COVER

The soul of a new machine

SCOTT STEELE in Vancouver August 26 1996
COVER

The soul of a new machine

SCOTT STEELE in Vancouver August 26 1996

The soul of a new machine

COVER

To an untrained eye, it looks a lot like a high-tech trash heap. In a crowded workshop on the second floor of a busy telephone company warehouse in Burnaby, B.C., corrugated boxes overflow with discarded computer parts—monitors, keyboards, hard drives and printers. Nearby, central processing units sit torn apart, their soldered, silver circuitry exposed. “Right now, we have a couple of hundred machines out there to be fixed," says 58-year-old retired BCTEL manager AI Harrison. Each week, he and a contingent made up of more than two dozen volunteers, mostly retired BCTEL employ-

ees, come to the centre to refurbish slightly outdated computers—286s, 386s, even the odd 486. Once up and running, the equipment is shipped out to schools and libraries. “To a lot of people these are junk," says Harrison. “But to somebody who doesn’t have a computer—or has one that is even older—they are a godsend.”

The gifts are part of an Industry Canada initiative called Computers for Schools, launched in the fall of 1993. Designed as a vehicle for Ottawa to channel its “surplus” computer equipment to schools across Canada, it has since expanded to include all provincial and territorial governments as well as the private sector. The backbone of the operation, however, is the Canadian branch of the Telephone Pioneers of America—a service organization comprised of current and former telecommunications workers—who provide

more than 500 volunteers in every region of the country to test, repair and distribute the donated equipment. Often they cannibalize parts from several machines to build a working model. “At home if you break your video card, you pay a hundred bucks to get a new one," says Harrison, referring to the component that allows computers to process and display visual images. “Here, you just go over to the pile and grab another one.”

But the partnership does not end there. The provincial and territorial telephone companies all provide free workshop space and assist in shipping the equipment—as do the major airlines and several transportation firms. And software companies—including Corel, IBM, Microsoft and Novell—allow governments to donate surplus licensed software. According to Robert Potvin, senior program officer for Computers for Schools in Ottawa, the federal government spends $1.3 million annually administering the program.

In three short years, more than 16,000 computers and 30,000 pieces of software have been sent to students across Canada. Recently, public libraries were added to its list of recipients. Meanwhile, retirees like Vic Blatchford, 66, who puts in at least 24 hours each week at the Burnaby centre, say their own reward is a sense of accomplishment. “I love coming here,” he says. “To me it is like going to heaven almost.”

But the program’s most enthusiastic supporters are in the classroom. Bob Robertson teaches 20 students at FounI dation Alternative, one of 23 ; programs for kids with special : needs in the Vancouver School * Board. Some of his students have low self-esteem, others have been chronically truant. But with annual funding of only $1,200 for supplies, his operation could not afford computers. Since last fall, his students have received six through the program, as well as two printers, a modem and a CDROM player. Robertson says the equipment has improved his students’ spelling, organizational and analytical skills. “When you see the difference,” he says, “you can’t believe it."

Demand for the donated material far outpaces supply. But the ever-changing nature of computer technology is sure to spell good news for pupils. “There seems to be a very short shelf life for today’s technology,” says Potvin. “There is a mind-set out there that newer is better.” That fact alone should ensure schools a steady supply of decent equipment.

SCOTT STEELE in Vancouver