As schools face the challenge of bridging the "digital divide," the goal is typically complicated by the costs of computers and then support once they have been acquired. Many districts are therefore turning to refurbished computers as a possible solution. "Used computers have always played a critical role in our technology plans," says David Lanham, network technician and donations coordinator for the San Francisco Unified School District."If it wasn't for them, a lot of labs and classrooms wouldn't have systems," he says.
Where They Originate
Districts sometimes refurbish computers in-house, but more likely they secure them from outside agencies that sell or donate the units to schools. Refurbished computers may have negative connotations because people confuse them with privately donated units which may be outdated and therefore unuseable, explains Willie Cade, CEO of the Chicago-based non-profit Computers for Schools. The group receives relatively new models from businesses and other sources that replace machines often, reinstalls operating systems, and performs tests to ensure proper functionality. "Reinstalling an operating system is not a trivial task," Cade cautions, which is why most districts do not refurbish computers themselves.
Similarly, at the San Francisco-based Computer Recycling Corp., CEO Steve Wyatt says that most computers pass through a nine-step process before they are distributed, which includes wiping and reformatting the disk drives, attaching labels with speed and hard drive information, and adding network cards if necessary. And to make sure that everything works, the final step is to successfully boot each computer from code three times. Wyatt's company receives units from businesses, schools and colleges, and addresses security concerns by routinely wiping each hard drive three times to render previous data unrecoverable.
While both firms encounter the common belief among educators that refurbished computers will be difficult to maintain, Cade says that it's just the opposite. Most systems that fail do so during the first year, and refurbished computers have already been in use longer than that. "If it runs for a year, it can run for ten," he says. Similarly, Wyatt estimates that his replacement rate of refurbished computers is around two percent, and says that usually a moving part such as a keyboard or hard drive is what goes bad.
A Huge Market
Jim Lynch, senior manager for computer recycling and reuse at CompuMentor says that between 50 and 60 million computers a year are discarded, many of which are no more than three years old, which makes them very useable for schools. He points out that the hardware life expectancy on a computer is seven years, but "kids are incredibly hard on computers," he says. His organization therefore tries to educate users on the importance of cleaning systems regularly to extend each computer's life, and maintains the TechSoup online repository of related technology resources targeted to nonprofit groups.
CompuMentor also makes people aware of the environmental benefits in donating computers. "Computers have toxins all through them," Lynch says, "ranging from mercury and lead, to the nonbiodegradable plastic in the housing." If a refurbisher can't return a computer to working order, they can break it down to component parts that can be reused, recycled or disposed of responsibly, he says.
Total Cost of Ownership
Software needs also put a large dent in technology budgets, but the Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR) program "has revolutionized the ballgame," says Lynch. The program allows qualified refurbishers to install new Windows 2000 and Windows XP operating systems, as well as MS Works 7.0 and Office XP software, for only $5 per machine. And through the related Fresh Start for Donated Computers program, schools that receive direct donations of Pentium III or older computers can obtain Windows 98 and Windows 2000 software licenses for free.
Licensing fees are part of the big picture of technology costs. Rich Kaestner, director of the Total Cost of Ownership Project at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), says people should also look beyond initial investments to life cycle costs, including direct labor such as maintenance, and indirect labor costs such as user downtime due to system failure. While end-user costs are often overlooked because they are not a budget item, he suggests that schools consider how well disparate systems will integrate, identify associated maintenance issues, and make sure they get good warranties. "You need to look at all the costs," Kaestner cautions.
Hardware manufacturers also sell refurbished computers that have been cleaned and tested. But Gateway's Manager of Operations Scott VanEgdom says they don't receive the volume a school would need to equip a lab with all the same systems, so Gateway's program is an option if one or two units are needed for administrators or teachers. When determining if recycled and/or refurbished computers are right for their district, potential buyers should know how the machines will be used before they compare options. The following are examples of district solutions, and the resources below will help potential buyers get started.
The San Francisco Unified School District (www.sfusd.k12.ca.us) ran an in-house refurbishing program, using private donations, and the IT staff and volunteers from local colleges performed the work. David Lanham, network technician and donations coordinator, says that the program was initially cost-effective, but as technology became more complicated, keeping old equipment became a drawback. Concerns developed about security and viruses, and the staff found it difficult to maintain all the different systems. The district has now established minimum standards for accepting donations, and obtains refurbished units from the Computer Recycling Corp. "It's a big cost savings," Lanham says.
The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Computers 4 Kids program (www.k12.wa.us/c4kids) collects surplus computers from state offices and colleges that are refurbished by inmates and distributed to schools at little cost.
Sharron Heath, director of technology services at the rural Naches Valley School District (www.naches.wednet.edu), which does not qualify for E-Rate funding, says the units are three years old, in good condition and easy to maintain since they all run the same operating system. "It's wonderful technology that we wouldn't be able to afford," she says. The refurbished computers are placed in computer labs, libraries and classrooms, but the district also purchases new units for teacher stations and high-end applications. And machines that are not appropriate for Internet use are placed at the primary level for word processing and other low-intensity activities.
The Elmore County Public Schools in Alabama (www.elmoreco.com) had 1,500 computers in 15 schools and 12 ancillary sites that were unstable and difficult to maintain, so the machines were donated to Computers for Schools and replaced with low cost refurbished units. The savings allowed Director of Technology Davis Brock to spend more money on servers and new machines for classes that run programs that require a lot of processor power, such as AutoCad and Photoshop. The district now has 3,500 networked computers, half of which are refurbished units, and the software applications are centralized. "From a maintenance perspective it has helped significantly," he says, and the number of trouble reports have dropped from 350 per day down to 35.
Ann McClure is an associate editor