Learning on laptops, literally
When the school district converted its student laptops to iPads last year, it purchased 755 of the old, leased machines rather than return them to the state. Many of those MacBooks were refurbished and distributed for various needs across the school department. However, the 20-plus students on the high school’s 2-year-old RioTech computer repair team were able to cannibalize parts from about 400 of the remaining machines, creating nearly 200 units that are being offered for sale to the public.
“It’s been a real lesson in entrepreneurship for them,” said the school department’s director of technology, Andrew Wallace, on Monday.
“They sort of Frankenstein-monstered them together, using a good monitor here, a good case over there, sometimes taking two completely destroyed machines and making one excellent laptop,” Wallace said. “So far, we’ve sold about 40 of them, at prices based on condition ranging from $175 to $450, for a total of almost $13,000 on a $6,500 investment on those machines.”
In addition to lessons in entrepreneurship, student technicians also got a lesson in what happens when a laptop spends several school years rattling around inside a backpack.
“Some of the machines were really, really bad,” said sophomore Max Bucko, who took part in the project. “I’m surprised at how people got stuff inside the machines, like coins and paper clips. I mean, there is no opening where you can put that in. But they got it in there somehow.”
“Some of the work we did I had done before, but a lot of it was new,” said junior Masee Shahid. “It was definitely a good educational experience.”
Students worked in Julie York’s technology repair program, set up to mimic a traditional repair shop, with guidance from York and Ben Pinault, one of the district’s computer technicians. Each repaired laptop was outfitted with additional RAM and a new hard drive.
“We could usually do two, maybe three machines during a block (or class time), depending on how well the screws cooperated,” Bucko said.
York, a 13-year teaching veteran in South Portland who heads up the high school’s career preparation program, created the RioTech concept in 2012 as a form of projectbased learning. The concept, she said, was to create a way for students to learn computer repair in a way that went beyond the typical listen-and-test classroom approach.
“Instead of teaching concepts in the traditional hardware/software model, where students come in and get their certifications, or they literally study a set curriculum, this new class was designed to be a hands-on approach,” York said. “Our district’s really supportive of us giving students different choices. We didn’t have any computer repair class here at all and I found students in the other computer classes I teach, like programming, were definitely itching for it.”
As part of the curriculum, York’s class has regularly taken on repair work requested by the public, while also participating in outreach programs, such as meeting seniors at the community center to help them master their smartphones. That experience, said Wallace, proved invaluable when some of the students stayed after school last week to help in the first public sale of the refurbished laptops.
“There was a lot of kicking of tires,” he said. “The kids were really wonderful working with people who are largely firsttime computer buyers. They were perfect tutors, with the patience of Job.”
“It can be a struggle when you get the same question over and over again, and the questions keeps coming until you give a different answer,” Bucko said.
The opportunity for the recent laptop sale dates to last summer, when the city dropped $784,672 on 860 iPads, enough to equip all students in grades nine through 12 with a new tablet computer.
The option was one of five leases offered under the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. The initiative provides state funding to buy a computer for each student in grades seven and eight; the iPads were deemed to be both more versatile and more durable by local officials than the Apple laptops previously used by students.
Moreover, at an annual cost of $217 each, plus a $49 networking fee, the iPads were cheaper than the state’s preferred choice under its new four-year lease program, an HP ProBook 4400, Windows-based laptop. Those machines cost the state $255, each, per year, plus a “per seat” fee of $31 for networking installation, maintenance and service. By switching to the less costly iPads, South Portland was able to equip all students in grades seven and eight and teachers in grades seven through 12 at no charge to local taxpayers. Under the Maine Learning Technology Initiative program, schools also were able to buy computers at the state lease price for students outside middle school. By choosing the iPad tablet over the HP laptop, a savings of $20 per machine, South Portland saved $17,674 on its goal to provide all high school students with a computer.
But then the question became, what to do with all the old Apple MacBooks, which South Portland began leasing in 2009. The school could simply turn the machines back over to the state, or it could buy them for $47 each.
Wallace opted to cherry pick the best of the lot, using money banked in the district’s technology reserve account, at a cost of $35,485. In July, the city council approved that purchase, along with $58,416 to upgrade RAM and hard drive memory in the machines.
Purchased through the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine, which secured bulk pricing by handling purchasing for similar upgrade projects statewide, Wallace was able put 40-gigabyte hard drives in 293 of the machines at a cost of $112 each, while installing 60-gigabyte drives in another 200 at a cost of $128 each. That price also included doubling RAM in all computers. Although the new hard drives were smaller than the ones originally installed on the MacBooks, the newer “solidstate” hardware meant no moving parts, making for faster operation, Wallace said.
Swapping hard drives also meant no student data remained on the machines purchased by the public.
“That way, we didn’t have to worry about legacy data, because we really didn’t have the equipment to completely wipe the old drives,” Wallace said.
Of the 755 laptops retained by the school department, about 100 were given to elementary school teachers, while about 120 were distributed across the district, largely for uses beyond the iPads’ capabilities, such as computer design classes, advanced picture and video editing and some science courses. Others were needed to run software programs for standardized testing and special education required by the state that will not function on the iPad.
According to Wallace, buyers of the 70 laptops rebuilt so far include students heading off to college and, more surprisingly, area small-business owners.
“They want a machine just to do their books,” Wallace said. “They’re not playing video games or anything like that, so the smaller hard drives work well for them, as opposed to what would be appropriate for someone who wants to store their whole life in video and pictures.”
“I think, other than having smaller storage, anyone who buys one of these machines won’t regret it,” said Shahid, who bought one himself.
“I would have bought one myself,” said Bucko, an exchange student from Bavaria who will return home at the end of the school year, “but I’m afraid it’ll be kind of hard to get two laptops through customs.”
A second sale was conducted Thursday. Both events were word-of-mouth affairs, said Wallace. A notice of any laptops still left for sale next week will be posted on the school department website (www.spsd.org), he said.