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.