Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Computers in Schools: Drivers Ed vs. Shop Class

One of the serious concerns about reusing computers in schools relates to maintenance.

Here is what one technology coordinator at a school had to say:

"The major cost of computers is the time and effort to set up and maintain them. With with hundreds or more in labs, this time and effort issue is a critical problem. Having even 2 or 3 computers in a lab crash can easily disrupt an entire class. Older equipment is always less reliable than newer stuff. Sometimes hard disks crash, cds break, fans stop working, power supplies die, etc. This happens much more often on used or older equipment. Setting up used computers is more complicated as well. It is hard to get a "matched" set making imaging much more complicated. Even if they appear to be matched, components are often different. This causes a lot of maintenance issues. New stuff usually comes in like batches and can be more easily imaged and maintained. Remember the major cost is not the initial purchase - but the time and effort to maintain them. In schools this means it takes more staff to maintain older stuff than newer stuff. Or put another way limited staff can set up and maintain more new stuff than old stuff. We also might want to consider - if another business or school does not want to use the stuff why do we want our kids using it? A particular nasty off shoot of the used computer idea is the 'donated' computers from businesses. Sounds great for PR but what the schools get is a bunch of mismatched junk and a big recycling bill. Great deal for business - not so good for schools."

What is interesting about the work involved in maintaining computers--especially because of the virus and spyware threats--is that it leads to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the maintenance and control of the computers needs to be entirely accomplished by the school staff. This would not be unlike a school purchasing a car for each student (or every two or three students), and then having to have the school staff maintain those cars. Of course schools are overwhelmed--that's a huge task.

I tell people that kids in the US are taking the equivalent of "drivers ed" in their technology classes, while they also need to be enrolled in "shop class." So why isn't there more student participation in learning how to maintain computers, and then actually helping keep them up?
  1. Maintaining computers is complicated. It's a lot of work, and needs to be controlled by those who have the proper training.
  2. There can be serious consequences to having someone other than trained staff maintain the computers, including devastating viruses.
  3. Teaching someone how to do something means that you have the time to train them, and then oversee them. It's hard enough just stretching the existing tech staff to keep the computers running, much less take the time to teach students to do so.
These are real issues, and we recognize that the computer is different than a car: while as important to learn to operate as a car, computers are much more a part of the academic learning experience, and we innately understand the importance of having them available--and working--for all students.

But as we consider the variety of uses that computers can be used for, and as we seperate out the higher, more technical applications that require the latest and greatest hardware, we can identify a class of basic productivity computers that are readily available as donations and could be maintained by the students themselves. Web access, word processing, and email account for a large portion of the use of a school computer, and machines just for those tasks don't require the horsepower or control as a machine running a high-end animation program or design work. (And, dare we say it, were those computers running Linux there wouldn't be the virus and spyware issues, and many of the maintenance tasks...) There are good examples of student participation in refurbishing and maintaining this level of computers for their schools (the Students Recycling Used Technology, or StRUT program), but the practice won't be widespread until there are teachers who are capable of managing such a program.

Right now, though,
schools and districts feel pressured to buy the latest and greatest computers because, in part, they are trying to reduce the amount of work that it takes to care for individual PCs. And some snazzy, exciting programs can run on that hardware, and so everyone gravitates toward those programs. But what we have lost is an opportunity to teach basic hardware skills, networking, and some pretty cool programming (web databases, for example) that don't require the newest machines and that aren't as glamorous, and are actually the foundation that someone serious about computer science in college will need as a base. It will be interesting to see how many of the more technical computer jobs flow out of the United State to other countries that are teaching these skills, especially as the geographical barriers to work continue to fall.
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