A new digital help desk program piloted by Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMUSA) and the San Antonio and Edgewood school districts will not only provide technical support for thousands of students and their families, but will train users to eventually become paid help desk workers.

The Connected Beyond the Classroom Help Desk will build upon current technical support for more than 25,000 students and their families, with the goal of becoming a national model to help close the digital divide and the homework gap for students who lack consistent internet access.

The help desk is part of the Connected Beyond the Classroom initiative created by the city, Bexar County, and local nonprofits to increase internet access to low-income families, said Carl Sheperis, dean of TAMUSA’s College of Education and Human Development.

“One of the things we recognized in working with the school districts was that, especially during the pandemic, the district staff was really overwhelmed with IT requests,” he said. “The project is really not something that’s a standalone. It’s tied to what we’re seeing in digital infrastructure efforts.”

Sheperis said the city has dedicated $27 million to digital infrastructure targeting school districts, but he and his research team found that putting devices in students’ hands and connecting those devices to the internet is not always enough. Those students and their families need support to effectively use those devices.

That’s where the Digital Inclusion Scholars Program comes in. Students and family members interested in learning more about technology and receiving job skills training will be mentored by university students and staff so they can eventually provide help desk service to others. Sheperis said San Antonio Independent School District will consider hiring adults who complete their help desk internships.

The idea behind the scholars program was to create “something of value to students” and the community beyond a support mechanism, Sheperis said. Students and adults can receive remote help desk training through TAMUSA, as well as general workforce training, such as conflict resolution, communication, and business management skills. Participants in the program will be paid $13 an hour.

“That’s such a huge focus, especially with the pandemic, is how do we create these new job opportunities. That’s a big post-pandemic recovery effort,” Sheperis said. “While we were … implementing this for students, it was easy to just tie it into what the community needed in terms of creating that workforce pipeline for adults, as well.”

Training for adult learners will begin soon, so they can start working the help desk when school starts in August. Both Edgewood ISD and SAISD return Aug. 9. Sheperis said he expects the project to expand across Bexar County to reach other areas that lack adequate internet access and digital support.

“This really has an immediate impact,” Sheperis said. “You don’t have to wait to see what it does.”

A $750,000 grant from USAA and $150,000 from Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc. are helping TAMUSA launch the help desk initiative. Sheperis and his research team are working with the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio-based education advocacy nonprofit, to evaluate the project, looking at customer satisfaction, problem resolution speed, and students’ growth in digital literacy.

Sheperis’ team will meet with city and county leaders to examine how policy decisions are made and how leaders invest money into internet infrastructure. That will help the research team assess the impact of the help desk and scholars program.

“We have about 50 different key performance indicators we’re measuring and trying to make sure that we really understand how this can be a model for the rest of the country,” Sheperis said.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.