I once was asked to visit a school where the teachers in the lab were having difficulty getting their lab computers to run a particular software program. When I walked in, the teacher came up to me and explained the situation. Her lab had second generation iMacs (you remember those fruity all-in-one translucent pieces of Apple goodness?) that simply ran too slowly. We had to replace them she said. The computers were pieces of crap. We had to get her new ones right away!
Now I liked those old colored Macs, so before I agreed to pitch them out, I sat down at the computer and looked at what was on them.
System 8.5 , 4 Gig Hard drive, 128 Megs of RAM
hmm … pretty slim tech specs. Almost laughable nowadays, but on the tech-edge when they were new.
The hard drive, although small, was pretty full, and there were quite a few student files on it, as well as some old old programs. Some of the student files belonged to students that had not attended that school for over 4 years.
They wanted the computer to do modern tasks, such as browsing sites with lots of Flash and Shockwave, and with embedded videos. They weren’t doing it. They didn’t have the “techo-muscle” to do it. Old technology trying to do modern technology. Fail.
I asked the teacher, or anyone for that matter, if they had ever cleaned up the hard drive.
She said no.
I asked the teacher if they had ever thought about upgrading the memory.
Cleaning the hard drive?
Upgrading the operating system?
No. They just expected the computers to work. And now that they were not working, so it was time to get new ones.
That got me thinking about how educators, and I suppose a lot of people in general, look at the technology differently than they look at other “machines” such as cars.
With a car, it is a given that you will change the oil, keep the tires inflated, do tune ups, and occasionally get some new items for it. In other words, you keep the car running by maintaining it. Not so much with technology. It should, many of our technology users think, maintain itself.
When a computer is bought for classroom use, it is bought with the unwritten understanding that it will work as new, for the life-span of the computer without need for change. In many cases, computers last in classrooms long beyond the expected lifespan. Unfortunately, there is not standard definition of “life span” in education for computers, so some computers that are still being used are well over 5, 6, or 7 years old. It isn’t that there are no “refreshment” cycles. It is just that budget priorities are often changed and monies that were earmarked for one thing are shifted to some other project.
We never think that perhaps we could actually extend the life-span of these investments if we purposely schedule memory upgrades.
How many of our classroom or lab computers have the same amount of memory that they had when purchased? Yet they are asked to do so much more than what they were bought for. One of the first thing that MOST computer users do is upgrade memory. Not so on education. Low bid is often the go bid, so the least expensive computer is often the one that is purchased based solely on initial cost.
It is like buying a car, and then, a year or so after purchasing it, expecting it to do heavy towing, without modifying the engine, or the tires, or adding a trailer hitch.
So why is it that we expect technology to just work for the entire life of it? Is it that other forms of technology like DVD players and washing machines never need updating? Is it because we have a basic lack of understanding of how digital technology works? I don’t know.
I suggest that districts could substantially increase the usability and the lifespan of computers by following these simple guidelines:
Upgrade the memory: This is usually a small fraction of the total cost, and can be done after the computer is purchased. Perhaps a scheduled “one year after purchase” upgrade, or just have a policy of maximizing RAM when the computer is purchased.
Upgrade the operating system as far as you can. Typically, a new computer has at least one major OS upgrade in it’s effective life cycle. Of course, a Mac made for OS 8.5 won’t run OS X, nor a PC built for Windows 95, Windows Vista. However, almost without fail, a computer will be able to handle whatever the NEXT operating system is. (And of course, you Linux fanboys would say that Linux works on anything..so there!) So upgrading the system is essential.
Schedule yearly hard drive maintenance. Defragment, clean off the unused or orphan files.
Consider the total cost of ownership. Often, as mentioned above, school districts look to purchase the least expensive technology because they can buy the most of it at one time. Sadly, a total cost of ownership is almost never considered. How long do these devices last? What is the cost of the next operating system? How much is the electricity going to cost over the 4 or 5 years that device is going to sit in the classroom?
So what happened with the computers in that lab? After we cleaned, upgraded and did minor service, they were able to do what the teachers had wanted them to do, which was to run a web-based reading program. Total cost of upgrading was about 1/10 of the cost of buying a new computer.
Take care of the technology.
Change the oil once in a while.
This first appeared in my Intended Consequences Blog—TBH