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Access to I.T.

Citrix UK’s Clare Leighton explains why giving I.T. devices a makeover is a win for kids, schools and the environment
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Access to I.T.

This article first appeared in our Ethical Shopping issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 30 October 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

When schools went into lockdown, my sons had very different experiences.

One was in primary school and had no remote teaching at all – and by teaching I mean the actual act of teaching as I see it: imparting knowledge from one human to another, rather than sending home worksheets.

My other son’s school started out badly but got better, though only around 30-40% of his curriculum was being ‘taught’ in live virtual lessons.

When I enquired into the reasons for this, I was given three: the teachers didn’t want to conduct lessons online, there were issues around data protection and privacy and the digital divide meant that not all children would have access to devices. So rather than levelling up, as we had been promised, education was being levelled down.

It seems that many school pupils had a very similar experience. According to research from University College London, seven out of 10 children from state schools had a maximum of one online lesson per day, while almost a third of private schools were providing four or more lessons.

Ofcom estimates that in the UK, between 1.14 and 1.78 million children (around 9%) have no home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. In many cases, devices that are available are shared between entire families, so access doesn’t necessarily guarantee good quality access.

Nevertheless, I was fairly shocked to be given this as a reason for a school not to be providing live lessons.

Joining the dots

At work I was devising a marketing campaign around sustainable I.T.; one of the pillars was around the reuse of devices to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted during manufacture (embodied emissions) and any harmful toxins emitted during a device’s destruction.

I remembered a message I’d received from Keith Sonnet, CEO of Computer Aid – an organisation that is ISO and GDPR certified to take old computer equipment away, wipe it, rebuild it and usually send it to the developing world.

I also thought about two initiatives I’d been involved with: Vodafone’s Instant Classrooms and Instant Network Schools, which were effectively ‘classrooms in a suitcase’ used to create schools in refugee camps.

I wondered whether there could be a way to combine Citrix technology, old devices, Computer Aid’s facilities and public goodwill – as seen through the ventilator challenge – to solve the problem.

I spoke to our techies and Keith at Computer Aid, and it seemed the answer was a resounding yes.

PCs get a digital makeover

Gerry Lavin, product marketing manager and Northern Europe sustainability lead at Citrix, explains how it could work: ‘One of the goals of Citrix technology is to decouple work from locations. People need spaces to be creative and productive. People also need spaces in which they can learn, develop and thrive. The technology that allows someone to access any application from any location can also play a role in levelling the access to online education.’

In the words of William Gibson, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ To give broader access we need to rethink how we deliver educational services.

‘In a world where cloud computing is ubiquitous, the majority of students do not need a high-specification device as their endpoint’, Gerry explains. ‘Older and lower powered
devices can provide the same great educational experience; an old, unloved device – potentially on its way to landfill – can be given a new lease of life.’

One interesting approach is the CloudReady solution from Neverware, which can turn any device – like an old computer sitting idle in the office – into a Chromebook.

One third of PCs were ‘furloughed’ during lockdown and not actively used. With a digital makeover, an unused device can become an educational tool that supports distance learning while schools are closed.

‘Not every application is available in Chrome and there are many Mac and Windows devices out there’, Gerry continues. ‘That’s where a digital workspace solution like Citrix Workspace becomes essential.’

Regardless of the operating system or capability of the device, a student with Citrix Workspace can access all the applications and data they need. They will get a secure and performant experience without any unnecessary friction. The University of Cambridge took advantage of this approach and replaced power-hungry computers with efficient and inexpensive Raspberry Pi devices.

‘Now we are aware of the size of the digital divide and the implication it has on the education and opportunity for many of the most vulnerable children in our society, there must be an obligation to ensure that these children have access to the internet and an adequate device at home.’


‘The workspace solution that provides access to applications from anywhere allows an organisation to reduce the number of devices its employees need’, Gerry says. ‘This also supports Bring Your Own Device policies, which may in turn free up older devices. Instead of these devices going into landfill, they could be donated to charitable programmes and repurposed.’

A win-win solution

In my utopian world, Gavin Williamson would stand at the lectern at the daily press conference and ask companies up and down the land to throw open their I.T.

cupboards and send their old devices to Computer Aid, where they would be wiped and shipped out to children or other vulnerable groups.

Kids would get access to technology that’s unlikely to go wrong, and wouldn’t need to worry about antivirus updates. They wouldn’t be put in the vulnerable position of having to carry around expensive I.T. kit. Schools wouldn’t carry the financial burden of providing brand new equipment to support students, but would still be able to offer them a proper digital education.

The cost savings are clear – using existing hardware, rather than buying new, has obvious financial appeal – and the benefits for the environment are huge.

Computer Aid already has the facilities, the technology, the distribution networks through the Local Government Association, the business model and the ISO accreditations: it just needs the donated devices.

Tackling e-waste

In March, the Environmental Audit Committee re-launched an inquiry into Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy. This inquiry will explore how the UK could reduce its environmental impact, create economic opportunities and maintain access to critical materials by better managing and minimising its electronic waste (e-waste).

The number of connected devices in the UK continues to increase dramatically and shows no sign of slowing; that’s to say nothing of the CO2 that goes into the manufacture and disposal of devices.

When it comes to end-user computer devices, the best way to reduce emissions is by not creating them in the first place.

Dell estimates that one of its laptops uses 350kg CO2 over a four-year lifespan, but of this 150kg is in the manufacture. This means that every reused device saves 150kg of CO2.

It’s also estimated that each person generates 29.4kg of e-waste each year, so reusing around 500,000 laptops at approximately 2kg each would make a significant dent in the UK’s targeted reductions.

With a new lifespan of five to six years, a reused device would last long enough to see a student through one school.

The government response

On 19 April 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the provision of laptops and 4G routers as well as the creation of Oak National Academy. The new enterprise, set up by 40 teachers, would provide access to online learning across a range of subjects including maths, arts and languages.

It later transpired that Oak National would only be available to children whose schools had enrolled, and the cost of these laptops was set at £85m.

The cost and efficacy of the laptops scheme has been widely criticised; first, an extra £3m was needed for security, and then there were problems with distribution.

Donate your old laptops

According to a question in the House of Commons on 28 August, there were 540,000 children eligible under the government’s scheme, but only 200,000 devices and 50,000 internet routers to give away.

During the lockdown period, Computer Aid has donated 1,289 devices to 61 organisations, but it has a waiting list of students and vulnerable adults, including people in hospitals, care homes and social care settings.

This is a rallying call, UK PLC: please open your I.T. cupboards, get out any old laptops and get in touch with Computer Aid.

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Citrix UK’s Clare Leighton explains why giving I.T. devices a makeover is a win for kids, schools and the environment.

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