by Dr. Rob Reilly
Computer Donations To Schools: How To Make A Sound Choice
Donations Are Great
Some time ago I was blessed with a donation of 25 computers from the local General Electric plant. They were moving one of their operations to another state and did not want to take the office equipment and the computers with them. The computers were not state-of-the-art by their standards, but they were filled the needs of my school just fine. So one weekend the school rented a U-Haul truck and a dozen or so parents met at GE, lugged the computers out of the building and brought them back to my school. But I remember thinking that this was not the hard part; I thought the really hard part was yet to come.
The computers were made by Lanier and they had their own proprietary operating system, software, and hardware (e.g., network cards, printers, keyboards). So I needed to get hold of a Lanier expert, which I was NOT. Actually this was far less difficult than I initially thought. The local Lanier Business folks were very obliging. They provided a techie to help me get the system up-and-running. The techie even took time and gave me lessons in running the system...that was terrific. We had the Lanier computers for about 3-4 years and they worked just fine. I only needed to call the Lanier techie a few times during that period, and he was quite willing to help me.
As for the computers, the children really enjoyed using them; they could create stories and they could send electronic messages to each other. They enjoyed all this as it was at a time before the advent of AOL's Instant Messager, it was before well before the advent of home computers as we know them today. All this happened in 1984. Back then, companies such as Lanier were willing to assist schools as doing that was not a drain on their resources, and it was good PR.
Then in 1988 the Lanier computers began to fail. Neither the techie nor the company could help me as Lanier had stopped producing computers (and replacement parts); they had shifted to business office products (other than computers). Microsoft and Apple had entered the personal computer industry and Lanier saw the writing on the wall.
Donations Were Still A Good Thing...BUT
Once the Lanier computers were completely dead, I was not sure what would occur. The school system was not in a position to make a major expenditure for computers. (Are they ever?). But back then the need for children to learn how to use computers was not a concept that the taxpayers would vote for; I'm not even sure that the school administrators would have supported it. Geesh, it seems that even today it is rare for a school system's budget to contain a line item for the purchase of new computers! In the vast majority of cases, school administrators wait until they need to replace a large number of computers and then it must be a 'capital expense' instead of a routine every-year line-item in the budget.
Anyway, let's get back to my situation with virtually no working computers.
To make a long story very short, the parents took up my cause and in fairly short order I began receiving donated IBM-compatible PCs. Soon I had about 25 working computers in my computer lab and about that many more that did not work...they could be used for spare parts when needed.
This was the early 1990's and the 'personal computer'--the PC--was not all that complicated and there was not that much software available for them. There were some basic word processors, some good graphics programs, some interesting learn-to-type programs, and a solid range of drill-and-practice stuff for schools. The point is that I did not have to be all that technologically literate to run a computer lab, and the classroom teachers did not use the computers all that much as the available software did not, so much, meet their needs.
During this time Microsoft was becoming what it is today, lots of startup companies were developing software, and, many new computer hardware developments were about to occur to make the 'personal computer' attractive (affordable) and available to the general public (e.g., large capacity hard drives, CD-ROM drives, Microsoft Windows, educational software, business applications, etc.).
Computers were about to come 'center stage' in education, in business, everywhere!
Donations: Managing a Pile of Junk!
Even with my computer lab fully stocked, I still accepted the odd donation--I was always thinking about the need to have spare parts readily available (e.g., monitors, keyboards, video cards, motherboards). At that time I did not think too much about how a 'donation' would serve the curricular needs--that was just not a consideration at that time. But I found myself the victim of people's kindness--I was getting too many inquiries about donating computer equipment. I found myself having to do 'managed kindness' without an existing policy (in this case "policy" means having a stated plan in place that considers what the donations will be used for, what their actual cost to the school will be (repair costs, teacher management time, techie management time), etc.
I was polite but the time had come to start refusing donations unless it was a really good deal.
A New Era: Donations Must Meet Our Needs
Gradually I came to the realization that donations could no longer just meet my need to keep my lab running and/or serve as potential resources for spare parts. This came about as Microsoft, Gateway, Intel and other such companies began to make a serious impact in the consumer market. Business and schools began to use computers. My computer curriculum changed from learning how to use a computer to learning how to use various computer applications (Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, etc.). And the teachers were just beginning to use computers to support their lesson plans.
Now came the need for 'policy' and, given my advice, the powers-that-be in my school system formulated a policy in regard to accepting computer donations. (Guess who was charged with writing that policy.)
But before a donation policy could written, we had to create a "minimum technology specifications" policy document. This document specified such things as: monitors needed to be at least VGA, (no black and white monitors), the hard drive must have at least 40 Megs (yes, 40 Megs, remember this was quite a while ago). There were also standards for printers. Well you get the idea--a donation policy could not be put in place without a standard for what we would accept and those standards were curricular driven.
Eventually we expanded this policy to include software donations for two reasons: 1.) The teachers began to really use the computers as part of their curriculum and we needed to ensure that donated computers would run the software they had or would be purchasing, and, 2.) People began to see the tax write-off advantage of donating technology to schools.
Later we also added an item that dealt with the total number of computers we wanted to have in the school system; this came about as we began to see our technology guru (me) turn into the electronic janitor!
So now we have a Minimum Technology Specifications policy. This policy considers:
- our long term goals, which included such things as the expected life of the donated piece of technology, and whether or not the donation was capable of running mainstream software.
- what the cost might be if we had to repair the 'donation' (e.g., most local computer fix-it business won't touch a laptop computer or a handheld device, so they are very costly to repair),
- whether or not the IT staff, which included parent volunteers, could help with upgrades/repairs,
- whether or not a software donation now needed to have a site license to legally operate (given that we'd expect to run it on more than one computer at a time), and,
- whether or not the donation is unusual to the extent that even though they are in good working order, they can't be adapted to our situation.
Free Computers Come With a Cost
Today any donation should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that it meets our minimum technology standards. We are seeing more inquiries to donate computers, monitors, printers, etc. Most of these inquiries flow from a genuine concern that the school have the technology it needs, and some inquiries come as a result of new laws that, for example, strictly regulate the disposal of computer monitors (e.g., in Massachusetts it costs $25 to dispose of a computer monitor).
Computers Left On The School's Doorstep--The Bottom Line
I have quite a long history with donated equipment. I have beaten the bushes for computer equipment. I have learned a few lessons. I suggest that you ensure that the donated item(s) falls above the Minimum Technology Specifications as defined in your policy statement. But my experience is, and has always been, that donations seem to be wonderful (and they still are to my wife who is a kindergarten teacher in a parochial school) but in my circumstance--a public school with a computer lab and 1-3 computers in every classroom--I turn them away unless the donation clearly fits our defined curricular needs.
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