Firms junk thousands of computers each year, some of them barely out of their guarantee. Debbie Smith asks how schools can benefit from this profligacy Second-hand, out-of-date computer for sale. Can't do much. Slow. One not-so-careful owner. Needs attention. Any offers? Well, that's the view most would take of business cast-offs. For most of us the pace of software development is way too fast and only new, state-of-the-art computers can, it seems, cope with new software.
So, what use to you is an old PC? To most, it would have the appeal of a Ford Anglia. But, for some, the idea of harnessing redundant equipment is a way forward for schools.
With the National Grid for Learning under construction and the costs of getting computers in the classroom constantly rising, machines that are out of date for business purposes can still be serviceable in schools if adapted properly. For instance, a Dutch project, called Computers in Classrooms, has placed more than 38,000 systems with schools. In the United States, 66,000 mainly-refurbished machines have been placed in schools through a variety of schemes.
Businesses often discard a two-year-old computer as out of date. But since schools do not always require state-of-the-art technology to operate some educational software, two new government schemes have set out to get old systems - once destined for land-fill sites - into classrooms.
Schools which have participated in one pilot project report success.
The main problem in taking on business cast-offs is having the technical ability to put them to good use. This is where the "refurbishers" come in. A project inspired by David Blunkett is getting former DfEE computer stock into classrooms via service provider London Computer Auctions (LCA). LCA and charity Recycle-IT took part in a pilot project in Sheffield, in which 12 schools shared 130 PCs and 18 other organisations shared 30 computers.
Project manager John Russell said he was initially unsure how schools would react to using second-hand equipment - but the first batch was taken up within two days. Larger secondary schools with their own IT staff had bought lots of basic systems, while the smaller primaries had chosen upgraded ones. In four months, the project has placed 526 systems in 78 schools. Russell says the problem is not having enough computers to meet demand. He attributes the scheme's success to the support available. He says: "Before, it was a case of dropping them (machines) off at schools and leaving them to get on with it."
The majority of the computers rescued by the project are 486 PCs. He says they can provide Internet access, and will run multimedia software and word processing programs.
So successful was the pilot that both LCA and Recycle-IT are continuing the project. They offer equipment collection and service, basic refurbishment and safety testing, disk wiping and software installation, marketing, sale and distribution, upgrade service and a 90-day warranty.
However, software licensing poses a problem. Russell says Microsoft's licencing rules means that the system must be accompanied by its original licence and media, so that the rights can be re-assigned. The project has been able to include operating software on some of the packages provided. He says they can also supply packages such as Lotus Smartsuite for pound;10.
A second project to get businesses to hand over their old equipment for refurbishing has been launched by the Department for Trade and Industry.
Kim Howells, the Under-Secretary of State for Competition and Consumer Affairs, says an estimated five million computers are thrown away by businesses each year. It has just published a handbook designed to encourage firms to direct their old stock towards schools. The handbook, Unwanted Computer Equipment: A Guide to Re-use lists refurbishers - contacts for those who want to get rid of or buy old computers. The handbook says short supplies of machines are particularly acute in primary schools where "the average age of computers is often higher than the average age of pupils".
Refurbished systems are ideally suited for operation as network computers - workstations attached to a main server. A local area network (LAN) can comprise a new high-specification server and data-storage with attached workstations.
The DTI handbook recommends a minimum 48466 specification. It also suggests that repair and maintenance be left to the refurbisher. Though firms vary in what they do, most deal with viruses, the Year 2000 bug and electrical safety.
Network servers are being developed for education by, among others, Xemplar, the computer services company jointly owned by Apple and Acorn. Its Matrix NC network can revive older computers, such as 386s or the Acorn A7000s, by turning them into "thin clients" - networked computers loaded with only the minimum of system software, and which access the server for application programs and data. So the thin client is merely a workstation, which means the specifications for each computer can be low.
Such a local area network enables schools to download pages and place them on an intranet, as well as use email and so on, giving pupils a feel of how the Internet operates. It can use the three main platforms used in schools - Apple, PC and Acorn. They cost up to pound;4,500, plus up to pound;4,000 for software.
Russell says most of the machines he supplies are fitted with network cards and function well as workstations. Some of the larger secondary schools with on-site IT specialists have integrated them into their school networks.
Mike Smith, professional officer of computer advisers' organisation NAACE, backs the idea of second-hand equipment being used to add to school stocks, but warns of the dangers of using machines with too low a specification to deal with the National Grid for Learning. "We believe that while refurbished computers can be helpful, they must not be the total solution and should not replace the purchase of new equipment."
Smith stressed that it is important to go for properly refurbished equipment, as the cost of remedying problems in terms of time could negate the bargain. "It's a misconception that children do not need powerful computers," he added. "Applications used in schools are more demanding than those used in business."
With two new schemes announced only in December his advice is timely. But some schools only want a top-up. Liam McGurrin, headteacher of St John Fisher primary in Sheffield, took a batch of 12 PCs from the DfEE project and said it was a "shot in the arm". They had extra memory and had Windows 95 and ClarisWorks software installed. The school already uses Apple Macs, so the pound;200 486s were a windfall.
He said the issue of sophisticated equipment for schools was not such a great issue. "What the point of getting a Rolls Royce and driving like a Mini? These are fine for our needs."
London Computer Auctions 0181 345 3491 For a copy of the DTI handbook call 0870 1502 500 and quote reference URN98979. Fax: 0870 1502 333.