May 23, 2002
Almost three years ago, I began the View from the Classroom series with a review of the computers in my classroom. A Menagerie of Macs told of a group of castoff computers put to good use. The computers were a varied lot, and the column has served as an effective background for readers of where I'm coming from in other columns.
By the end of the 2000-2001 school year, I'd finally achieved my original goal of having at least five multimedia (CD equipped) computers available for student use in the classroom. It took a while, as we started the 1998 school year with an LC III and a Power Mac 7200. Some castoff Mac SEs and SE/30s added machines to the room that year and established the general areas for computer work stations. As time went on, I bought and scrounged other machines to replace the SEs.
We actually finished the 2000-2001 school year with six computers for student use, but two of them were 68K machines -- a Performa 575 and my venerable Mac IIfx. The Performa 575 replaced our LC III late in the school year. The LC III was our first Macintosh computer and was finally beginning to show its age. Along with those two 68K Macs, we had an LC5200CD, a Power Mac 8100/110, a Power Mac 7200/75 and my Power Mac 7500/G3/250. There's a lot of teachers who have a lot less with which to work, but...
While it looked like a lot of computers in the classroom, both the refugee LC5200CD from the computer lab and a Power Mac 8100 the art teacher had given up on were rather flaky beasts, prone to unusual behavior at any time. By the end of the 2000-2001 school year, the 8100 required a start and a restart to find its hard drive every morning. The 5200 was, well, a 5200, but some of the kids liked it. I'd also installed a new CRT in our Performa 575 and never quite got the color balance right. The 7200 remained a tireless workhorse, as did my Mac IIfx. My Power Mac 7500/G3 was again showing signs of extreme age, with its variable speed power supply making increasingly louder and stranger noises.
Right up until the beginning of August, I expected to begin the 2001-2002 school year with about the same computers available as we'd had for the last two years. I'd looked in vain all summer for a steal on a G3 desktop or minitower, but ended up replacing the floppy drive and power supply of my Power Mac 7500/G3 so it could continue as my primary computer at school. The OrangeMicro PC card also required another chip cooler fan and got a AMD K-6 200 MHz chip as a bonus.
In June at a school surplus auction I picked up four good Performa 550's primarily for use as student take-home units. I used up one of them (with a properly adjusted CRT) to house the 575's motherboard and drives. The 575's front bezel often hung up the tray of the Sony 12X CD-ROM I'd installed, so I replaced it with a 578 front bezel that fit better and didn't obstruct the drive. I'd also boosted it to a full 40 chip (with FPU) and 68 MB of RAM.
That gave me three, somewhat dependable computers upon which to build -- the 7200, the 7500, and the now Performa 578 (just a different bezel and nameplate). While I was reasonably content to go with the machines I had for the new school year, I happened to do an eBay search in the Apple section for "lot" late in July. I'd just published the column Great Classroom Computer Buys: When the Worst Can Turn Out to be the Best in which I'd strongly recommended the Power Mac 7200 as an excellent volume classroom computer for the budget minded Mac shopper. I'd recommended folks stay in the $25-50 price range when buying 7200's, with the high end only for a machine with lots of RAM and possibly a spacious hard drive.
The search produced a listing for 3 Power Mac 7200/90's that "need work." The bid was low and I just couldn't resist entering a bid on the units. I quickly parted with $67.00 for the bid, plus $23.33 for shipping the heavy units from Arizona to Indiana. The $90.33 total worked out to just over $30 per unit, well within my recommendation of a $25-50 price range when buying 7200's.
When the units arrived, I wasn't disappointed. All three 7200's had working CD-ROM drives. Two of the three hard drives were in good shape (as listed in the sale bill -- nice to do business with a reputable seller). The machines varied in RAM from 16-40 MB. I suspect the units all came out of an office or lab where the administrator frowned on audio CD's, as the audio CD cord had been removed from all of the units.
After a quick but thorough cleaning (See Illustrated Power Mac 7500 Teardown), I set up two of the machines in the classroom. I used 2 gig drives to hold our stock setup (which runs just over a gig in size). Both have more than adequate RAM, especially after I picked up a 128 MB DIMM that wouldn't work in my OrangeMicro PC card. It went into one of the 7200s! The third 7200 was to go home with my teaching assistant, but never made it there.
The two "new" 7200's quickly became the most used machines in the classroom, along with our holdover 7200/75. All have 17" displays, although two of them are getting a bit long in the tooth.
A RAM upgrade made the LC5200 a bit more stable and I found a set of mismatched RAM chips in the 8100, which returned it to relative stability. So we began the school year with 8 computers.
Eight? One unit not yet mentioned is the Mac 8550 server. It is the one unit that we find indispensable. All of the classroom computers are connected to the school's network and can easily access the Mac server. Each is set to automatically log on at startup in Read Only mode (wouldn't want anyone saving their favorite 100 MB Amazing Animation file to the server). When the kids launch a Math or Grammar Rock movie, they're totally unaware that it is being delivered over our Ethernet network from the Mac server.
The 8550 started its life as the school's server, but was relegated to a corner of the techie's office with an administrative change and when the school began switching over to Windows. It came to my classroom to house files for the Macs in the elementary and to drive a couple of network printers. The 8550 this year sat on my desk until this month with no keyboard, monitor, or mouse. It shared the 7500's through a Dr. Bott MoniSwitch. This setup worked extremely well, especially later on in the school year when the 7500 had to be pulled and the server became my primary classroom internet computer. But that's getting ahead of myself.
Parent-teacher conference day this year at Backwash Elementary was October 23. The Orange PC card in my venerable (synonym for nearly worn out) G3/7500 went into a death spiral October 22. In the process, it took out all of the IEP files I'd written during the month (Yes, I hadn't backed up the PC side for over 20 days.). That failure represented a loss of about 40-60 hours of work. Shortly thereafter, one of the 7500's hard drives began showing signs of failure (Smart drive alerts, increasing noise levels, and the like). To correct the drive problems, I replaced the two 4.5 gig drives in the 7500 with a single 9 gig drive. With the 4 gigs of space previously occupied by the Orange Micro's "C" and "D" drives, I had plenty of drive space.
To complete IEPs in the required Windows only application, I brought in a spare 200 MHz Pentium from home that sported a failing 14" monitor. It later gave way to a Compaq Deskpro 330 MHz Pentium II that my wife had used for server practice. I'd picked up a good, refurbished 15" ViewSonic Optiquest display from MacResQ for her. The Compaq eventually ended up running Windows Professional 2000, which I came to like better than any previous Windows release. It was also good preparation for Windows XP Professional.
About halfway through the school year, our school's "Evil NT Techie," who may now loose that moniker due to his ever increasing fondness for Mac OS X and his new dual 1-gig Mac, offered a Power Mac 5400 that no one was using. It turned out the reason no one used it was that its cabling was irreparably damaged and the thing wouldn't work reliably. It gave the blinking question mark at startup as it hunted in vain for a hard drive/system via the faulty IDE ribbon.
Replacing such a ribbon requires a complete teardown of the 5400! I was fortunate that we had a dead, stripped down unit in the tech office, and I used the cabling yoke from it to replace the original unit's cabling. In the end, I wound up with one pretty hot Macintosh and a good deal of repair experience inside a 5400. Like any other all-in-one computer, the 5400 has several hot spots that retain massive amounts of voltage, even when unplugged. If the many sharp edges inside to 5400 don't dissuade you from working on one, the voltage should! I've done it, but I sure don't recommend it.
Both units were absolutely filthy inside when I started, but the finished Power Mac 5400 sports a 2-gig hard drive, Mac OS 9.1, and 64MB of RAM. It became the primary test unit for Mia's Reading Adventure when three first-graders were helping me do a review of that product. Those kids fell in love with the 5400 and seek it out first whenever they go to a computer. Of course, it has all their saved Mia games on it!
Eventually, the 5400 replaced the Performa 578 in the classroom. The 578 went home to be retrofitted as a student take-home unit. Before I even began that process, a thunderstorm (or old age) took out the power supply of our original Mac at home, a Performa 575 that our youngest has claimed as her own. While she'd probably take a new iMac, she decided to keep the old Performa over another Power Mac I'd suggested! When the 575 died on an evening when Julia had to use it, I stripped the motherboard, hard drive, and CD-ROM drive out of it and popped them into the 578 for her.
Of the units mentioned, our kids seem to gravitate to the units with the 17" monitors. The 5400 also gets lots of service. They seem to avoid the 8100, as it is still running System 8.1 and tends to crash more than the other units. But strangely, several of my sixth graders prefer to take their SpellTutor practice spelling tests on the LC5200 which also runs 8.1! Until its departure, the Performa 578 also saw lots of regular service. While it was not a Power Mac, it ran System 8.1 with 68 MB RAM on a full 68040 chip.
Last year, I was able to provide each of my full and part-time students a take-home Mac. Most of the units were LC IIIs with just 8-12 MB of RAM and some had only a 160 MB hard drive. As the year wore on, I was able to provide larger hard drives and occasionally slightly better boxes, including one very well equipped Mac IIci and a Quadra 610.
While I still had some LC IIIs at home, the first units to go out to new full and part-time students were the Performa 550's I had acquired at a neighboring school system's surplus auction. Each had 20 MB of RAM, a 500 MB hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive. Some of the LC IIIs that came in for service during the year also got RAM and hard drive upgrades as well. When I pretty well ran out of Performa 550s, I put out Centris/Quadra 610s with CD-ROMs. We put out just six take-home units this year, with a seventh unit ready to go out this week. As more and more kids are added to the program, I have a steady demand for older Macs to go into the kids homes.
Without revealing too much here, as it will probably appear in a future column, I suspect next year's take-home units will finally move to Power Macs.
A Look Ahead
We might have ended the school year with just the computers described above if our school hadn't received an incredible $100,000 grant for technology in special education. Our superintendent also had a stash tucked away for new computers for all the elementary teachers once the platform decision wars ended. Those two items produced an 800 MHz Macintosh G4 tower and monitor, a new 1.4 GHz tower from JDR with an ELO touchscreen monitor, and a spiffy Toshiba laptop for my classroom. In addition, the grant provided two carts of 24 laptops each, primarily for special education use.
While our school's techie got to spec one cart of IBM ThinkPads, I wrote the specification for the other cart which holds 24 iBooks. Following the Apple classroom model of providing one unit with a CD-RW drive, I ordered one 600 MHz iBook with the writeable drive, while the rest are the entry-level 500 MHz model with a regular CD-ROM drive. All of the iBooks were upgraded to 256MB of RAM, so that we could eventually run OS X on them without a future RAM upgrade.
Looking ahead to next fall, I plan to actually have less desktop computers available. The iBook cart will probably be based in my classroom, so I hope to have my students make extensive use of the iBooks.
Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:
This column got started last July. I updated it and almost posted it in November, but...there was too much other stuff going on. I would open up the column file, write a line or two and quit, as I just wasn't happy with what was going on in my classroom. I opened the column up again last weekend and added a bit, but again decided against posting it as I'd planned to do last Monday. So now, on the very last school day of the year, it appears on the web! And...I actually finished and posted another column for today before I finished off this one.
Maybe what motivates me to post this column is that I shipped out the Power Mac 8100 and the LC5200CD to the high school LD rooms today. Both high school LD teachers prefer Macs and we just bought Gary Smith's excellent collection of middle school math software which is Mac only. Either today or tomorrow, I'll probably part with our venerable PM 7200/75 and maybe even the Power Mac 5400! I'm sorta dreaming of running OS X next fall on all of our classroom Macs!
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©2002 Steven L. Wood