In Linda Griffin’s computer science classes in Jacksonville, N.C., high school students learn how to program, repair, and rebuild personal computers—all thanks to organizations that have donated used computer equipment to the Onslow County school district’s vocational education department.
The program has worked well on two fronts, Ms. Griffin says. Not only does it give students a great opportunity to learn a marketable skill, but in its three- year history, it also has provided the 20,000-student district with about 600 much-needed computers.
“We had an opportunity to get a lot of computers into the classrooms quickly,” the teacher said.
Still, donated computers are not always a boon to districts, according to some technology experts. Many schools find that they cannot use the older, outdated equipment that businesses and individuals want to give them, or that the cost of repairing and maintaining older technology is too high.
“The cost of free equipment is not free,” said Keith R. Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, an education technology advocacy organization based in Washington. “There is no free lunch with donated computers.”
Districts need to take into consideration what CoSN calls the “total cost of ownership,” Mr. Krueger said. That term refers to factors such as the price of replacement parts to maintain and upgrade the machines, the time it takes to work on the computers, and the salaries of the technicians who will do that work.
And many times, replacement parts are not available for donated machines. So schools are left with computers they simply cannot use and have to put in a warehouse or dispose of, at additional expense, Mr. Krueger said.
With so much attention having been paid to educational technology in recent years—including an influx of funding, such as that available through the federal E-rate program—many schools have updated their computers and are using new software that won’t run on older systems, said Mr. Krueger.
Because of that, donated equipment may not be compatible with a school system’s network of computers, he said.
It was just such a combination of problems that led to the downfall of what once was a successful computer-recycling program in Indiana. In 1992, the Central Indiana Educational Service Center, a branch of the state department of education, started Buddy Up With Education.
Between 1992 and 1998, the program accepted 3,600 donated computers, upgraded them, and then sold the machines to schools at a cut rate. But then schools stopped buying the refurbished machines, said Marlene Schick, who directed the program. “Schools wanted faster systems,” she said.
Yet, even though the schools don’t want the older equipment, and the program has been out of business for almost four years, donors are still knocking on her door. “I get three or four phone calls a week” from businesses or individuals wanting to donate computers, Ms. Schick said.
Businesses have a financial incentive to donate machines, education technology experts point out, because they can receive a federal tax deduction for giving schools computers that are no more than 3 years old.
It’s too bad when schools are put in the situation of having “to run on donated equipment,” said Ann Lee Flynn, the director of education technology for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.
And refusing the gifts of eager donors can put schools in sticky situations politically, she said.
“If a district tells a generous donor ‘no,’ you can get a backlash” when the time comes to ask the community for money for technology, Ms. Flynn said. Such donors, who may not know of the schools’ real needs, could question the district’s need for more technology funding when school leaders refuse free equipment.
To complicate matters further, schools are sometimes pressured by their district school boards into accepting the donations, Mr. Krueger added. “We see too many schools that tell us horror stories about warehouses full of old, donated equipment they can’t use, but politically they had to accept,” he said.
Both Ms. Flynn and Mr. Krueger agree that it is vital for districts to have clear policies on what types of donated technology the district will accept.
For instance, Ms. Flynn said that districts need to keep a close eye on their technology inventories and know how each machine is being used. “It is critical for a district to proactively develop a plan so they have a good way of saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ without being offensive,” Ms. Flynn said.
Beyond that, Mr. Krueger suggested that schools outline the minimum specifications for the equipment they’ll accept, and be clear about how they are going to use the technology.
“Schools are always looking for a good deal,” he said. “But we want to make sure [they] think through strategically what the deal is.”
One school district that has found itself in the position of turning away offers for donated computers is the suburban Henrico County district outside Richmond, Va.
“For the most part, what we need is pretty modern, state-of-the-art stuff,” said Charles K. Stallard, the director of technology for the 43,000-student district.
After putting in place an $18.6 million technology initiative this school year that supplied high school students in the district with iBooks, the Macintosh version of a laptop, the district found that it had a surplus of older computers.
So district officials decided to give the equipment to low-income families in the district. According to Mr. Stallard, 3,500 computers have been given to parents.
Built-In Help Desk
In Portland, Ore., an organization called Students Repairing Used Technology Alliance, or StRUT, acts as a warehouse for donated computers. Teachers from across the state drive to Portland, sometimes in tractor trailers, to stock up on the equipment and take it back to their schools, where students then refurbish the machines, said Greg Sampson, the executive director of the program.
Mr. Sampson warned that when teachers use donated computers, one of their first responsibilities is to make sure that any personal information stored on the computer hard drives by the previous owners is deleted. Some of the donated computers come from state agencies, doctors, and lawyers, said Mr. Sampson, and could contain private records and documents. That’s why StRUT sends out reminders every three months to all of the teachers who have picked up donated computers to wipe the hard drives clean.
The cost of upgrading the systems—a concern raised by Mr. Krueger of CoSN—is also a consideration, said Madeline Tucker, one of the directors of the Onslow County program in North Carolina.
But she said it helps that students are able to cannibalize parts from other computers. For example, one computer may have a fine CD-ROM drive, but no other working components, she said.
Plus, the students in Onslow County are taking their knowledge of computers to do more than just repair old machines. This spring, a group of Ms. Griffin’s present and former students are studying for A+ Certification, a national credential for computer technicians that is highly useful for anyone hoping to enter the information technology workforce.
The computer sciences curriculum that the Onslow County vocational education department uses is provided by ExplorNet Computer Recycling, based in Raleigh, N.C. Currently, 165 schools in North Carolina and 60 schools in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota are using the ExplorNet curriculum, said Clayton Henkel, a spokesman for the nonprofit group.
Using what they’ve learned through the ExplorNet curriculum, students are able to put their newly acquired technical knowledge to use in the schools.
Mr. Henkel said Onslow County teachers will often pop into the computer technology classes and say, “‘My hard drive is crashing—can I borrow a couple of your students?’”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Schools No Longer as Eager To Accept Used Computers