View from the Classroom
A Gaggle of LC III's: Part 3
June 25, 2004
In a project that began four years ago, my wife and I have recycled a gaggle of old computers by sending them home with my full and part-time special education students. It all began when I stumbled into a great deal on 14 complete Macintosh LC III systems out of Indiana Weslyan College several years ago. That story is covered in A Gaggle of LC IIIs: Part 1 and A Gaggle of LC IIIs: Part 2.
We're out of the computer distribution "business" now, so this column is sort of a summary or final report on the program. I hope this series of columns might also serve as a roadmap for others who wish to begin similar projects. (Not every school system and state is going to supply all their kids with individual laptops!)
Purpose of the Program
While the program was an instant hit with my students and their parents, it's purpose was always to improve the learning of my students. At the beginning, the most important item included was Roger Clary's Spell Tutor program, along with all of the students' spelling tests for the year. It relieved us of a lot of classroom spelling drills and produced an immediate improvement in spelling scores. Being realistic, we also included lots of other stuff, including a host of cool Mac freeware games.
Since our school community could easily be described as economically challenged, many of the early recipients had little hope of owning their own computer. The take-home Mac is to this day the only computer in some of those homes. In others, it peacefully coexists with the parents' PC.
As time passed, we found that reading, math, and writing skills were also positively impacted by supplying home computers to our students. The program also provided an opportunity to make a casual home visit in many cases to deliver and set up the machine.
Picking the appropriate machine for a program sounds like a difficult task. With a fixed budget, a quick look at what's available on eBay can pretty well tell you what you're going to use, or even if you can afford such a program. I got lucky when we started the program, as I picked up 14 complete computer systems. Everything I needed in the way of computer hardware was there, and we didn't have to pay shipping on it as we picked up the whole lot from the dealer.
After we ran out of the first bunch of LC III systems, and later, when we decided to go to faster machines with CD-ROM drives, things got a bit dicier. As the program progressed over the years, we moved from the LC III model through several Quadra/ Centris models to Performa 550 and 575 all-in-ones. One set of brothers shared a highly modified Mac IIci that had been one of my "toys" for a few years. Through that time, it seemed that I was constantly searching for suppliers of different hard drive and CD sleds, bezels, RAM, and so on. That period definitely sold me on trying to standardize on one model or series of computer models. I guess I didn't know how good I had it when we supplied all LC III's!
We also found that no matter how cheap monitors were, they were heavy and therefore expensive to ship. At one point we ran into a bunch of brand new 14" Performa Plus monitors someone had found in a warehouse. While the sale price on each was minimal, we ended up paying $25 each for around 10 of them with shipping charges. And the vendor wasn't gouging on shipping!
At the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year, we finally moved up to Power Macs. My school had made some major computer purchases that freed up a number of Power Mac 7200's that I'd bought and brought into school for use in my classroom during the 2001-2002 school year. We also purchased a number of 7200's and an occasional 7500 and 7600. When prices on the 7200 series went nuts on eBay, I looked upward in models and found a supplier for Power Mac 7300's. One of the units had a sticker on it indicating it had come out of the Los Alamos National Laboratories. Obviously, this group of machines lacked hard drives!
When those units ran out, we eventually found a local vendor who was more than happy to make a deal on the 7300's he found at local auctions. He was buying lots of machines ranging from G3 desktops and towers to 7300's. While he wanted a fairly steep price for the G3's, apparently the 7300's didn't command a good enough price on eBay and elsewhere to make it worth listing them as opposed to selling them to us in lots of 5-10 computers. And...when I say local, I'm stretching things a bit. He was a good two hours away.
I've also kept a close watch on the price of used G3 desktops over the last couple of years. It's not low enough yet to be practicable for a program like ours, but I suspect that in the next year, that will change for the better. If I were just starting a computer distribution program, I think the desktop G3 might be an ideal model with which to begin. I'd also probably look for a "pallet sale." Having several "spares" to cannibalize for parts can actually save a good deal of money over buying the parts themselves.
Two of my older columns might be of assistance in the search for good hardware and specific model selection.
If you actually jump off the deep end into such a crazy project, be sure and do your homework on the units. Low End Mac is still the premier source on older Macs.
Finding the "Good Stuff"
I'm often asked, "Where do you find these deals?"
Occasionally, you may get lucky and find a local school auction that includes computer equipment. Watching the want ads in local papers is a good way to find such sales. Also, letting your school's techie know that you're in the market helps. They often get word through their networks of local IT people well before the auction bill appears in the paper (or here, often on the counters of local banks and other businesses).
By far, we've found more deals through eBay's Mac listings than anywhere else. I'm sorta relentless in searching those listings. We look for vendors with a good price and selling record, reasonable shipping charges (when we can't buy locally), and possible multiple items for sale. I check their other sales and often look at the completed items listings. When I find a vendor that appears to have multiples of what I need, I email them an inquiry. Sometimes I just buy one unit as a test to make sure the merchandise is in decent shape. Many vendors strip down RAM and VRAM to the minimum needed to boot the machine. Obviously, if you can find a local vendor, you're going to save a bundle on shipping.
Another source to pursue is local businesses. Since my wife works as a techie for a regional banking chain, I knew about what stuff they were just stockpiling and/or pitching. We eventually ended up getting all of our monitors from the bank the last year and a half of the program. All it took was finding the right person in the banking corporation and a letter describing the program on our school's letterhead. They were delighted to unload the displays that had come out of their banks and probably were able to write them off as a charitable contribution. They actually offered computers as well, but we were pretty well tied to Macs and all they had were PCs.
A Snapshot of ...
Each computer we put out is totally torn down and thoroughly cleaned before reassembly and setup. Plastic parts go right into a kitchen sink full of dish detergent to remove the oily film that covers them. Floppy drives and CD-ROM drives receive a gentle cleaning with compressed air to remove dust bunnies before being treated with commercial drive cleaning disks. The interior metal case gets a high pressure blowout with my garage compressor before being gently wiped with a paper towel or soft cloth and commercial cleaner.
Motherboards and processor cards are first "swept" with a camels hair brush and then compressed air. Special attention is paid to the various slots, nooks, and crannies on the motherboard which may be filled with dust.
The exterior case cover of the 7300's we're currently using often have service stickers that must be scraped and/or washed off. I've found that Formula 409 Commercial Degreaser melts away a good many of the stickers. Others, however, must first be scraped and then washed off. Displays and keyboards are cleaned with a foam antistatic product designed for that purpose (no longer available). The displays occasionally have old service stickers on them that have to be scrubbed off with a somewhat harsher product. As a rule, I don't go inside the displays for cleaning, other than a quick shot of compressed air through the vents. While I've drained the charge from CRT's and capacitors previously before doing swaps or replacements, it's not something I find necessary for these units (and it keeps me away from the high voltage that an unplugged monitor can still carry).
When we get them back together, the student gets a Power Mac 7300 running at either 180 or 200 MHz. We configure each machine with 128 MB RAM and the maximum of 4 MB VRAM. We ended up using two hard drives in each machine. We used 9.1 gig refurbished Fujitsu drives that we bought in lots of ten as the main drive, but also added a second drive for termination. The Fujitsu drives are 80 pin SCSI drives and it's cheaper to use a second drive for termination than to buy the more expensive 80-50 pin adapters that can terminate the drive.
We have always tried to discourage parents from going out and buying games and such on CD, as often it would prove incompatible with our system. But we did send out each take-home Mac with a good CD-ROM drive, often a 12X model.
While we used some short keyboards for some of the LC III's a few years ago, each of the computers going out now gets a full sized keyboard along with a good mouse. We've stayed with 14" displays, since the bank was providing them for free. Each required a VGA adapter, which until recently ran $5-7. Then someone flooded the eBay market with VGA adapters and the price crashed. I bought a lot of 50 for $40 postpaid! Sometimes it's worth it to keep watching parts prices regularly.
During the last week of school, my students and I together rebuilt the last unit to go out. I usually rebuild the units myself at home and then bring them to school for training with their new owner. But this group of kids seemed very interested in what was "inside the box," so we tore one down, cleaned it, added upgrades, and reassembled it on a table in the center of the classroom. It was a special deal, as the student had previously received a Power Mac 7200 last year before moving away during the school year. Unfortunately, the family had lost everything in a house fire, so the student went back onto our waiting list when they moved back into our school district.
Over the course of the project, providing appropriate, legal software for the student take-home units has been a challenge. With the older units, system software was a snap, as we used the free System 7.5.3. As we moved upward, I exhausted my supply of licenses for operating systems from 8.1 through 9.1! Other Mac education writers and I have frequently pointed out in the past that older Macs running the latest and most stable version of the classic Mac OS is some of the best free advertising Apple could get. After the release of the now antiquated System 7.5.3 for free download a number of years ago, Apple has consistently turned a deaf ear to this issue.
Our answer to licensing problems was for the school to retain ownership of the units and make them loaner units that went home with our students...forever. Each unit carried a good bit of school site license software, although I'm not sure this practice would stand a legal test.
The unreadable part at the bottom of the startup screen above reads:
Beyond our school software that always included Roger Clary's Spell Tutor (450K), a word processor, and an assistive writing program, we used lots of freeware titles that are still available. The "Games" folder always drew a good bit of attention.
The "Graphics" folder was filled with several excellent freewares, including the freeware version 2.3 release of MicroFrontier's Color It!, available on the Macworld Mac Secrets disks or CDs, and Robin Landsbert's Mirror Paint, which our primary crowd absolutely loved!
The "Utilities" folder always looked a bit barren. Beyond Apple's standard Drive Setup, Disk First Aid, and Disk Copy, we added just a few items.
Some other sharewares and freewares rounded out the hard drives.
Note that we still supply Apple's Hypercard Player on the units with a bunch of freeware Hypercard stacks that can be downloaded. We also use a good number of paid and free applications from Gary Smith's PolyMath Love Software. Gary's full CD is now only $40. We paid $100 for it several years ago...and don't regret it a bit. It was worth every cent.
If you're looking for more older Mac software, try my Vintage Mac Software page. It doesn't get updated often, but still has some very good links. Just this week I noticed that one of my old MacTimes buddies, Mark Woods, is once again updating his excellent Pure Mac software site.
Benefits of the Program
The original intent of the computer take-home project was to improve spelling scores by providing the year's spelling lists for practice at home using the SpellTutor application. Initially, we saw an immediate 10-20% boost in spelling averages! As time wore on, the novelty wore off and averages came back down somewhat.
My students' overall computer skills improved dramatically. Many of the basic questions about navigation, force quits, freezes and forced restarts that other teachers must regularly field simply went away. Of course, my students occasionally displayed their newfound confidence in their computer skills by exploring and experimenting on our classroom units.
Incidental improvement was noticed across curriculum areas for many students. Some students poured themselves into the math drill programs, while others became "experts" on social studies trivia! There's really no way for me to document these areas of improvement, but the effect was noticeable, but not overwhelming.
The most significant benefit of the program to me was one I'd really not considered when we began it. Parents were, for the most part, absolutely delighted to receive an older Macintosh computer into their home. Those parents who already had a PC in their home often asked why the Mac was essential, but quickly saw the potential benefits of the SpellTutor program.
Several parents commented somewhat guardedly that they "occasionally" would use their child's Mac during the day for letter writing or typing practice. I suspect a few got hooked on SnakeByte and Risk!
The public relations benefit of the program has been incredible. I've been fortunate most of my career to be accepted by most parents as just a regular guy who somehow ended up in the classroom. I've had a beer with some of them at the local pub, played basketball and volleyball with them in the evenings, socialized with some of them, and attended church with them. But...the computer take-home project has opened doors I'd not imagined possible before.
When you arrive at a students' home to set up their "new" computer, it's often the first non-threatening home visit the parents have experienced from any school personnel. On subsequent visits, you're a returning "friend," rather than a prying educator.
Over the years I've traded emails with folks doing similar projects, often bigger and better than ours. Some folks include a printer with the computer system. Others include some light training along the way. Several people wrote who were involved with getting computers into the hands of the needy.
Only one student made significant progress in keyboarding at home on his Mac. My students' touch typing skills remained nonexistent until we included the Paws typing program as a required part of all of our grade 2-6 students' educational program at school. After that introduction, students often reported using the typing programs included on the units at home.
With any such program, you're going to have to be prepared to do some service on the units. Sometimes that just means putting some files on a floppy or CD to go home. Other times, a unit will go down and need repair "in the shop."
We have our parents bring just the computer (not the monitor, keyboard, etc.) into school when something goes really wrong. In spite of that advice, the mother of a first grader brought in the whole system for repair the last week of school. When I booted it, the unit appeared to have no video. When I opened up the box, it was quickly apparent that just one VRAM chip had become unseated...knocking out the video.
Most of the service problems we encounter are software related. Sometimes there's disk corruption. Other times, critical items have been rearranged to the detriment of the unit's health. (Scrambled eggs are good: Scrambled hard drives are bad!)
Occasionally, we'd have hardware actually damaged on the units. A couple of floppy drives had the metal floppy disk cover stuck in them. One mouse met its death in an encounter with a puppy. One unit had obviously been dropped, as all of the RAM and VRAM were unseated and the processor card had even come out partially! Sometimes, hardware just failed. We lost one power supply, several mice, and one or two keyboards that way over four years. It pays to keep a few spare parts on hand.
What I would do differently...if I had it all to do over again.
I really wish we'd just bitten the bullet and started supplying printers from the beginning. Once we got going, it seemed sorta unfair to switch. Also, the cost factor kept pushing us away from supplying printers.
The first 14 complete systems cost $300. That works out to just $21 per unit! Unfortunately, our costs went up as the program went on. Even with free monitors supplied by the bank, later units ended up costing us around $60 each...and upward at times. Hard drives and adapters, hard drive brackets, VGA video adapters, batteries, Y-power adapters, VRAM, RAM, and so on shot the final cost upward.
Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:
There really didn't seem to be a good place to insert these photos in the column, so I'll just put them here. One of the items (toys?) that saved me a lot of time setting up hard drives is the hard drive tower pictured at right. It will hold 14 one third height (1") hard drives! The refurbished Fujitsu model we used and some HP's were all half height and required a bit of jockeying to get into the cabinet. I often would put 3 or four drives in the cabinet, wire them up and transfer the "ghost" file to them using my upstairs G3 "server." (It's one of my other G3's that currently runs a hand-me-down 533 MHz G3 processor from my main Mac, also a G3 with a G4 upgrade card.) I use an Adaptec 2930CU SCSI card in the G3 since I've pulled the G3's onboard SCSI cable. I'm able to format the drives using Mac OS X's Disk Utility and then just drag and drop the contents of the ghost onto the fresh drive. (Note that you still have to "bless" the system folder later under OS 9 to make it bootable.)
As I read the tiny number from the Adaptec card, I realized that there is another even more important piece of hardware that I use almost every day:-(. I'm not sure what I'd do without my magnifying ringlight. I blew right past trifocals into progressives at my last visit to the eye doctor. (The progressives became indispensable when reading with students at a large kidney shaped reading table.) But even with the new glasses, those numbers just seem to be getting smaller.
Since I seem to be loading this column up with pictures (I'd call it a Complete Waste of Bandwidth, but Andy Ihnatko already took that name for his excellent site.), I'll go ahead and add one more for good measure.
We planted our sweet corn on April 17 this year. We overplanted the many bare spots May 9. Then we turned down the weeds and replanted it all over again on June 7! We use super sweet SH2 varieties, so the first early planting was a gamble, hoping for Fourth of July sweet corn. The SH2 varieties are great, but they don't germinate well in cold soil. The second try got no rain to speak of. But the last planting is now up and growing well. Even though it suffers by comparison to some of our neighbors' plots, I'm pretty proud of our garden this year. We've eaten and frozen a lot of broccoli and cauliflower and had good leaf and head lettuce until recently.
As the more famous Steve would say, "Oh, yeah, there's one more thing."
We ended the computer take-home project because we finally ran out of power cords! Actually, we finally did exhaust a giant supply of power cords that came as a pleasant surprise at the bottom of a box of stuff I bought at a school auction several years ago. I also turned in my resignation/retirement notice the last day of school this year. It's time to go somewhere else and do something else.
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last updated 11/3/2007
©2004 Steven L. Wood