K-12 schools nationwide that receive donated or refurbished computers running the Windows operating system (OS) now can take advantage of a little-known initiative from Microsoft Corp. that lets administrators ensure the machines they’ve received are properly licensed.

The free, online program is the latest attempt by Microsoft to get back within the good graces of its education customers, many of whom had criticized the software giant for taking too tough a stance on its software licensing policy. (See “Lament: Microsoft licensing stance hurts poor schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4012.)

Dubbed the Fresh Start for Donated Computers program, the initiative enables K-12 schools that receive second-hand machines without the proper paperwork and/or the original Windows OS to secure software licenses and Windows installation CDs at no cost.

Microsoft estimates more than 2 million donated PCs go unused in schools nationwide because they either have been stripped of their operating systems or were accepted without the proper documentation. “It’s kind of a tragedy to see all of [these computers] piled up and not being used,” said Sherri Bealkowski, head of Microsoft’s Education Solutions Group.

To take part in the program, school technology leaders must log onto Microsoft’s Fresh Start for Donated Computers web page (see link below) and complete a short online application meant to ensure that the request is being made by a bond fide K-12 school.

Upon reviewing the application, the company sends a letter of approval along with the documentation, as well as one copy of the software on CD-ROM for donated computers that no longer have the original Windows OS loaded.

Schools can choose between versions of Windows 98 and 2000, depending on which system best matches the functionality of the donated computer and their technology environment and standards, the company said.

While the program has been up and running since January, many school technology leaders probably are hearing about it for the first time. That’s because Microsoft wanted to break the program in gently to ensure that the online process addressed educators’ concerns.

“We wanted to figure out a way to do this and make it as easy as we could to provide documentation,” Bealkowski said. “A lot of these machines come with no paperwork, no documentation, nothing on them at all.”

So far, the initiative has met with strong approval from educators, many of whom say working with Microsoft hasn’t always been so easy.

“Microsoft’s licensing programs sometimes are as clear as mud,” said Al Green, technology coordinator for Falcon School District 49 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Fresh Start, however, represents a change of heart by the Redmond, Wash.–based software giant, which—as recently as last summer—urged its school customers not to accept donated or refurbished machines unless they came equipped with the proper software licenses.

Green says that wasn’t a realistic demand. A retired Air Force master sergeant, he used to work in a military program that would strip down computers in preparation for donations. “No organization maintains all of the software that comes with these machines,” he said.

Originally, Microsoft had suggested that schools spend $300 apiece on individual software licenses for all donated computers received without proper licensing or functioning operating systems, Green said.

Given the harsh reality of current budget scenarios—and the increased need for donated machines—the potential for these additional costs forced Green to consider switching to an alternative, open-source Linux platform, a move he did not want to make.

Overall, Green said, he favors employing the Microsoft OS in schools because students and educators tend to be more familiar with its functionality and it generally requires less training. However, he said, if Microsoft had continued to take the hard line with its licensing policy, Linux would have been an option.

“I told [Microsoft], when push comes to shove, I can either put a [Microsoft] solution in the classroom or switch to a Linux operating system,” he said. “Just because I didn’t get a piece of paper doesn’t mean the computer didn’t come with an operating system. That was my argument.”

Apparently, someone at Microsoft was listening.

“People were very sincere in their conversations with me,” Green said of his concerns. “Microsoft having come out with this new program is actually a godsend. It certainly makes my job a lot easier. It helps us do the right thing and stay on the right side of the law.”

That was pretty much the same response voiced by Aaron Munter, executive director of the Oregon Educational Technology Consortium (OETC)—a nonprofit group that includes 450 school districts, colleges, and universities throughout the Northwest.

“Microsoft has been an issue in the past when it comes to donated computers,” he said. But “Fresh Start is a really important program. It’s a win-win situation.”

Munter said donated computers have become especially critical for schools throughout the Northwest, many of which are facing budget shortfalls of historic proportions. Given the current fiscal climate, most schools are “not in a position to refuse the technology,” he said.

According to Munter, at least 50 OETC member school districts already have said they plan to participate in the Fresh Start program, with at least another hundred having expressed some interest.

He added that the online approval process greatly reduces the amount of paperwork school districts and technology consortia can expect to deal with in terms of registering their donated computers with the company.

“Overhead in terms of the paperwork hassle is basically nil,” Munter said. That’s a necessary attribute for large consortia, he said, where a single organization sometimes takes on the task of licensing and certifying machines for several member districts.

Microsoft said it’s offering the Fresh Start program as a “good-faith exercise” to its school customers, which means that if a school registers a computer on the site, the company trusts the original OS for that machine was purchased legally, Bealkowski said. The program lets education customers who have an existing School Agreement with Microsoft automatically add their donated PCs to the terms of that agreement, enabling them to install new and discounted software on refurbished machines at no additional cost, the company said.

Schools only are required to register donated computers that are equipped with Intel Pentium II processors or older models. Pentium III machines and newer models come equipped with a Windows Certificate of Authenticity sticker, known as a COA, which serves as sufficient documentation for a valid Windows OS license, the company said.

Microsoft said it has been signing up as many as 20 new schools a day since the program went into effect earlier this year. Bealkowski said she expects thousands of schools eventually will sign on.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Fresh Start for Donated Computers program
http://www.microsoft.com/education/?ID=FreshStart

Oregon Educational Technology Consortium
http://www.oetc.org