TECH CORPS, a national nonprofit organization that mobilizes technology volunteers in schools, has expanded its free online mentoring program to include teachers as well as technology professionals. The new version of its “techs4schools” program now gives educators with varying degrees of technology experience the opportunity to collaborate with information technology (IT) professionals via the web.

Sponsored by Compaq Computer Corp., the year-old techs4schools program is an online forum in which volunteer IT professionals are placed into teams with teachers and school technology leaders nationwide. Each 10-person team is then encouraged to discuss the use of technology in schools.

The service is free, but it does require users to register with the program before taking part in discussions. Once registered, educators and technology professionals alike are allowed to ask anyone on their teams about a host of issues, including networking, hardware, video, broadband, the internet, and operating systems.

The current setup allows group members to ask questions, make suggestions, and discuss brewing technology dilemmas. To provide the greatest number of perspectives possible, teams are composed of school technologists, teachers, and IT professionals with differing areas of expertise.

What makes techs4schools so valuable, said Karen Smith, executive director of TECH CORPS, is that the latest version of the service provides a truly collaborative environment for educators to learn not only from IT professionals, but also from the suggestions and ideas of their peers.

“This is not a help desk. This is a collaborative environment where [educators and school technology leaders] can ask their own questions, talk with one another, and receive answers from IT professionals. It’s a group process for the sharing of information. You’re tapping into peoples’ experiences,” she said.

Smith is optimistic that the forum’s collaborative environment—reinforced by a tight-knit team atmosphere—will encourage both tech-savvy educators and those who are new to technology to participate in the program.

“Whether their school is on the cutting edge of technology or just beginning, techs4schools allows people to find answers to their questions. Techs4schools is for anyone who is already using technology in the classroom or who wants to be using that technology,” Smith said.

One way the service aims to attract new, less familiar educators is by offering potential users an opportunity to test the program before registering. A free trial session allows the curious a chance to participate in online discussions before making a commitment. Trial users can compose answers to posted remarks and draft questions for tech professionals. If they find the program to be helpful, educators can choose to register online at no cost.

“This will really help us to streamline the registration process,” said Deirdre Morrissey, program manager for TECH CORPS. “People can get a feel for what it is all about before registering.”

According to Smith, a major goal of TECH CORPS has been to put technical support within reach of all schools, regardless of an institution’s resources. She believes techs4schools will play a significant role in reaching this goal. Because the forum is free and entirely web-based, it can reach educators located in remote areas or those who might face overburdened tech-support teams at their schools.

“We can bring technology volunteers to you no matter where you are located,” said Smith.

The latest version of techs4schools also offers educators the opportunity to confer with Expert Groups. These are periodical web-based discussions composed of five to 10 certified IT professionals from similar technical fields. According to Smith, the groups are being offered to tackle those broad but more occasional questions that often result from special or emerging technologies.

“A lot of the questions today are on a very high scale,” said Morrissey. She said the new Expert Groups, which every registered user may participate in, will give educators an opportunity to learn more about the latest technological trends. The first few topics for these sessions will include wireless technologies and accessibility options.

Despite the benefits that techs4schools offers, “it is only part of the solution,” said Smith. Although it’s important for teachers to have access to online support, she explained, it’s equally important for them to seek out “hands-on” training to deal with the new demand for technology in schools.

“Techs4schools has proven to be a valuable tool for all schools needing technical assistance. By joining techs4schools, teachers get free, unrestricted access to a variety of technical experts who can help them make technology work better in their classrooms,” said Smith. “Having been a teacher, I can tell you it’s nice to have some communication outside of those four walls.”