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There’s Always An Alternate Route: Free Computers for School Save Your Tax Dollars

Posted by on Feb 8, 2012 | 9 Comments

My Facebook friend Philip Whitey recently asked me about my opinions regarding schools spending loads of money on technology like Smart Boards.  I told him they’re generally a huge waste of taxpayer cash.  Most teachers don’t know how to effectively integrate them into the classroom, and they often fail to pass this fundamental test: Is there a cheaper or more effective way to deliver the same impact?

The whole discussion reminded me of an idea I talk about frequently- there’s always an alternate route as long as you’re willing to search for creative ways to get around gatekeepers.

We had three computer labs in our school (of roughly 1,200 students).  Our English teachers would check out the computer labs for huge blocks of time for paper-writing.  I suggested we make at least one more lab, but was told it was far too expensive.  The school we used to work at spent huge sums of money every few years buy brand new computers.   I suggested we upgrade less frequently and use the extra money to make another lab.  I was told that wasn’t an option.

I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I knew businesses and universities would replace their hardware every few years… well before the equipment actually wore out.  The computers were far from obsolete, as our students used the computers for three tasks: browsing the Internet, writing  papers, and making PowerPoint presentations.  Since we were a public school, businesses could get a tax write-off for donating their old equipment.

I sent out several hundred emails to local businesses (some of which were major corporations).  The response was phenomenal.  Within a month, I had approximately 100 complete PCs, spare parts, networking equipment, and a slew of other hardware and software.

I taught a handful of kids to build and repair the computers.  I taught another group to set them up and install the software.  I taught another group how to maintain our in-class network.  At the time, Microsoft had a program to donate copies of Windows to schools using donated equipment.  The rest of our software was open source, like OpenOffice.

Within a month, we had a fully-functional computer lab.  By this time, our actions drew the attention of our school’s technology supervisor.  He opposed the idea from the beginning… probably because it threatened his job.  he also liked spending taxpayer money to buy new hardware every two or three years.  He started building more and more walls to our progress, which required going over his head on multiple occasions.

Our biggest battle was Internet access.  We were not allowed to connect our “Frankenstein” computer lab to the school’s network, and we had no other cost-effective way to get Internet access.  Our solution was to use web crawling software to copy the websites we used in class, burn them to CDs, and use the CDs on each local computer.  Eventually we got a little more complex and set up a system to share the saved websites over our in-class network.

The in-class lab worked perfectly.  My students had unlimited computer access.  Interested students learned relevant computer skills.  Problems like vandalism of the equipment disappeared- the kids weren’t about to destroy the equipment they had to care for.  Best of all- it didn’t cost our taxpayers a single dime.

Unfortunately the lab eventually came to an end.  As I found out, the powers that be had money to spend and had no interest in my no-cost idea.  It was one of many important lessons I learned about the business side of public schools, which was a contributing factor in our decision to leave.

The free lab was a creative solution to a common problem.  It perfectly illustrated how creative problem-solving can completely circumvent the gatekeepers that routinely tell us NO.

I have used this same idea in a few other situations with great success.  Here are a few more example:

  • I wanted to start a website but website designers were prohibitively expensive.  I could have learned to program by learning HTML, CSS, and PHP from scratch, but that would have taken a long time.  Instead I learned how to do basic design by studying the code of cool looking websites and worked backward.
  • I wanted to write a book but securing an agent and/or a publisher was exceedingly difficult, especially for someone with absolutely no writing credentials.  Instead I learned the basics of publishing and self-published the book.  It out-sold 99.5% of books published through traditional publishing channels.
  • Shelly and I loved travel, but had neither the time nor the cash to go everywhere we wanted to go.  Instead, we created careers and a lifestyle that allowed us to travel endlessly.

Next time you’re presented with a problem, don’t automatically use the solution everyone else uses.  Look for alternatives.  There’s almost always a cheaper, faster, or more educational option.  Take it.  You won’t be sorry.

What about you?  Have you used an unconventional solution to solve some problem?  Tell us about it.



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  1. Ken Bird
    February 16, 2012

    KISS (Keep it simple silly)
    I belong to a public speaking club. Part of our 2nd level leadership program, is to present ‘educationals’ about the various components of public speaking, speech evaluation and organisational stuctures. All these educationals have a basic structure laid out. All the presenter has to do is add their personal touches. I’ve been a member of my local club for about 5 years and have seen many of these educationals, several times, now.

    Most of the presenters were the better public speakers, but used powerpoint or overhead projections, that tended to distract from a good presentation. The last presentation I saw, was by someone who is a very competent powerpoint user, but not that good a speaker. Yet they chose to use a white board. They used only 1 side and1/2 dozen key words and phrases for a 10 minute talk.

    By keeping the presentation low tech and simple, I learnt more form this presentation, than I have learned from previous presenters, of the same subjects, who, in many cases were better public speakers.

    • Jason
      February 16, 2012

      Funny you should mention this. When I’m planning clinics, the host stores always ask if I need a projector and screen. They seem a little shocked that I don’t use PowerPoint. It almost always kills presentations because most presenters have no idea how to use it to make the presentation better.

  2. Chadisbarefoot
    February 9, 2012

    The middle school I teach at still has 100% chalk boards in all classrooms. That’s right, CHALK BOARDS!!! My first grade teacher had a dry-erase board in her classroom…. in 1985! Many teachers, including myself, have taken matters into their own hands and purchased 4×8′ shower boards with smooth, white surfaces and screwed them into the frames of the chalk boards. Yes, it’s pretty ridiculous, but it works.

    That said, I could not imagine having leadership in our school or system that would treat well-intentioned, creative, student-centered solutions to money problems with hostility. That is just sickening, Jason. If I was able to pull off what you did at your school, I would probably literally receive some kind of award. My principal(s) and the people above her/them would adore me for it. The experience you described reminds me of my time in the Army. Now THERE is a place where creative minds shrivel and die!

  3. Erik
    February 9, 2012

    I got to an age where I wanted to settle down, but also wanted to continue my life of travel and new experiences, so I married a foreigner.

  4. Scott
    February 9, 2012

    I wanted to leave a long, in depth comment.

  5. Aaron (aka on BRS Alejandro 10)
    February 8, 2012

    Just an extremely simple example extends from the look I gave a guy at small group Monday night. He wanted to pay for a gym membership to run on a dreadmill… Running outside must be too cheap I guess.

  6. betsig250
    February 8, 2012

    The sad thing is I spent all 13 years of my schooling at “said” school.

    In the early 1990’s computer lab was boring as hell learning how to use WordPefect and how to draw circles using Paint. And whatever the hell their database program was, I think dBase. So to fix this problem unconventionally I hacked all the computers to play Doom while the teacher was teaching us WordPerfect crap. Needless to say that didn’t last too long. Then we moved onto Doom2!

  7. Matthew
    February 8, 2012

    I used internet forums to solve exceedingly complex programming issues at work. These problems eluded all other engineers. I was able to solve them in a matter of hours.

    I also went to the source when I had a problem instead of creating my own solution. For instance I worked a GPS design and the former engineer had now clue how to do it. I just asked designer of the GPS chip-set (SiRF) how to do it. A couple weeks later design was done. The previous engineer had spent years on it without any solution.

    These things discourage me too. I cannot see why old computers are thrown away especially at our tax payer expense. I run old junky stuff and do extraordinary things. It’s such a waste. I have the same feeling when it comes to cars. People don’t realize it’s more damaging to the environment to make a new car than to just drive the previous car.

    Anyways, I could certainly ramble about this. Thanks so much for the great post!

  8. Mo
    February 8, 2012

    Tell it, Brother! You have definitely been touched by the noodle appendage of free thinking!