Donated computers - the good, the bad, and the ugly

Donated computers - the good, the bad, and the ugly

Summary: Donated computers run my labs, but they bring with them a host of problems.

TOPICS: Hardware

With an annual operating budget so small that I can calculate it on the back of a napkin (around smudges of school pizza sauce and chocolate pudding), I have to rely on donated computing equipment to keep my labs and classroom computers running.  Many public schools, non-profits, and small businesses use surplus computers either obtained for a nominal processing fee from government agencies or donated outright by businesses, consumers, and other public entities.

Today I picked up 13 computers from the Army Corps of Engineers.  Over the last year, the USACE has surplused about 40 computers that we have been able to snag and put into use around our school.  Some of them are pretty nice computers (5 today were dual processor Pentium III Xeons).  Others can barely run Windows XP.  However, without them, I wouldn't have a computer lab to teach web design and programming, nor would I have replacement computers for the various machines around the school that fail on a daily basis.

We all understand the need for appropriate lifecycle management.  Marc Wegner wrote a great piece at the beginning of the month on the importance of meaningful and realistic computer turnover.  However, my district's sole focus for budgeting next year is preserving teacher jobs.  Layoffs are imminent, critical maintenance is needed on several buildings, and IT has an unfortunately, if understandably, minor role in next year's budget. Nor is my district unique in this dire financial situation. Thus, as I have pointed out before, free is good.

Of course, as Marc points out, the absolute longest replacement cycle for computers should be 5 years.  Computers do not get surplused unless they have already reached the end of their lifecycle as defined by some other better-funded group.  If you are lucky, the computer equipment was surplused by a group with leading-edge technology needs.  The workstation-class computers I picked up today are perfect for my purposes but not nearly powerful enough for a group using CAD to model dam and reservoir designs for the Army Corps of Engineers.  Computers like these, however, are few and far between in the surplus market.  More often than not, the computers one can find available for surplus are adequate at best.  Then again, beggars can't be choosers and it is important to remember that most student computing needs center around web surfing and word processing.

In fact, it is not really the speed of these computers that tends to be problematic.  Like the other older computers that many of us have lying around our schools, reliability becomes a far more significant issue.  My principal wonders why I am fairly indiscriminate in the computers I'm willing to accept for donation and from surplus. However, since significant (and often fatal) maintenance issues tend to crop up on a daily basis with these older computers, I have to take in large numbers of computers to keep up with replacement needs, as well as to generate adequate numbers of spare parts to keep my lab and classroom computers running.

This then begs the question: is it worth it?  Are the Herculean efforts expended by me and my student volunteers to obtain and maintain a moderate number of aging computers worth the fairly meager returns?  In my case, the answer is a resounding yes.  Resources are sufficiently scarce that the only alternative is a school with no meaningful computer technology which is obviously not acceptable. In districts with more adequate resources, donated, surplused, and even refurbished computers (more on the latter in a future entry) can still provide a significant cost-cutting measure for low-availability applications (e.g., attendance, spare parts, elementary classrooms, etc.).  However, given the increased maintenance needs of these machines, they should really be limited to supplementary technology, not the only technology.  Lifecycle management is simply futile in the latter case.

A final downside to the successful use of donated computers is a perception within the community that technology needs are being met adequately without additional funding.  If we do our jobs too well and go the extra mile to make do with scarce resources, it becomes increasingly unlikely that resources will be allocated as needed in the future.

So what's the take-home message here?  Many resources exist at the local, state, and federal levels to obtain free and very low-cost computers.  These resources should certainly be exploited in the interest of cost-savings, conservation, and maximizing student access to technology.  However, as we are seeing over and over in this column, there is no substitute for reasonable funding, realistic lifecycle management, and the necessary administrative and community support to make these things possible. 

Topic: Hardware

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Old Computers

    You have my sympathy. Do you want or need P1 166/200 computers? I have 5 I'll send you on my nickel. I might even be able to send you Win95 disks for some of them. Might be more useful running Red Hat7 or 8 Linux though.
    • Ahh, the Pentium I

      The good old days of the PI...Cache is for wimps. It's a good thing they cut our autoshop program so I have a nice big garage where my PI's can go to die. Of course here in the Commonwealth we have to recycle our computers, which (surprise) isn't in the budget either, so my computer graveyard is just becoming another mass grave. UGH. Glad to hear from a fellow mortician.

      ...Chris Dawson
    • P1 computers

      I could use a computer running Win95! Are you really willing to give one away? I'd love to have one.
  • where do you start?

    Good point about needing a morgue for spare parts. I guess old machines will die faster than new ones. This brings up the point of "how consistent do you need to be in what makes and models you accept, so that you can have enough spares on hand?" Do you concentrate on getting only one or two models, or do you throw caution to the wind and grab anything that will power on?

    Another point to consider is how much CPU speed, RAM, and disk do you need? What is the computer lab you're setting up going to be used for? I can't see most K-12 students needing (and I use "need" loosely here) to do more than learn how to navigate around a GUI, work a browser, and be introduced to a word processor and maybe a spreadsheet. Most will have an even hotter machine at home, but some will rely on the school's PCs to get on the Web. You don't need a whole lot of power for stuff like that, especially if you're running Linux on the boxes. Basic programming skills require very little PC power.

    For high school (9-12) students, how many need a really hot machine? What do students do in the way of heavy graphics work or number crunching? I have to wonder if High School is an appropriate place to be using class time to teach such vocational skills. There's so much that kids need to learn these days, and how to Photoshop or do game design isn't one of them. Basic computer literacy is one thing (good), but I can't see any point to turning out MOUSes and whatnot.

    I guess that one argument for consistency of machines is that a student on a 166 MHz Pentium is going to be jealous of the student sitting next to him, using a 2.0 GHz P4. Has anyone had any good or bad experiences with labs using a variety of PCs? Have parents complained that little Johnny is being left behind because he hasn't been assigned one of the better machines in the lab?
    Colonel Panijk
    • You'd be surprised ...

      ... what kids can do with the proper computing resources.

      My son is a six-year-old in a typically under-funded, predominantly blue-collar, Midwestern public elementary school and he knows more about how to use PowerPoint than I do. I on the other hand have twenty-five years in Education IT at the university level. He didn't learn about it from me -- or by poking around on our computers at home. He learned PowerPoint at school so he could make presentations to the class. The games they play on these computers are teaching them mathematics AND critical thinking. One game he has shown me teaches kids how to plan a mythical pioneer trek across the Western Plains. They have to decide what supplies to take on the trip so that they and their party can survive the journey.

      These computing resources give them access to an incredible wealth of information that is far beyond the capabilities of the school's library to acquire. You cannot expose these kids to these tools too soon! I would hope that no kid today has to struggle with a Pentium 166 but a Pentium II, 300Mhz, with 128MB of RAM can run Windows XP and Office XP (and even Outlook with Exchange) -- it's not pretty but this lame resource is far better than nothing at all and even in a K-6 environment, this resource is worth its weight in gold!

      In my mind, it is even more important in a K-6 environment to expose kids to the same thing that they have at home (most likely Windows XP) than it is in High-School, where exposing them to alternatives which require more skill as well as a minor but very real paradigm shift is of great value.
      M Wagner
      • being surprised

        Well, congratulations on your son being a computer whiz-kid at 6, but I still have my doubts. Children are graduating from High School with generally dismal language and math skills (not to mention a total ignorance of history and all but the most current culture), and I can't see how using computers to add glitz and splash to presentations is going to help at all. Using a word processor instead of a typewriter ([i]after[/i] they have learned to print and write neatly!) is reasonable. Learning to do research on the Internet is reasonable (after cautioning them [b]not[/b] to uncritically accept anything on Wikipedia). Perhaps using computer-based games to study anything, rather than rote memorization, [i]is[/i] more fun (and therefore slightly more effective), but that may be a sorry comment on today's society. Using PowerPoint to do class presentations? Sorry, no. I think computers have legitimate uses in school, but I stick by my original point that they cannot be used to make learning a totally fun, carefree, multimedia event. Learning will always take a level of discipline, practice, and even pain -- it will never be reduced to semi-passive computer games. And no, I'm not arguing that we should go all the way back to chiseling stone tablets -- useful tools in the classroom are good, but let's not get carried away and confuse entertainment with learning.
        Colonel Panijk
        • No three ring circuses

          I don't think anyone is arguing that education should be a 3-ring circus of multimedia goodness. I'm the first to hand out F's when I get emoticons and IM-speak in research papers. However, as far as I'm concerned, the more tools we can provide kids, and the more comfortable we can make them with the technology in which they will be immersed (for better or worse) when they leave high school, the better we're doing as educators. Too many students do suffer from serious deficiencies in basic education, but removing technology from the equation will only alienate a tech-savvy generation, not improve their academics. Without a smart combination of technology and rigorous academics, we will continue to fall behind other countries where the two go hand in hand and students leave secondary schools with a strong working knowledge of technology as well as the ability to write complete sentences.
  • Need Any PII 400Mhz

    I'd pay you to take them.

    Have at least 15 of them.
    • Take'em, Chris!

      These boxes, if in reasonably good shape, can, with some tweaking, be made to run Windows XP reasonably well. All they will likely need is 256MB of RAM and and a small (20 to 40 GB) hard drive.
      M Wagner
    • Send 'em on down!

      I'd be glad to take them. No need to pay me if you can arrange transport :) Send me an email at and we can coordinate.

    • PII 400 MHz

      What OS's do they have? Anything from DOS 6 through Win95 would be good for me!
    • PII 400

      Please let me know whether you will send me one. email address:

      Mailing address is in NYC.
  • Minimum Requirements

    Hi, interesting article. I'm tech support for an eastern MA high school (and a middle school), and we've pretty much stopped taking donations unless they are PIII and above, and quantities of *at least* 20. There are 1800+ students here, and about 400+ PC's and laptops. Too much variety in computer models makes managing the images for them a nightmare. I have almost 200gb of Ghost images for my two schools alone, and there are 8 more schools in the system! And don't even mention the Central Office! I still manage to keep our PII 400's running, but only with the most basic software and good ol' Win2K.
    Just my 2c and it's nice to hear about other school tech's issues.
    Pop Tarts in the floppy drive anyone?
    • Just a thought ...

      ... If your systems are capable of running Windows 2K, they will run better with Windows XP. Aside form the prettier interface, XP was effectively a performance upgrade to Win2K.
      M Wagner
      • W2k and XP

        Well, I'm not involved in the licensing end of it, but I think that has something to do with it. Also, it's just easier for us techs to deploy W2k, no key needed, no activation. Lastly, XP uses more disk space, and many of these old PII's have only 4-6 gb hdd's. Having said that, we are moving to XP, but only on new equipment.
        • But about that malware...

          How do your 2K computers do with malware? Licensing is quickly becoming an issue for us as well, but I spend all of my time reinstalling Windows if I'm not running XP SP2. Do you have 3rd party software running?

          • Malware

            Yes, it was a big problem for us, but we use Fortres and have it configured to pretty much stop anything from being installed the the local computer. It's cut the malware problem to almost nothing, although occasionally something will slip through, usually only if Fortres central control is down for some reason. Along with group policies, malware is just about under control.

  • RE: Donated computers - in small business

    Anyone, besides me, trying to run a small business startup on surplus computers? I have been upgrading constantly from surplus suppliers, mostly on eBay.

    My budget is even worse than yours, Chris. I started with about 5k two years ago, and am now down to whatever profit I make or cash I can scrape. Two years ago, the surplus Dell 6400 I bought was great! Now, two years later, parts are failing and I have no cash to replace them.

    My User Group (www has been asking for donations since 1986.... The only thing ever donated was an old Atari. The User Group is not-for-profit, not non-profit like your school. Since the donations are not dedutible, they are much harder to come by, so I have been running everything on my own dime.

    I really would like to hear from anyone else in either of these situations.