For many school districts, it's no longer possible to depend solely on in-house personnel to field end user questions and offer basic troubleshooting. Especially in districts with large installed bases, where PCs number in the thousands but IT staff only in the single digits, streamlining the help desk process is essential. Though used primarily in the business world to address employee and customer tech problems, help desk software is one approach being employed by swamped school technology departments.
The primary function of most help desk systems is to track and route service calls, also known as "trouble tickets," while at the same time encouraging users to troubleshoot on their own. For example, an elementary teacher with a printer problem can "call in" for tech support by filling out an online form that's transmitted to the district's help desk system, which then sends an automated reply with special links to FAQs about printer problems. Alternatively, a technician might review the form and send tech support suggestions via e-mail before coming out to troubleshoot.
Some experts say that automated help desk applications are particularly well suited to education because without them, schools typically don't create a centralized tech support knowledge base. Instead of providing support ad hoc, IT staff can keep detailed caller and service records, isolate recurrent problems, and even track hardware and software inventories. Clearly, moving in this direction has the potential to cut operational costs and improve service levels, assuming districts can afford the hefty initial cost of the system. Here's a rundown of some of the different options available.
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Carol Holzberg, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an anthropologist, educational technology specialist, and computer journalist in Massachusetts.
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Help Desk Solutions
Product Description Selected Features Price Helpdesk Solution
www.altiris.comHelpdesk Solution, a component of the Altiris Education Management Suite, is a Web-based trouble ticket management tool designed to help IT staff identify, track, and resolve technical problems. - Track inventory data and allows for remote troubleshooting
- Built on the Microsoft .NET framework
- Integrates with other data sources including Microsoft Active Directory and Systems Management Server $1,687.50 per concurrent user. Management Suite: $60 per node with volume discounts available. Unicenter ServicePlus Service Desk
www.ca.com This Web-based, multicomponent solution automatically streamlines the help desk process, from providing end users with online knowledge tools to enabling technicians to quickly respond to service calls. - Self-service tools include decision trees, natural language search, and FAQs
- Offers advanced features such as customer surveys and service level agreement management
- Access via Web and wireless handheld interfaces $3,000 per concurrent user; all components included. HelpSTAR 8.0
Help Desk Technology International Corporation
www.helpstar.comHelpSTAR help desk software provides problem resolution and reporting capabilities for mid-sized organizations that service 100 to 10,000 end users. - Database of preferred solutions for first-call resolution
- Data analysis and reporting tools
- Add-on module for managing assets Prices start at $2,495 for a starter pack covering two support reps; licenses for additional reps begin at $500. National K-12 Help Desk
www.hp.comNational K-12 Help Desk provides districts with fewer than 500 supported users professional help desk support for most major brands of computers as well as over 200 software applications. (For schools with 500 or more users, HP offers broader customized options.) - Web-based incident/request submission and reporting
- All help desk database information is stored remotely and does not require local software installation
- Dedicated toll-free 800 telephone number for K-12 subscribers. Prices start at $19 per supported user per month. A customized help center offering is also available; prices vary. infraEnterprise
www.infra-corp.cominfraEnterprise is a Web-based solution for automating service management processes in schools, districts, and other organizations. - Supports the .NET platform
- Logs and tracks incidents from any Web-enabled device
- Knowledge bank feature lets users find answers to basic questions
- Customer survey module available Prices vary depending on modules purchased. The help desk module for four concurrent users starts at $10,000. Magic Solutions HelpDesk IQ
www.nai.comMagic Solutions HelpDesk IQ, one of several service management products offered by Network Associates, helps small and medium organizations track technology incidents and problems. - Predefined templates automate the logging, routing, and closing of tickets
- Tracks hardware and software inventory, providing details on individual assets and configurations
- Browser-based interface enables anytime, anywhere access. $995 per technician. Check company Web site for information about additional service desk offerings. 24/7 Campus Support Portal
www.parature.com24/7 Campus Support Portal is an oline support solution with 10 modules including asset tracking and management of trouble tickets that schools can choose from as needed. - Hosted solution; no hardware requirements
- Self-service database offers past solutions to service requests, FAQs, and more
- Web-based chat feature enables live question-and-answer sessions
- Integrates with the Blackboard platform Cost varies depending on modules, features, and number of users. Prices range from $5,000 $40,000. Peregrine ServiceCenter
www.peregrine.comPeregrine ServiceCenter offers a range of help desk functions, including modules for handling incoming service calls, tracking inventory, and managing infrastructure change requests. - Supports SQL Server, Oracle, and DB2; runs on both Windows and UNIX server platforms
- Online self-service option helps IT staff and end users resolve problems on their own
- Peregrine Mobile component enables technicians to access, complete, and close incidents in the field. Districts can scale the solution according to their needs. Prices are based on named and/or concurrent user licensing. Remedy Help Desk
www.remedy.comRemedy Help Desk automates support processes including the ability to submit, monitor, and manage help desk requests, infrastructure changes, and inventory records. - Users can request service via Web, e-mail, or telephone, generating a trouble ticket that is immediately routed
- Able to assign work orders to outside vendors
- Available as a stand-alone system or integrated with the Remedy IT Service Management Suite Small Business Edition starts at $15,000. Regular Help Desk: $30,000 for five administrators. Each additional user costs $5,400. FootPrints
www.unipress.comFootPrints is a Web-based tool designed to help districts and schools centralize the tracking and management of their service desk activities. - Technicians can track requests submitted via e-mail, Web, and phone
- Enables live support using e-mail, chat, and remote control
- Add-on modules include self-service databases and Microsoft SMS Asset Management About $1,000 per help desk agent.
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Outsourcing Tech: Pros and Cons
Even if you use help desk software, you still have to decide where to route service calls: to an outside contractor or in-house support staff.
Schools have traditionally kept strict control over their technology infrastructure, hiring full- or part-time employees to maintain the network, troubleshoot problems, and oversee repairs and upgrades. Increasingly, however, this model is being questioned. Why not outsource high-end technical service, leaving educators to focus on their "core competencies"?
Of course, there are several benefits to having in-house support. District technicians know the physical layout of the buildings; they're familiar with the equipment; and they know when to escalate a repair to outside agencies. Problems can be dealt with on demand with a relatively quick turnaround for minor requests.
That said, external vendors are often better equipped and trained to deliver end user support. Technicians who deal with the same problems week after week can often resolve problems more effectively than school technology staff who may only encounter the problem once or twice. For schools having a hard time securing a line item for qualified tech support on staff (school committees and taxpayers would rather spend the money on improving student-teacher ratios), outsourcing turns technology expertise into a fixed-cost item, something akin to a service contract on the school furnace or trash pick-up.
Outsourcing is not without risks, however. For starters, without in-house expertise, schools could end up relying on a company they can't control. In addition to having little knowledge of local conditions, the contractor must often deal with the problems of other customers first. Moreover, when schools calculate the total cost, they should figure in the cost of downtime waiting for a technician to come on-site to troubleshoot a software installation or network hook-up.
Ultimately, the support services path you choose must reflect local considerations. K-12 settings with uncomplicated infrastructures or schools in areas where it's difficult to attract qualified tech experts might find it more cost-effective to shed some technology service functions and contract with a local provider. On the other hand, districts with significant technology investments might opt for in-house technology support to make service more efficient and responsive.
To read more about outsourcing in education, check out www.lhric.org/inside/outsource.html.
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