In his most recent blog (Donated computers - the good, the bad, and the ugly), Christopher Dawson writes:
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.
I can only take Christopher's word for it that in his cash-strapped environment that this is indeed the best course of action but what about those hidden costs? Sure, the school can look at Christopher's time as a 'sunk cost' -- spent whether Christopher works those hours or not. And, if he is as conscientious as he seems to be, he is probably putting in more than his fair share of unpaid overtime to see that his student's have the computing resources that they need but when Christopher has to choose between teaching his students and keeping the tools he uses to teach functioning, his students suffer -- no matter which choice he makes.
Christopher has already reinforced the importance of lifecycle funding but what about those hand-me-downs? Are they really worth the trouble? If every hand-me-down at the end of its lifecycle requires two more hand-me-downs to keep up and running, how long does it take for two functioning student labs to turn into one lab with functioning computers and one lab full of junk? How do you convince your administration to give you more resources, if the resources that you have are not presentable to your school board?
Even if lifecycle funding isn't available, you might be better off spending one-time money on fewer functioning entry-level computers than spending time on lots of machines which need to be scavenged to keep a few running. (Better that than spending one-time money on laptops for your school's administrators!) If you are scavenging anyway, look at building your own entry-level machines out of new component parts. Or look for refurbished computers sold by your favorite vendor. Sure they are last year's model but they come with OEM software and they are at least are guaranteed to run out of the box.
When I was in high-school, the band sold fruitcakes in order to raise money for uniforms. While a long way from ideal, a similar approach might be suitable for today's high school student computer labs.
Unfunded federal mandates and short-sighted state legislators have left America's public schools in a deplorable state. We can only hope that the efforts of teachers like Christopher can hold off the wolves long enough for fiscal responsibility to return to our government agencies.