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Taking PCs apart--and sending them back to school's Ina Fried takes a look at the mechanics and the politics of a Colombian program that refurbishes thousands of computers each year to donate to the country's schools.

BOGOTA, Colombia--In one corner of a massive warehouse, workers pick through bins of computers, keyboards, and mice, painstakingly cleaning each part.

There's a special room where peripherals such as mice go for washing and another where they go for drying. Once the hardware is reassembled, often with a few new parts added to the mix, the first set of testing takes place, to make sure all of the hardware functions as it should.

Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.
Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.

In another area, the newly rebuilt systems get their collection of software--Windows 2000 and a several-generations-old version of Office. Then the machines go through another round of testing to make sure they are working properly, before being wrapped and packed in broken-down Styrofoam and being shipped out to destinations throughout the country.

Even printers are refurbished--and not just inkjet, but years-old dot-matrix printers that have long since been pushed out of the commercial market. It's all part of a project known as Computadores para Educar, which refurbishes thousands of computers each year for Colombia's schools.

Although the effort has given more than 9,500 schools their first PCs, some have begun to question whether the approach is the best way to go. Even the nonprofit agency itself has started to supplement the 20,000 or so computers it refurbishes each year with a separate manufacturing line that creates new machines.

One of the greatest strength's of the program is the rigor of its refurbishing process. Microsoft officials who toured the plant this week said the facility was among the best they had seen. Program officials say that a recent study found that the mean time before failure of their machines compares quite well against new machines, even though theirs are far older.

Among the criticisms is the fact that it costs about $160 to refurbish a PC. That figure is lower, say, than in Africa, but higher than in some other countries. It also is no longer so much less than a new PC, which can be had, sans software, for as little as $280.

One factor in the high cost for the program is the fact that the demand for the computers is so high that the program refurbishes nearly every donated PC that meets its minimum specifications--at least a Pentium II processor and 128MB of memory. As a result, the organization often has to supplement old parts with new. The parts that most frequently need replacement are system memory and hard disks, although new speakers and floppy drives (yes, each machine has a floppy) are often needed as well.

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Other say the machines are just too slow. Among those with that view is Dario Montoya, who heads the national SENA job training program.

In an interview after graduating a new crop of students from its SENA's IT skills program, Montoya said the refurbished computers won't help the country get the software developers it needs to truly compete.

"At this very table six months ago, I had the minister of communication and the minister of education," Montoya said. "I told them that Computadores para Educar must change."

Although the program has distributed around 100,000 computers, he said that 60 percent are now more than 6 years old. "They are obsolete," he said. "We cannot continue to fool ourselves that was a good model."

Cecilia Maria Velez, Colombia's education minister, said she thinks a mix of technologies is best. "We think that it's very important for quantity to use refurbished computers but we think it is also important to have other kind of machines," she said.

The Internet question
For her the question boils down to whether or not the machines can connect to the Internet. "The point is connectivity and capacity to use connectivity," she said. "That is the line."

Velez pushes back when she gets complaints that the machines are too old." I fight with them," she said. "Before you haven't anything; now at least you have this slow thing."

A teacher from the Funsa school, which has benefitted from the program, brought some students to see the facility here on Tuesday. Asked about the debate of old versus new, he said it all depends on the students. With elementary school students, he said, it's all about getting more time to interact with the machines. In those cases, more machines is better, even if they are older. By high school, though, he said the needs of students are simply outpacing the machines.

Maria del Rosario Guerra, an economist by training and now the country's communications minister, said she wants Computadores Para Educar to hit a critical mass of schools with their first computers in the next couple of years. "After that, Computadores para Educar must move to work toward new strategy."