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Tech Support Keeps Central Arizona Students Connected

Some students come to Central Arizona College, a sprawling, multi-campus, 2-year institution south of Phoenix, more prepared to deal with the necessity of using technology than others. More than a few recent high school graduates still struggle to use a computer mouse when they arrive on campus. Of course, learning how to use a computer mouse or email is only half the battle. Students need devices to get online, and use of campus computer labs isn’t always enough to meet that need. Lack of access to computers can pose a real challenge to success in class, especially for students who can’t spare the time or money to make the long drive to campus every time they need to complete an online assignment. Yet, technology is what connects this widely dispersed community of students.

Central Arizona College’s six campuses dot Pinal County, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. One campus, Aravaipa, is a two and a half hour drive from the main campus at Signal Point. Despite being only a forty minute drive from Phoenix, the terrain sharply divides Pinal County from the Phoenix metro area. The mountainous east side of the county is home to mining operations, with the western side mostly covered with desert. A designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, 53 percent of Central Arizona students identify as a racial minority. Many students served by the college experience stark poverty. Some students leave campus for the day and return to homes with no running water or electricity. Even with these challenges, students have to rapidly become conversant with technology, because their instructors may be located on a different campus a few hours away. They must stay virtually connected to each other and their instructors through interactive television or Blackboard, email or discussion boards.

College staff knew that in order for students to succeed at Central Arizona, the college needed to offer more technology support to keep students connected. When considering what sort of intervention would benefit students most, Jill Dingman, Central Arizona’s Title V Director, and her colleagues agreed that students didn’t truly have access to technology, even when they were on campus. So, the college applied for a 2011 Title V Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, a funding source that supports Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Part of that proposal targeted developing programs to improve technology literacy and access.

Their proposal was successful, and the Title V Technical Support office on the Signal Peak campus was created to close gaps in technology access, one word-processing workshop and one repaired laptop at a time. Central Arizona used grant funds to create a technology help desk position to address needs on an individual basis. Students can either reach the help desk via phone or bring their ailing laptops and password errors directly to Sam Rifkin, the office’s Technology Assistant. Students who encounter a password error or other seemingly small hangup can take a week to get back online if they don’t get assistance. With homework deadlines and reading assignments piling up, students can’t afford to be offline that long. Rifkin’s there to offer a smile and make sure students have the support they need to stay connected and keep up with their classes.

The Technical Support office helped address technical literacy, but Central Arizona students still needed more reliable access to computers. The college originally purchased 16 laptops to loan to students in developmental education programs. Within three days, those laptops had been claimed; clearly, demand was more than high enough to offer students more laptop loans. The college then purchased an additional 50 laptops, which Rifkin said were “gobbled up right away.” Central Arizona now has 155 laptops to lend and hopes to have more to offer students in the future.

Daily laptop loans are available to any Central Arizona student through their campus Learning Center, and students in developmental education classes can borrow laptops either overnight or for the full semester. Students in developmental education classes can also make use of a computer mouse, jump drives, headsets, and web cameras available for loan, which can be delivered to their home campus through an internal carrier within a day. Additionally, students can take advantage of tutoring in reading, writing, math and computer studies via videoconference on any of Central Arizona’s campuses.

Central Arizona staff know that learning to use technology can be frustrating and stressful. Dingman and Rifkin believe an important part of the Technical Support office’s service is offering students a tissue or encouraging word while they work out any bugs in their laptop or fix their login access. This combination of in-person support and shared learning experiences only a laptop loan or mouse click away keeps ties in the Central Arizona College community strong all across Pinal County."