HOWTO make a school computer lab for free with "broken" computers and free/open source software

Elizabeth on ifixit tells us the heartwarming story of Robert Litt, a teacher at ASCEND, "a small arts K-8 school in the Alameda County School District." Litt needed a computer lab. His school had no budget, So he called around to local businesses and individuals and collected all their "broken" computers (refusing anything made before 2002 or with less than 512MB of RAM) and installed Ubuntu GNU/Linux on them. What he got was a free, robust computer lab. Litt says ""Discarded computers are our most wasted educational resource," and that we are "starving in the midst of plenty."

Faced with inadequate educational technology, few teachers would take it upon themselves to create an entire computer lab with no funding. It’s a daunting task, no doubt. But, Robert argues, it’s within every teacher’s capabilities. He came into the project with absolutely no computer repair or tinkering background. “My background is being a 6th grade teacher,” he says. “I am self-taught 100%.” He used free resources available online and troubleshot as he went along.

Robert advocates open-source software even for schools that aren’t lacking technology. US government reports say the digital divide is shrinking, at least in schools—97% of teachers have at least a single computer in the classroom. Yet that’s not the whole story. “The digital divide is growing in a hidden statistic,” Robert says, “the actual teaching of technology in a meaningful way.” He shows students how to do math on spreadsheets, how to make simple websites, how to put together slide presentations, all on free software. These are the computer skills that, students tell him, they are later expected simply to know. And with the prevalence of recycled computers, there’s no need for even 3% of classrooms to be without computers.

Robert will be moving to a new school this coming Fall, where he hopes to continue teaching technology meaningfully. And he calls on other teachers to do the same: in a digital world, teachers are responsibile for making students “better digital citizens.”

How One Teacher Built a Computer Lab for Free


  1. I think in general the problem isn’t with getting computers. It’s with getting trained staff — teachers and support staff alike. Or volunteers, even. As this guy moves to a new school, the sad likelhood is that it’ll all fall apart behind him. Now, I’m not down on doing it at all, but we need a bigger national investment if this is really going to work. Using low-cost salvaged equipment and open source software is a great way to keep costs down *and* expose kids to the DIY side of computing technology — but we need the people too.

    1.  Worse, he’ll get no support from his IT department, especially if it’s a large organization.  A lot of large school districts do not provide support for donated equipment because they have comparatively tiny staffs to take care of massive numbers of machines.  Because of this they only buy very specific machines and use an imaging process (cloning and using sysprep generally) to deploy software and to initially configure them.  As fast as OEMs like Dell change models, they could have ten or more models in active service, and they literally cannot afford to support hundreds of models of computer with all different manner of configurations.

      Sure, it sucks that there’s “free” equipment that can’t be used, but the alternative is to spend a lot more than the cost of some computers to support that “free” equipment.

      1. THANK. YOU. I now return to replacing popped capacitors on an Optiplex GX-270 small form factor and cursing god.

    2. Matthew is 100% right. My work puts me across ‘broken’ electronics all the time. When I can I fix/upgrade the computer and donate to a non-profit. But this only works for non-profits I am already volunteering my time for. It’s about having people to maintain the machines more importantly.

      1.  Our state education department (Queensland, Australia) pushes all schools to have their out of warranty computers recycled by reputable vendors, mostly they get paid some kind of money for working machines. And yes, that’s out of warranty (standard warranty we buy is 4 years), as a 4-year old machine is probably quite slow compared to a new one and a high school student who’s had an energy drink for breakfast is more likely to start ripping the front panels off of a slow machine. Upgrading anything besides RAM in a modern everything-intergrated Desktop is usually a waste of money.

        We get graded on how many machines we have inside the 4-year warranty cycle, and it Really makes life easier for us. Instead of having to store a huge number of parts, we just report a broken machine to the vendor and our Next Business Day warranty kicks in.

  2. And, no doubt, he was promptly fired for not following the district’s cash-for-screens deal with Microslop. After all the educational discount is 50% off so why waste time with something free? You don’t get anything off of free! You’re not going to prepare students for the future of Microsoft Surfaces and bundled Office suites!

    1. >> You’re not going to prepare students for the future of Microsoft Surfaces and bundled Office suites!
      That’s a FUD myth reinforced by monied interests like Microsoft and Apple. If you actually think technology will freeze up and what exists now will be the same in a few years, you’re ignoring everything going on right in front of your nose. MS Windows and Office did not always have it’s government sanctioned monopoly status, some of us still remember Lotus 1-2-3 as being the ‘only’ viable spreadsheet program suitable for professional use. Things change and with IT at an seemingly accelerated rate. What Mr. Litt is teaching his kids is invaluable — how to use a computer and software, not just how to use Windows or how to use OS X. With that knowledge his kids can take those skills with them no matter what gets thrown at them in the future. Having worked in a school for a years, one thing I have seen without question. When it comes to computers, kids are very adaptable. Adults, not so much.

    2. I’ve been involved in school IT. Even if we wanted to, it’d be a cold day in hell before we could get somebody fired, much less for doing something that wasn’t in accordance with our procurement practices.

      I can easily enough imagine somebody reflexively demanding that the ‘antivirus software’ checkbox be filled for anything connected to the internal network, or VLAN-ing off the whole lot of them to keep them away from the rest of the computers.

      Also, in the US, virtually any public school would likely be required by CIPA to ensure that these things were behind a perfunctory censorwall of some kind.(It doesn’t have to be effective, because that isn’t really an available thing; but Congress says that it has to be there…)

      1. The firewall is easy enough with the right router. Decide what sites are off limits and what file types can’t be downloaded. Even with a computer lab full of Windows or Macs I’d never let a program on the computer decide what can or cannot be accessed. Too easy to, er, bypass it. (ahem)

  3. There’s another computer recycling program in Oakland in which any kid that’s a student at an Oakland school from grades 6-12 can get a free computer.  It’s called Oakland Technology Exchange West:  They do build Windows computers, though.

  4. I took ten mostly broken cast-off computers from Columbia U and built five working computers out of them for an art residency computer lab. 

    The result of this is that they took away my budget because I certainly didn’t need any more money if I had a roomful of computers.  The final insult was that after I quit, partially because I wasn’t given any money for new stuff, they gave the new guy a huge budget because he was unable/unwilling to keep the older computers up and running.

    1.  Management failure.

      Appropriate response: “Look at what he did with little to no money, imagine what he can do with some actual funding!”

    2. In today’s corporate culture you should have formed a corporation with your bestest bud and given it the contract to maintain the computers. Money would be spent, the higher ups see the need, and — wallah! — you’re a much richer hero. CEOs do it all the time. Read your “Forbes”.

    1. Funny thing about hidden costs: Somebody else pays them. 

      Your point is a valid one (though an rpi for desktop use could get a bit unpleasant); but from the teacher’s perspective, the accounting just doesn’t work out that way.

      The school’s electricity costs are likely not measured with much granularity(maybe better than per-building; but quite likely not much better, if at all) and are paid out of an entirely distinct facilities operational budget of some sort. Computers procured through IT come from a different budget(possibly even several different ones, depending on new acquisitions vs. technology refreshes, and some equipment being leased and other hardware purchased) and hardware that a teacher buys on their own initiative would come from somewhere else again. Even if getting something newer would be a net-gain for the school system, good luck getting them to cut you a check that would allow you to go out and upgrade…

  5. I did that back in 1993. Six computers to outfit a physics lab on a budget of $1000 and a trip to state surplus. That was before Linux so the bulk of the cash went for Windows 3.11.

    Networked, even.

  6. LTSP is your friend (no HDD required for the beige clients), but if asked to approve it for deployment and field support, I’d likely (sadly) not sign off. As others have said, I’m liable for the overall functionality of my network, from PIX to endpoint. If the experience isn’t at least functional, parents *will not* hesitate to notify the school board, and while it is true that being fired is a long and often involved process for bargaining unit members, that does not apply to management.

    I’m hoping for increasingly powerful virtualization solutions and perhaps a smarter resurgence of the managed thin client.

  7. Refuse the older IT gear on the basis it doesn’t run linux? Idiot. Should have taken them as well, had the kids strip them down and and list the parts on eBay. Companies pay well over the odds for obsolete items when they are required to replace exact part for part. The left over sold for recycle. Generate revenue for the lab, the kids would have learned something about the machines and marketing, recycle and reuse… win win all round.  

    1. My thoughts were it would be great to take the older gear and have the kids work on building a functioning PC out of the stuff. Hands on experience.

      I get the reasoning though. PC parts do have only a certain life span. Who wants to spend half their time tearing down machines and rebuilding them? Plus you can’t find parts quickly and easily for the older stuff. Add to it that the older stuff just doesn’t have the capability to run the video editing software in Linux or a wide host of things that kids need some experience dealing with. Doubt that LibreOffice would run well on something before 2002.

  8. The problem comes down to teachers. Ten years ago, when the Digital Divide (between Japan and the US) was a hot issue, I heard a lot from teachers who enthused that their school had just gotten computers.  “The children love them!….We spend all week looking forward to going to the computer lab!”

    So, what do you do with them? I’d love to see what programs they’ve written, the database cookbooks and library systems they’ve created, the presentations…and have you tried Excel?

    “Oh…well, they’re very *young*…they play games. Sometimes, we, um, “net-surf”?…is that the word?…with me taking controls, of course…But our class has its own web page!”

    Oh. I look down at my wine in a plastic cup and think, some 21st century…..

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