Sunday, January 01, 2006

Three Keys to the Successful Reuse of Computers in Schools

There are three factors that significantly effect the ability to use previously-owned computers effectively:
  1. The technical expertise (hardware-related) of school or district personnel. A school that does not have a computer technician on staff--or any competent teacher, parent, or volunteer help--will find used computers too challenging to implement. However, as one of our wise respondents remarked, "the day after a computer is installed, it becomes a used computer." But a school without any technical resources will do best to purchase new computer equipment with enough warranty support to get through any difficulties.
  2. The technical expertise (software / programming) of teachers. The computer familiarity and expertise of the teachers is a major factor. Teachers with limited technical expertise or background who are asked to teach computer-related material will depend on quickly being able to learn programs that they can then teach to the students. They will gravitate toward popular commercial programs that are well-known and well-documented, such as (for Jr. and Sr. High School level) Microsoft Publisher or FrontPage, or Adobe Photoshop. These programs are regularly improved and updated, and the newest versions are well-publicized with compelling new features that require that they run on newer and faster hardware. Teachers with a deeper background in computers will be more familiar with a wider variety of programs that provide a broader computer education, and don't necessarily require the latest technology to teach computer skills of value. This is especially true with programming languages, databases, networking, and server applications.
  3. An often overlooked, but significant factor, is the categorization of computer uses in school. It would be a mistake to see all the uses of computers in a school as being the same. An helpful analogy might be automobiles. A family frequently owns more than one car, and those cars often differ in style and usage. In our family, we drive two different types of cars. When we are going on a family trip, or car-pooling children to activities, we drive our van--which is more expensive to operate, but provides the needed horsepower and seating-room that our old sedan does not. But when I'm driving to Home Depot, I can take our 25-year old diesel sedan, which isn't pretty and new, but does the job just fine and costs a whole lot less to run (and insure!). We're not used to thinking of separating our computers by their usage, but many schools do so for the same, pragmatic reasons as driving different cars. Categorizing the use of computers will help to provide opportunities for using used computers that might not have been apparent otherwise.

    Now, it is not always possible to physically segregate computers into specific uses, and the highest use of a particular computer will determine its specifications. However, with categorization of use in mind, there will be circumstances when it is possible to classify specific uses for certain computers, e.g., a set of web-only research computers in a library or study hall, which could be older computers.
It may be the over-generalizing about computer usage in schools can lead to all or nothing decisions about used computers. As I hope to show in future posts, there are opportunities that lend themselves more naturally to used computers.
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