More on Donations

My post from earlier this week on donated computers generated a fair amount of feedback and a number of good questions, so I thought I'd devote some more space to this issue.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

My post from earlier this week on donated computers generated a fair amount of feedback and a number of good questions, so I thought I'd devote some more space to this issue. Most of what follows is my $.02 and I'd love to see some more feedback on the topic.

For my school, my minimum requirement is that donated machines be able to run Windows XP. In my experience, unless we can get up to SP2, the malware issues become so severe so quickly that we end up with significant network traffic as well as basic usability problems. Sure, there are lean and mean versions of Linux floating around that can run quite effectively on lesser machines, but, in general, the user interface (if it goes beyond a command line) is not conducive to widespread use. So my minimum requirements are PII, 300MHz, 128MB RAM, and a 4GB hard drive. I have more 14" and 15" monitors than I know what to do with, so I also only accept working 17" and above monitors. I no longer take inkjet printers due to the prohibitive cost of ink and their general unreliability. I also gladly take networking equipment, but won't take hubs (we finally converted our whole network to switches; I have plenty of hubs for flat surfaces on which I can stack my 14" monitors).

So I'm not terribly particular. And yes, this does create lots of problems with managing disk images. Therefore, I've trained a number of responsible students in the art of reinstalling Windows, Office, Firefox, AdAware, and Clamwin (a free spiffy antivirus tool). I also set up a workspace in our old woodshop where teachers and students can deliver dead or dying CPUs for rapid repair and redeployment.

In part, public education has simply taught me to take whatever I can get. However, there is also the issue of political capital. I can hardly plead before parents, school committees, the town government, and taxpayers of the town for more money, but reject well-meant donations. Most parents have never managed an IT enterprise and think that Ghost is something that lives in the attic of their Colonial-era home. It is far better to build goodwill with the community and take donations (even if only for spare parts or for eventual recycling), than it is to explain why a particular computer just isn't good enough.

As a number of readers pointed out, most K-12 students simply do not need a lot of horsepower.  What they need is Internet access and basic productivity software.  No doubt, faster computers make for a better, easier computing experience.  But certainly at the elementary level (and even in most secondary settings), extremely basic computers will usually suffice.

An additional point of interest that a reader brought up was jealousy among students regarding assignment of better computers to one student or another.  Reader Colonel_Panijk writes:

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?

In fact, I have had just this experience.  The daughter of the school committee chair happened to be assigned to a particularly slow computer in a computer-aided drafting course.  Her computer had been put into service after a much faster machine had lost a motherboard the previous semester; of course there were no funds for replacement, so we dug into the donated computers.  Because the software used in this course was fairly processor-intensive, she did fall behind and her parents did complain.  On the other hand, I was able to replace one of 24 2.4 GHz Celeron-based PCs with a 500MHz PIII in the Word/Excel classroom lab and no one complained (or even seemed to notice). 

The take-home message here, which seems fairly obvious in retrospect but can be hard to keep in mind when you're in the trenches, is to focus your money and limited resources in the areas that will tax your computers the most. As I've noted before, IT planning can and should still exist, even in an environment like this. After the regrettable CAD experience, I devoted a fair amount of effort to shuffling computers around in the school (and actively seeking out some higher-end donations) to make the CAD lab as consistent as possible.

One final thought: For the last three years, I have been promised funds for a new computer lab.  For the last three years, this item has been cut from the budget.  However, when I finally do get my new computer lab, as much as I would like to use it for my own computer science courses, I'm probably going to put it in our library, where we already have a 15-seat general use computer lab.  Why?  After all, the library computer lab is primarily used for Internet research and basic Office tasks and a new lab would enable me to teach higher end courses for the students who will really push their computers.  For the same reason I addressed in my last blog: reliability.  This library lab is used every period of the day, by students and teachers with varying computer skills.  When computers break in my lab (or even the computer-aided drafting lab that happens to sit next door), I can have my Introduction to Computers students fix them. When a teacher brings his/her class to the library for an Internet activity, the computers need to work.

Most of us need donated, surplus, and refurbished computers.  For better or worse, we work with what we have.  And while my motto remains, "free is good," we have to keep in mind the challenges we take on when accepting, deploying, and maintaining these machines.  Good luck, folks! 

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