometimes she starts her day by connecting with students in Ireland and ends her day by connecting with students from Australia.
"As a teacher, talking about all this is fun, but I really like talking about the kids," Boutwell said. "That's what gets me really excited. We're changing their trajectory, and it's exciting to be a part of their opportunities."