How to repurpose PCs for home schooling

Local Schools have told us they have a problem making sure all their pupils, however disadvantaged, can learn from home.  With many parents already working at home and perhaps other children also self-isolating, there often aren’t enough screens to go around.  After talking this problem over with a number of schools and a few technical experts this is what the Parish has set up.

Keeping it simple

We decided to simply ask for the donation of laptops, then repurpose each machine and then give the repurposed machine to a school for them to manage thereafter.

What schools need

The basic requirement varies slightly between schools, some use Google Classroom others use alternative systems.  The basic requirement is:

  • A screen
  • Microphone, Camera and Speakers
  • A web browser
  • Laptops, not desktops as these are unmanageable in some home environments and there are too many cables to come loose

You might want to consider loading additional software

  • We decided to add an opensource office suite Libreoffice
  • … and other conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype

We have decided to use OpenSource software for two reasons:

  1. To avoid any licencing issues
  2. Generally Linux uses less computing power

Hardware and safety

Handling donated hardware

During the Covid pandemic you need to be careful.  You should carry out your own risk assessment taking into account your own circumstances.  This is what we do:

One of our younger volunteers collects donated hardware by giving the donor a zip top plastic bag.  The donor puts it inside and he takes the hardware back to his car.

We then let the hardware ‘cool off’ for a few days.

After an initial external inspection hardware is then PAT tested by an electrician, before passing to volunteers to wipe and load new software.

Hardware ‘triage’

Not every donated laptop is going to be suitable, but we decided not to set out minimum requirements as this might deter people form donating their old Laptops.  We currently accept any laptop or tablet.  Once we receive donations:

  • We repurpose all suitable machines
  • We will restore any marginal machines e.g. by replacing missing keytops or missing power bricks
  • You may want to replace conventional hard disk drives with solid state drives, but often the slower machines lack cameras or other essential features
  • Where machines are beyond use we wipe them and send them away to be recycled NB old iPads can also be sold

Wiping donated PCs, Installing Linux Mint and Applications

1. Wiping the Disk

Below are the instructions from Minitool Web Site.  https://www.partitionwizard.com/help/wipe-disk.html

When wiping the PC please select one of the DoD standards as this is what we have promised the people donating their old PCs.

About Wipe Disk

Wipe Disk can destroy all information in selected disks safely and permanently. This function can ensure the security of users’ privacy as well as unwanted data, and prevent someone from recovering those data.

Once the Wipe Disk operation is carried out by MiniTool Partition Wizard, the data will not be recovered by any data recovery software. If users employ the method of DoD 5220.28-STD, the data can’t be recovered by any data recovery solutions.

How to Wipe a Disk

Step 1. Launch the program to enter its main interface shown below. Then select the disk which needs to be wiped and choose Wipe Disk from the left action panel or from the right-click menu.

Tip 1: If you run the Wipe Disk from the MiniTool Partition Wizard program loaded on the PC and you are wiping the C: Drive the program will crash at the end of the job as it no longer exists!  Our preference is to create a Bootable USB drive using the Bootable Media icon ringed below and then do the operation from there.  It does mean that the process can be run without accessing anything on the target machine.

Step 2. Choose one of the five wiping methods listed on the pop-out window and click OK. Different wiping methods cost different time and bring different security. To be specific, the more time it costs, the higher security you enjoy.

Tip 2: Wiping with zero/one/zero & one achieve a similar result by preventing data recovery programs from retrieving data.  If you apply the latter two DoD methods, then all kinds of data recovery approaches are ineffective.

Step 3. Repeat the wipe process for any other physical drives on the machine.

Now users can see the selected disk becomes unallocated, which means it will be wiped thoroughly. At this time, please click Apply button to perform all changes.

2. Loading Linux

There are loads of versions of LINUX and even several of LINUX Mint.  We are standardising on LINUX Mint Cinnamon (latest available version) because:

  • LINUX Mint is easier to install and comes packaged with a desktop etc
  • The Cinnamon desktop is similar to Windows 10 so will be easier for children to use if they are used to Windows 10

If you want to read further visit https://linuxmint.com/

And to download the latest build which might save the several PCs you are building from updating later https://linuxmint.com/download.php

  1. Before you begin, find out how to get the PC you are repurposing to boot from either a USB drive or CD/DVD.  Repeatedly hitting one of the ‘F’ keys during the boot process should stop the machine booting into Windows.  See the Appendix below for more information.
  2. Power-off the PC.
  3. Connect the USB drive or load the CD/DVD.
  4. Power on the PC and it should boot from the USB or CD/DVD.
  5. After a while the PC will load Linux working off the USB/CD/DVD.  NB LINUX is running from your temporary drive, you haven’t loaded LINUX onto the PC yet.
  6. Click on the install Linux Mint icon on the screen below. Then follow your nose through the following dialogue screens:

You might have to experiment with the keyboard as otherwise inverted commas and @ signs get confused

Connect to WiFi you will need this to apply the latest updates and load further software.

Select restart.  You will receive a message ‘Please remove the installation medium and press ENTER’

Most unhelpfully nothing will seem to happen for a while until you hear the PC’s fan start up and the installation can take ages.  If you press the [ESC] button, you’ll probably see loads of commands whizzing past too fast to read.

3. Setup and loading application software

Next work your way through the ‘Welcome’ and ‘First Steps’.

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  • There will almost certainly be updates for Linux
  • LibreOffice should already be loaded but please check
  • Skype can be loaded via the software manager
  • But Zoom will have to be loaded direct from www.zoom.us NB some later Linux builds may include Zoom
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Notice in the above screen shot that the system icon has a red blob.  This indicates updates should be applied.  Click on the shield, ‘select all’ and then ‘install updates’:

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It’ll take a while to download all the updates and apply them.

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You should now have a working Linux ‘laptop for a kid’.

You will probably have to restart the PC at the end.

Management & Record Keeping

It is a good idea to keep track of where each machine is as it goes from collection to PAT testing to a volunteer for wiping and new software installed, and eventually keep track of which machine went to which school … just in case.

Here’s an extract from a spreadsheet we keep on Google Drive:

Task/InformationComplete or Comment
DonorXXX XXXXXX
RefurbisherXXX XXXXXX
Date received11 October 2020
Leave to cool off for 72 hoursY
Complete visual inspection.  If something is broken put aside for spares and cannibalisationY
Clean externally with anti-bacterial sprayY
Clean keyboard with antibacterial spray, use cotton buds or similar to clean between the keys if necessaryY
Clean screen with screen cleanerY
Brand & ModelHewlett-Packard G56
Processor chipAMD Athlon II P320
Disk sizeWD2500BEVT 232GB
LINUX System Information*System:    Kernel: 5.4.0-52-generic x86_64 bits: 64 compiler: gcc v: 9.3.0 Desktop: Cinnamon 4.6.7            wm: muffin dm: LightDM Distro: Linux Mint 20 Ulyana base: Ubuntu 20.04 focal Machine:   Type: Laptop System: Hewlett-Packard product: HP G56 Notebook PC            v: 0596100000242710010020100 serial: <filter> Chassis: type: 10 serial: <filter>            Mobo: Hewlett-Packard model: 1604 v: 88.17 serial: <filter> BIOS: Hewlett-Packard            v: F.16 date: 02/15/2011 Battery:   ID-1: BAT0 charge: 21.1 Wh condition: 21.1/21.1 Wh (100%) volts: 12.4/10.8            model: Hewlett-Packard Primary serial: <filter> status: Full CPU:       Topology: Dual Core model: AMD Athlon II P320 bits: 64 type: MCP arch: K10 rev: 3            L2 cache: 1024 KiB            flags: lm nx pae sse sse2 sse3 sse4a svm bogomips: 8379            Speed: 800 MHz min/max: 800/2100 MHz Core speeds (MHz): 1: 800 2: 2100 Graphics:  Device-1: AMD RS880M [Mobility Radeon HD 4225/4250] vendor: Hewlett-Packard            driver: radeon v: kernel bus ID: 01:05.0 chip ID: 1002:9712            Display: x11 server: X.Org 1.20.8 driver: ati,radeon unloaded: fbdev,modesetting,vesa            resolution: 1366×768~60Hz            OpenGL: renderer: AMD RS880 (DRM 2.50.0 / 5.4.0-52-generic LLVM 10.0.0)            v: 3.3 Mesa 20.0.8 compat-v: 3.0 direct render: Yes Audio:     Device-1: AMD SBx00 Azalia vendor: Hewlett-Packard driver: snd_hda_intel v: kernel            bus ID: 00:14.2 chip ID: 1002:4383            Sound Server: ALSA v: k5.4.0-52-generic Network:   Device-1: Qualcomm Atheros AR9285 Wireless Network Adapter            vendor: Hewlett-Packard U98Z062.12 802.11bgn driver: ath9k v: kernel port: 3000            bus ID: 02:00.0 chip ID: 168c:002b            IF: wlo2 state: up mac: <filter>            Device-2: Realtek RTL810xE PCI Express Fast Ethernet vendor: Hewlett-Packard            driver: r8169 v: kernel port: 2000 bus ID: 03:00.0 chip ID: 10ec:8136            IF: enp3s0 state: down mac: <filter> Drives:    Local Storage: total: 233.01 GiB used: 9.63 GiB (4.1%)            ID-1: /dev/sda vendor: Western Digital model: WD2500BEVT-60A23T0 size: 232.89 GiB            speed: 3.0 Gb/s serial: <filter>            ID-2: /dev/sdb type: USB model: M-Sys DiskOnKey size: 125.2 MiB serial: <filter> Partition: ID-1: / size: 227.74 GiB used: 9.63 GiB (4.2%) fs: ext4 dev: /dev/sda5 USB:       Hub: 1-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 5 rev: 2.0 chip ID: 1d6b:0002            Device-1: 1-3:3            info: Silicon Motion – Taiwan (formerly Feiya ) HP Webcam-101 Integrated Camera            type: Video driver: uvcvideo rev: 2.0 chip ID: 090c:37bc            Hub: 2-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 5 rev: 2.0 chip ID: 1d6b:0002            Hub: 3-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 4 rev: 2.0 chip ID: 1d6b:0002            Hub: 4-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 5 rev: 1.1 chip ID: 1d6b:0001            Device-2: 4-1:2 info: M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers DiskOnKey type: Mass Storage            driver: usb-storage rev: 1.1 chip ID: 08ec:0010            Hub: 5-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 5 rev: 1.1 chip ID: 1d6b:0001            Device-3: 5-2:2 info: Logitech Optical Wheel Mouse type: Mouse            driver: hid-generic,usbhid rev: 2.0 chip ID: 046d:c016            Hub: 6-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 2 rev: 1.1 chip ID: 1d6b:0001            Hub: 7-0:1 info: Full speed (or root) Hub ports: 4 rev: 1.1 chip ID: 1d6b:0001 Sensors:   System Temperatures: cpu: 53.4 C mobo: N/A            Fan Speeds (RPM): N/A Repos:     No active apt repos in: /etc/apt/sources.list            Active apt repos in: /etc/apt/sources.list.d/official-package-repositories.list            1: deb http: //packages.linuxmint.com ulyana main upstream import backport            2: deb http: //mirror.sov.uk.goscomb.net/ubuntu focal main restricted universe multiverse            3: deb http: //mirror.sov.uk.goscomb.net/ubuntu focal-updates main restricted universe multiverse            4: deb http: //mirror.sov.uk.goscomb.net/ubuntu focal-backports main restricted universe multiverse            5: deb http: //security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/ focal-security main restricted universe multiverse            6: deb http: //archive.canonical.com/ubuntu/ focal partner            Active apt repos in: /etc/apt/sources.list.d/skype-stable.list            1: deb [arch=amd64] https: //repo.skype.com/deb stable main Info:      Processes: 170 Uptime: 43m Memory: 5.56 GiB used: 769.0 MiB (13.5%) Init: systemd            v: 245 runlevel: 5 Compilers: gcc: 9.3.0 alt: 9 Client: Unknown python3.8 client            inxi: 3.0.38  
Linux Mint CinnamonY
Wipe and shred the hard disk to DoD standards 3 pass minimum (guide 256GB disk takes 3-4 hours)Y
Load LibreOfficeY
Load SkypeY
Load ZoomY
Test multimedia by Skyping or Zooming another PC 
Microphone OK?Y
Camera OK?Y
Speakers OK?Y
Battery life after playing YouTube for 30 minutesAbout zero
Admin Logon NameChoose something easy to remember
Admin Logon PasswordChoose something easy to remember, the school should change the password
Student Logon Name 
Student Logon Password 
PAT tested 
School to which equipment donated 
Date donated 

* Paste System Information into a spreadsheet of some type, we use a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive?

SoftwareSizeInstalled
Linux Mint Cinnamon 20.1                      1.98GBYes
LibreOffice Suite                       201MBYes
Disk Wipe Tool – Minitool Partition Magic                         32MBNo

Appendix 1 : Modifying the BIOS Setup

Interrupting the Boot process

This works during the initial power up of the machine and possibly on a re-start.  The specific F key varies with manufacturer and firmware installed.  F1, F2, F3, F8, F10, ESC are common keys.  When the key is pressed may also be significant e.g. Compaq or HP machines require F10 to be pressed when the manufactures logo is displayed which can be several seconds after powering on.  There is plenty of information on the internet that covers most common laptops.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t work first time no damage is done.

Once into the Setup Menu there will be some form of menu or tabs to get access to the  System Configuration parameter that controls the order the machine looks for a bootable device.  Selection the bootable device order can be by assigning a device to the first Boot preference or by changing the order of the available options.   There is likely to a SAVE option shown somewhere on the display, often F10, which will SAVE the change and continue the boot process using the new setting.

The illustration below is the System Configuration display for a HP Envy Laptop.  Make sure the USB or CD/DVD device is before the internal hard drive.

If the first device in the list or 1st option is not available the machine will work down the list until a bootable device is detected.  In this case the second option is the internal hard drive.