Policy Recommendations III

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"CyberAssistance: Service Learning and Support

Training Program for Students"


Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
April 18, 1997

It is quite clear that the level of financial support needed to make the Virginia Tech Cyberschool a more complete and comprehensive project cannot be found in existing budgets. To partially compensate for this budgetary shortfall, we want to find innovative ways to mobilize more support personnel by using academic credit. Giving academic credit to students who can aid faculty in their Cyberschool activities would begin to compensate for our budgetary deficits, while, at the same time, providing some valuable new training and work experience for Virginia Tech students.

Many undergraduate students now arrive on campus with a tremendous level of knowledge about personal computers and the Internet. And, most faculty at Virginia Tech still lack real proficiency with computers and the Internet. We propose that the university systematically support a program to bring these two groups together in mutually advantageous set of arrangements, which we will call the "CyberAssistance Program." [Len: The name is a place-holder: Any suggestions?] Even though many students often possess basic computer and networking skills, they frequently need training in how to communicate their knowledge to others. Consequently, we eventually would like to establish a new course number (4XXX?) for service learning credits in this CyberAssistance Program. At first, we would base this program in University Honors, and it would enlist Honors Students. However, it could also be expanded later to include other interested and capable students.

Building off of the highly successful program of academic, pedagogical, and technical training developed by Len Hatfield of the English Department for the Williams CIC and the A-Tech CIC, CyberAssistance would involve at least a two semester sequence of three to six hours of credit each term. During both semesters, there would be a substantive course of study on computer-mediated communication and on-line discourse to get students thinking about the ethical, political and organizational implications of a networked society and economy. However, they also would be trained in basic support skills--problem analysis and solving, consulting techniques, trouble shooting approaches, managing information resources, and managing people--so that they could be assigned to assist faculty develop new on-line and/or computer-intensive classroom teaching skills. As the service learning program requires, they would commit to 20 hours a week of work. Faculty could get more frequent and extensive support from students as well as provide a service learning opportunity for the students. These CyberAssistants in the CyberAssistance program, in turn, would get academic credits for teaching their computer knowledge to faculty as well as developing a number of very valuable and marketable job skills of their own.

This program also should employ senior and junior level CyberAssistants to assist in training sophomore (and maybe even freshmen) level beginners in a peer learning/teaching arrangement through which the faculty mentors would provide master-like guidance in apprentice-like learning contexts. A faculty member who, for example, might need assistance in web authoring tools could contact the CyberAssistance Coordinator, who would, in turn, assign a team of two students (one more senior or experienced, another more junior or novice) to assist that faculty member. The students would learn by teaching the faculty member and each other, the faculty member would receive much needed technical support, and the university would be able to get some of its most talented human resources--its students--to participate in building Cyberschool programs even as they are learning on many different levels. For a very small monetary investment, then, this program would get many talented individuals to participate in supporting Cyberschool activities. Instead of paying a few comparatively expensive technicians, this approach would locate many more students to work mostly for credit and perhaps some cash. It would not solve the support crisis in Cyberschool, but it could go quite a way towards mitigating its severity. In other words, the University could get what might cost over $500,000 in permanent salaried workers for less than $50,000.

Implementing this proposal will take some coordination between the College of Arts and Sciences, University Honors, and Cyberschool, but it should lead to a number of important benefits. These would include:

1) Service Learning: CyberAssistance is a program to teach students by getting them to teach, enabling them in turn to learn by serving the university. Once this program is tested in Cyberschool for the College of Arts and Sciences, it could easily be expanded into other colleges across the university.

2) Outreach: Once the CyberAssistants prove to be effective support resources on campus for Virginia Tech faculty, they also could be assigned to help others with similar needs in K-12 or community colleges off-campus. With NET.WORK.VIRGINIA, CyberAssistance could have teams of students to visit sites around the Commonwealth to train those wanting to access and use the statewide broadband network.

3) Peer Learning: CyberAssistants would be encouraged to train each other as well as Cyberschool faculty. More senior apprentice-level CyberAssistants would supervise and train more junior-level participants, and these teams could be judged in their service-learning classes on their joint endeavors and collective effectiveness.

4) Honors Program Practica: CyberAssistance would allow the university to redirect some Honors courses into practical, career-oriented, and applied activities instead of relying upon traditional academic pursuits to teach and for learning. Such classes could help students become more self-paced, self-organized, and self-responsible in their learning.

5) Program Development: Mobilizing ten or twenty students a semester to help faculty cope with computer-mediated communications in their teaching would permit many more faculty and programs to make significant progress far more rapidly. Likewise, these CyberAssistants would work for academic credit, not salary, and thereby get the equivalent of five or ten more people in Educational Technologies at work at very low cost to the university.

6) Personnel Development: CyberAssistants will constitute a cadre of well-trained and competent personnel who would be available to work for wages outside of class for many offices across the university. An on-line campus needs many new kinds of workers, and in large numbers. Over time, CyberAssistance would help generate this kind of personnel resource.

7) Program Enhancement: CyberAssistance could be a valuable recruiting tool inasmuch as these skills are highly marketable. A CyberAssistant with a Virginia Tech BA or BS degree will have many job skills, people skills, training skills, and proven work experience when they graduate. Moreover, as service learners and outreach assets, students should have an unusually enriching array of mentoring experiences with faculty, other students, K-12 settings, or other off-campus users to add to their overall educational background.

8) University Mission: The CyberAssistance program, like the University itself, is anchored to the current mission statement by "putting knowledge to work" in service learning, peer learning, and practical learning on and off campus. The involvement of students with faculty in new, more innovative ways also could recenter our understandings of what university teaching and learning are.

Over all, this innovative new approach to providing support will serve many important academic and technical goals for students and faculty. It is a low-cost strategy for getting more support personnel out among the faculty until higher levels of financial backing enable the university to put paid professionals in their place.