How One Teacher Built a Computer Lab for Free

Robert Litt/CC BY-NC 3.0
In a sunny Bay Area classroom, twenty sixth graders are working at computers. They are making websites—"MySpace" pages for figures from American History. One student is researching Frederick Douglass's five greatest accomplishments. Another is showing a classmate how to search for pictures of Susan B. Anthony. They're all learning how to use Google Sites, helping each other along the way. Earlier this week, this class learned how to add numbers in a spreadsheet. Last week, they learned how to make music on a simple synthesizer. People often assume that getting technology into classrooms is expensive, but this lab cost absolutely nothing.

The problem? An underfunded school needed computers for the classroom. Budget? $0. Staff involved? Just one: Robert Litt, a sixth-grade teacher.

Robert teaches at ASCEND, a small arts K-8 school in the Alameda County School District. He's a fan of technology and believes that it's an important part of K-12 education. Yet ASCEND had no computer lab and no computers in classrooms. So in 2007, Robert acquired 18 donated computers. But these computers were less help than he'd anticipated. The operating systems were slow. Some computers had viruses or malware. Students became frustrated.

Most of the computers' problems could be fixed by wiping the disks and reinstalling the operating system—but buying new software for every donated computer would be prohibitively expensive. So Robert began to research more affordable options. An acquaintance at the Alameda County Computer Recyclers suggested he use a free operating system, such as Linux. Having never ventured into the world of open-source software, Robert scoured the internet for help. He came upon a local Linux user's group, a friendly group of people dedicated to helping new Linux users get started.

With the help of his local LUG, he got Linux up and running on his 18 donated machines. Suddenly, they were fast. They were clean. They worked well in the classroom. Robert was invigorated, as were his students. His principal saw how excited they all were, and decided to give Robert four hours of teaching leave per week to give him time to find more computers for a full lab for ASCEND. And so Robert became a "teacher on special assignment," as he puts it.

Finding computers was less difficult than he originally anticipated. Most families and businesses have an old computer (or ten) sitting in storage. Robert began to call businesses and ask for donations of equipment they'd otherwise be sending for recycling. People were generally very receptive. Most people would rather their used computers do good than rot in a landfill or get shredded; they just don't usually know how to get computers to where they are needed. "Underfunded schools are starving in the midst of plenty," Robert explains. "Discarded computers are our nation's most wasted educational resource."

In fact, donations were easy enough to find that Robert began turning down equipment that had less than 512 megabytes of RAM or was made before 2002. He wouldn't turn down computers people said were "broken," however. "Many computers people say are broken are actually experiencing software problems," he found. When he'd install Linux, many of the supposedly broken computers would work just fine.

Robert Litt/CC BY 3.0

Six months later, Robert had his first full ASCEND lab, filled with donated computers running free, open-source software. But he wasn't done. As he continued to make connections with people, donations kept pouring in. Soon, he got in touch with a local non-profit called Partimus (http://partimus.org/), which is dedicated to "providing computers and Free Software system administration support" to schools in the Bay Area. Partimus helped Robert set up a Linux install server, so that he could install Linux on multiple machines at once.

This year to date, he has acquired over 70 computers for ASCEND.

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."

Check out some video of Robert speaking at Maker Faire below.

Tags: Gadgets | Recycling | Repair