For schools struggling to fund technology, donations of used computers might seem to be a blessing. But evidence is arising that donated computers actually can interfere with successful integration of technology into the classroom if those computers break down often or cannot run current software.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) last year tried to educate administrators about this problem through a program that taught them to think about total cost of ownership of a computer. Helen Soule, chairman of CoSN and author of this article, says that purchasing new computers can bring advantages in the long run.

By purchasing computers, a school or district can be assured that all computers use the same operating system. This simplifies maintenance, technical support, and training. Most superintendents seem to understand this concept, as Soule noted that more than 90 percent of respondents to a CoSN survey said they had attempted to standardize their operating system.

However, more than 30 percent of respondents said their computer staffs nevertheless support four or more different operating systems, and the percentage tops 50 percent in large, urban school districts—perhaps a legacy of accepting donated equipment. The problem would only get worse under a bill proposed in Congress to encourage companies to donate more computers to schools by extending the tax break for donations to three-year-old computers, instead of the current two-year-old rule.

Looking further down the road, the author points out that since school districts are now encouraged—or even required—to create comprehensive technology plans when seeking funding, the acceptance of mismatched used computers can undermine this effort, too.