New look of campus help desks

A certain company’s retail stores become a model for college tech support

From stand-alone help desks to spaces in bookstores and other high-traffic areas, technology services are becoming more visible on college campuses.

With more students carrying laptops and tablets rather than textbooks and notebooks, there’s a greater need for assistance buying and setting up new devices, and troubleshooting problems with old computers, says Julie Simonson, director of Campus Computer Resellers Alliance, a special-interest group of the National Association of College Stores. “Students are looking for a place to have their questions answered or help getting started with new technology once they come to campus.”

These new help desks are often modeled after the Genius Bar in Apple Stores. “It just works,” Simonson says of the concept, which features Apple experts, dubbed Geniuses, who answer questions and recommend repair options.

The simple approach means an institution doesn’t have to be an Apple campus to implement a similar model. In Simonson’s experience, campuses also often include services like free data transfer for new devices, cell phone screen repair and 3D printing stations as part of their help desks. These services can be supported by the IT department, retail services or both, but it may be a more important benefit for campus stores.

“With textbooks and other paper course materials on the decline, college stores are trying to increase value by adding technology services,” Simonson says. “Either way, it’s important to make these spaces a destination for students.”

Operating where the students are

At Boise State University in Idaho, taking a customer service approach was key when creating and training staff for the technology IT help areas known collectively as The Zones, with the first location opening in 2011. There are three high-traffic Zone locations across the 22,000-plus student, 175-acre campus: the Interactive Learning Center, the Student Union and the Multipurpose Classroom Building. A smaller help desk is also located within the business school. Support is available via email and phone, as well.

“Focusing on the customer service aspect of a retail environment has changed our mindset on meeting the needs of our students,” says Mark Fitzgerald, director of customer care at Boise State.

At the main Zone location in the Interactive Learning Center, there are computers for student use, printers, a call center and a walk-up support bar. Students can talk to staff, who are also their peers, to get quick questions answered.

Creating an updated, successful help desk

  • Give it high visibility on campus.
  • Make the space a student destination.
  • Ensure that services meet students’ needs that are specific to your campus.
  • Get input from students and faculty to continuously improve service.
  • Be prepared to grow the space.

Support that takes longer is done in smaller sit-down areas. Boise State students and staff can also borrow laptops, tablets, audio recorders, digital cameras, video recorders and GoPro cameras for up to 72 hours.

The Zones are a widely used asset: In the past school year, they have seen 9,564 walk-in support interactions, and devices have been checked out 10,508 times.

Fitzgerald credits the success to the Zones’ highly visible locations in popular buildings. “Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come,” he says. “You have to meet specific needs of students and be where they are.”

Creating a campus Genius Bar

Not only was Northern Kentucky University’s old IT help desk located in a remote location, but a survey revealed students weren’t fans of the tech support phone line. That prompted officials in August 2013 to open the Norse Tech Bar (named after the university mascot) in the University Center next to the Student Union.

The tech bar is a walk-in service center, modeled closely after the Genius Bar concept, that provides one-stop assistance for the university’s nearly 16,000 students. Students often need help with passwords, syncing their smartphones with university email and connecting to the campus wireless network. Student staff also repair hardware and run virus scans.

“We choose this concept because we knew many of our students used Apple products and were familiar with the idea and going to their local Apple Store for help,” says Tim Ferguson, associate provost and CIO at Northern Kentucky. “It’s also an informal setting that encourages students and staff to talk.”

The Norse Tech Bar also offers a full computer lab, large format printing, collaboration spaces and a checkout program that lets students borrow tablets, laptops and cameras.

By the end of 2014, the Norse Tech Bar had processed 2,532 service requests and 1,132 checkouts. At the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year, a heavy marketing campaign directed at first-year students included the tech bar’s own Twitter handle, @nkutechbar. During the first week of school, 271 service requests were processed, and 92 devices were checked out.

“Just seeing that students are able to get help with technology more efficiently, we know we’re making a difference with them being successful in the classroom,” Ferguson says.

Working with the bookstore

This past year, Miami University in Ohio moved its student technology center from a remote academic building to a former dining facility at the Shriver Student Center, which houses the bookstore, says Joe Martin, technology center director.

Bringing tech services closer to the bookstore means students no longer have to go to one place to get a consultation, walk 10 minutes to buy replacement parts and walk 10 minutes back to have repairs completed. “The average time with each student went from 45 minutes to an hour to just a couple of minutes,” Martin says. “We’re now working on integrating devices that work with bookstore’s point-of-sale system so we can sell parts right there to further eliminate that extra step.”

The newly renamed MiTech Center, which is Apple- and Dell-certified, has several walk-up counters with PCs that have ticket software for staff to use. Common services include software installations, virus removal and data backups. Students also can borrow a laptop if their repair will take a couple of days.

The dining facility’s high-top tables were repurposed for one-on-one consultations. Future plans include adding 3D printers and a classroom space where staff can teach larger groups how to use equipment and new technology.

A welcome center is being added to the Shriver Center, Martin says. “One of the most important things to a student is their accessibility to technology. The Shriver Center will soon be the starting point for many of our new students, and having technology assistance right there is essential.”

Right now, the MiTech Center serves about 200 to 250 students a month, but the focus for continued success is keeping turnaround times low and having enough loaner devices, Martin says. “It’s been a learning process for us. It’s important to make yourself available to what student and faculty needs are and to take suggestions to ensure the growth of the space.”

Lauren Williams is special projects editor.


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