'Obsolete' computers still have value

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, September 2000

One of the most common complaints of computer owners is "I just bought the darn thing and already it's obsolete!"

Most businesses, it seem, for tax purposes claim that their computer hardware depreciates over three years?at the end of that period, it's effectively worthless.

But none of this means that your older computer, in fact, is without value. That older computer can still do everything it did when it was brand, spanking new.

Unlike big businesses, schools can rarely (if ever) afford to upgrade their computers every three years. In many cases, your children are continuing to get good use of technology that most businesses and homes have long ago consigned to the scrap heaps.

Strathcona Elementary, in East Vancouver's Chinatown, serves 560 children. Money is always an issue, but early on, parents, teachers, and administrators realized that computers could be an effective tool to help students learn.

During the early 1980s, teachers started experimenting with  a Commodore PET and  a Radio Shack TRS80, which were, over the next few years were, according to then-teacher Robert Moore "replaced by Commodore 64s, slowly and painfully fundraised by parents, teachers, and kids, with the school struggling to buy two or three each year". Eventually, the school got to the point where they could have their own lab of C-64s.

By 1987-88, however, the school was becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of the Commodore 64s. Principal Noel Herron started looking at fund-raising alternatives to get a modern lab, while Moore, like many teachers at the time, had become, in his own words, "overwhelmed with the potential of HyperCard", a pioneering hypertext application only available for Apple's Macintosh. Moore also "very much appreciated the Mac's desktop interface and desktop publishing features, and saw these as vastly superior and vastly more accessible to kids and teachers than DOS".

As a result, Moore and Herron produced a plan and a budget to buy a state-of-the-art Mac lab, and presented it to the Chinatown Rotary Club. The club raised $40,000 enabling the school, in 1989,  to buy and network 20 Mac Plus computers. The school was able to dedicate one half of Moore's teaching time to team-teaching with the other staff in the new lab and to use the lab as a tool for English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction.

Just to keep this in perspective, 'state-of-the-art' in 1989 meant a black-and-white desktop Mac with a couple of megs of RAM and no hard drive.

By current standards, these computers would have been declared 'obsolete' long ago, and would be no more than a distant memory. But while state-of-the-art no more, at Strathcona, the Mac Plus lab is still in use, every day. By the mid-1990s, the school was able to built a second lab with newer Macs.

With no hard drives, the MacPluses are connected to a pair of servers, themselves a far cry from the super-powered machines we tend to think of in that role?Mac Classic IIs, each with a full 80 MB of drive space. Software used includes All the Right Type keyboarding software (from Burnaby's Ingenuity Works), Microsoft Works, HyperCard, and Superpaint. According to current Strathcona teacher Wing Wong, student HyperCard stacks?ghost stories, histories of Chinatown, and pictures of historic houses-- from past years have been saved on the network and are brought out to help teach this year's crop of students to read.

After twelve years of operation, it is becoming difficult to keep the lab up and running. The Vancouver School Board no longer offers technical support for this older equipment, and parts have become increasingly expensive?teacher Wong keeps a stock of dead Macs for parts, having been quoted a price of $200 to replace an old style Mac mouse.

He remembers the day "when a student tapped me on my back and calmly said, 'I think I have a problem at my workstation'. I looked up to see a plume of white smoke steadily rising from one of the computers." A capacitor on the computer's motherboard had melted?a problem that has since occurred on three other computers. Despite the loss of these computers, donations of older Macs from parents, businesses, and other schools have enabled Strathcona to keep the lab in operation.

The school has gotten some newer computers?they have recently purchased some iMacs and have received half a dozen PCs and a server as part of a donation from IBM to Vancouver inner-city schools. The use of computers has changed. "Kids don't really need teaching 'how' to use a computer to do basic tasks such a word processing anymore-- they need teaching how to use a computer to help their learning" says Robert Moore.
Through it all, Strathcona's 1989-era collection of Mac Plus continues to introduce computing to a new generation of students.

They ought to declare it a heritage site.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan