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

Donated computers run my labs, but they bring with them a host of problems.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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. 

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