Infrastructures for Low Cost Laptop Use in Mexican Schools


In the last five years, there has been a strong push to create low-cost laptops for children in developing countries. These efforts--from the computer industry, non-governmental organizations, and governments--were triggered by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, which sought to create radical educational change by massively distributing its XO laptop to developing countries.

Envisioned as a response to the problems of educational systems in the developing world, including shortage of teachers and lack of material resources, the XO laptop purportedly embodied the principles of constructionist pedagogy to empower students to learn on their own, without support from teachers. Constructionism departs from traditional education by emphasizing students' construction of their own artifacts and knowledge.

The XO's most prominent competitor is the ClassmatePC, created by Intel. Unlike the XO approach, the ClassmatePC was designed to be compatible with and integrated into traditional educational systems. Large sales deals recently secured by Intel in Brazil and Argentina are signaling a growing market preference for the ClassmatePC.

To further understand the role of laptops in elementary education in developing regions, we conducted case study research on laptop programs in a select group of Mexican schools. From research conducted in developed countries, we know that successful school laptop programs need supporting socio-technical infrastructures, such as electricity, networks and tech-support infrastructures, as well as trained teachers, staff, and pedagogical materials.

HCI research has started to look at educational ICTs in developing countries, but the laptop as an educational tool is yet to be investigated. A body of research is needed to design educational technologies that can be supported in resource-constrained environments.

The objective of our research was to understand which resources constituted the socio-technical infrastructures that supported the use of laptops in elementary education in a developing country, the specific functions of these infrastructures, and how these infrastructures were created in resource-constrained environments. We found an ecology of socio-technical infrastructures supporting the laptop programs in schools.

These infrastructures included the laptops; physical infrastructures, such as the electrical system, buildings, and furniture; and social and organizational infrastructures, such as management, technical support, pedagogical support, and parental involvement. The educational impact of laptops did not solely depend on the economic resources of the school or on the type of laptops used.

Although the socio-economic status (SES) of the schools affected their ability to build infrastructures, we found that the enthusiasm, commitment, and training of teachers, staff, parents, and students, along with the support of external organizations, helped create support infrastructures for laptops, despite limited resources. We found that what laptops can achieve depends heavily on school context, including factors such as teacher preferences, organizational values, and existing norms.

In this paper, we discuss how school communities achieved, or did not achieve, the support infrastructures for these laptops. Our study explains the mundane tasks by which people created complex socio-technical support infrastructures when resources were constrained.

Finally, we articulate some of the opportunities for ICT designers in supporting technology-enabled educational change, such as leveraging the assets of school communities implementing laptop programs, empowering the community to create the support infrastructures for laptop usage, and considering implementation models other than one-to-one computing.


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