Roundtable: Does tech in schools always need to be new? Astrid Wynne answers

In the second in our series, Steve Wright finds out if schools and universities always need to go after expensive new tech, or if they can learn to better harness what they already have?

Astrid Wynne is Sustainability lead at Techbuyer.

Q. How can tightly budgeted schools and universities work with the tech they already have, to improve learning outcomes without spending more?

If schools or universities plan to buy new equipment for one area of the organisation, they can look at ways to reuse their older equipment in another area. This could be achieved by reassigning a fully functioning server from a live environment to a test area, for example, or by stripping IT equipment down to component parts that can be used for spares and upgrades.

One factor that can deter organisations from utilising old equipment is that data-bearing devices will need to be professionally sanitised. However, there are a number of companies that can help with that, including ourselves at Techbuyer.

Schools and universities that do not have an immediate use for older equipment, and for whom space is an issue, can outsource the refurbishment programme by using the secondary market.

Selling redundant equipment to an accredited company will generate a cash return that can then be used to buy new or refurbished spares and upgrades.

A number of our customers have saved money in this way – and not just on the components they have bought.

Many IT managers have core networking systems that they are happy with, but they are older generations, whose components are no longer available from the manufacturer. Coming to a secondary market supplier means that education organisations are able to keep their legacy systems running for longer. What’s more, they also avoid an overhaul cost that could amount to tens of thousands of pounds.

Finally, IT managers can look to third-party solutions on commodity items such as memory, storage and networking switches. Many of these are identical to the branded alternatives in every way, apart from the sticker on the product.

Q. Are there common examples out there of edtech that isn’t being used to its full capabilities? Are educators buying kit that they don’t need, not realising that they already possess the functionality on an existing device?

For data centres, performance is as much about how you design your system as it is about the hardware itself. Giving this some considered thought can make systems run a lot faster with comparatively minor changes. As an example, you can increase the power and performance of a CPU simply by adding more memory and storage.

Architecture plays a role as well. As organisations move towards cloud workloads and replace HDDs with SSDs, changing the protocols that run them from SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) to NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) will increase bandwidth and make the system run faster. None of this necessarily requires new servers – just relatively small changes to the existing equipment.

Q. The temptation will often be to view the latest generation of tech as the most effective. Should educators approach this notion with some scepticism?

Yes, and educators can begin by asking: “Most effective… for what?” Just because some of the latest machines are capable of intensive workloads does not mean they are necessary or even desirable for a school or university. Deploying servers that will only ever operate under their capacity is a waste of energy and resources. Aside from this, many recent performance gains in hardware come from increasing capacity on memory or storage (as explained above) rather than improvements in the processors themselves.

Think about existing and older tech as a teaching aid as well as a resource.

Q. Where can schools and universities go (online?) to find advice and examples on how to repurpose, recycle and refurbish their edtech?

The Right to Repair movement is a fantastic resource. The website www.ifixit.com has a wealth of repair manuals for tablets and PCs as well as a parts and tools store, and https://therestartproject.org/ is a great resource, with a hands-on programme designed to help secondary schools integrate repair into their curriculum. The site also has a Soundcloud channel which talks about some of the wider issues of reusing tech, such as security patches. There is also a great selection of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube – type in something like “server teardown” and see what it brings up.

Finally, the manufacturers themselves may well be a resource once the EU Ecodesign Directive comes into effect in March 2020. One of the things the legislation stipulates is that firmware updates for each piece of hardware must be available two years after manufacture date. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  

Q. Can you cite any key tricks for using existing edtech in new ways?

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Think about existing and older edtech as a teaching aid as well as a resource. We have a high proportion of young people who are able to code. However, we have problems recruiting technicians who understand the hardware. Existing and redundant IT equipment is a great training ground for developing these skills. It also represents an interesting opportunity for other disciplines, such as asset management, logistics and sustainability.

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet. Approximately 50 million tonnes are produced every year, the equivalent weight of all the commercial aircraft ever built. Unless we address this, we will run out of the materials needed to continue technological development (provide we don’t drown in used electricals first). Developing new approaches to the way we use hardware will give us the option to find another solution. Schools and universities are the perfect places to do this. 

Q. Can you give any examples of schools, colleges or universities using their ‘old’ tech in new or imaginative ways?

Think about existing and older edtech as a teaching aid as well as a resource. We have a high proportion of young people who are able to code. However, we have problems recruiting technicians who understand the hardware. Existing and redundant IT equipment is a great training ground for developing these skills. It also represents an interesting opportunity for other disciplines, such as asset management, logistics and sustainability.

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet. Approximately 50 million tonnes are produced every year, the equivalent weight of all the commercial aircraft ever built. Unless we address this, we will run out of the materials needed to continue technological development (provide we don’t drown in used electricals first). Developing new approaches to the way we use hardware will give us the option to find another solution. Schools and universities are the perfect places to do this. 


Further reading

  Jisc: Building Digital Capability  – www.jisc.ac.uk/building-digital-capability

  Amazing projects in Microsoft Excel – mashable.com/2014/08/19/microsoft-excel-cool-projects

  Learning to Code with Swift Playgrounds – www.macworld.com/article/3268086/learning-to-code-with-swift-playgrounds-as-an-adult.html

  Using Scriptable for shortcuts – www.macobserver.com/cool-stuff-found/scriptable-powerful-shortcuts-siri

  ICT Evangelist blog: Is that edtech tool pedagogically valid? ictevangelist.com/is-that-edtech-tool-pedagogically-valid

  Stone Group: IT Recycling  – www.stonegroup.co.uk/solutions/recycling-services/it-recycling

  Information Commissioner’s Office: IT Asset Disposal for Organisations – ico.org.uk/media/fororganisations/documents/1570/it_asset_disposal_for_organisations.pdf

  Association of Network Managers in Education – anme.co.uk

  Edtech Impact – www.edtechimpact.com

  Jisc 3D scanning service – www.jisc.ac.uk/news/from-atoms-to-bits-free-3d-scanning-on-demand-09-sep-2019

  De Montfort University Square Mile Project – www.dmu.ac.uk/community/public-engagement/communities/fosse.aspx

  Edugeek forum – www.edugeek.net

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