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Media and Education in the Digital Age

Concepts, Assessments, Subversions

Edited By Matteo Stocchetti

This book is an invitation to informed and critical participation in the current debate on the role of digital technology in education and a comprehensive introduction to the most relevant issues in this debate. After an early wave of enthusiasm about the emancipative opportunities of the digital «revolution» in education, recent contributions invite caution, if not scepticism. This collection rejects extreme interpretations and establishes a conceptual framework for the critical questioning of this role in terms of concepts, assessments and subversions. This book offers conceptual tools, ideas and insights for further research. It also provides motivation and information to foster active participation in debates and politics and encourages teachers, parents and learners to take part in the making of the future of our societies.
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Teaching with Laptops: A Critical Assessment of One-to-One Technologies

Teaching With Laptops: A Critical Assessment of One-to-one Technologies

Magda Pischetola


In recent years Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have become the main keyword for school innovation. There has been an increasing amount of literature on how traditional teaching methodologies should be redesigned in order to include the use of technology. However, few studies have recognized that school innovation especially requires investments in human capability – not technology – to respond to the demands of the information age. The chapter presents a comparative qualitative research carried on between 2009 and 2012 in primary schools in Italy, Ethiopia and Brazil. The examined programs – One Laptop Per Child in Italy and Ethiopia; Um Computador por Aluno in Brazil – provided children with low-cost and low-power laptops, designed both for didactical and personal use, with the purpose to actively involve them in knowledge construction. The findings illustrate how difficult it is for teachers to deal with a new setting of didactics, and how important is to provide them with the necessary training and institutional support, in order to enhance a meaningful process of school innovation.


The question of how to bring about a real transformation of teaching and learning touches one of the most relevant issues in the debate about the use of technology in education. On the one hand, it is generally agreed upon that traditional educational practices should be redesigned through ecological approaches that include the possibilities given by the interaction with the digital media and the engaging dynamics of web 2.0 (Bucy & Newhagen, 2004; Buckingham & Willet, 2006). On the other hand, there has been relatively little research regarding the influence of the situational contexts on digital technology integration, or on the importance of values and habits intrinsic to the local school and community culture (Pischetola, 2011; Warschauer, 2003).

Launched in 2005 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC, on the Internet at the URL: initiative and its design of a $100 laptop for developing countries has popularized the concept of “one-to-one” technologies, which are essentially low-cost personal digital devices to facilitate learning for school-aged children. Using different devices – a PC, laptop, handheld, or tablet PC – many other projects around the world reproduced the OLPC pedagogical idea over the past years. One of them is the ← 203 | 204 → Brazilian Um Computador por Aluno (UCA, on the Internet at the URL: which, except for the use of a different laptop, is an exact reproduction of OLPC.

The key pedagogical intention behind the design of these projects is the Activity Theory framework, which argues that students can generate new knowledge from their direct experience of the world (Cole, 1991; Engeström, 1987; Leontiev, 1981; Vygostky, 1978).

The approach has its roots in Vygotsky’s theory of collaborative learning (1978), which points out the need to provide a space for interaction between student and teacher where learning occurs. By introducing the concept of “Zone of Proximal Development”, the author analyzes the development of skills from the interaction with others and concludes that the construction of knowledge is an interactive process. In this perspective, learning should be considered a social activity. This not only requires the development of the individual, but also the presence of the community to which he belongs.

Ever since Vygotsky’s foundational work, the Activity Theory has to deal with questions of diversity and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives (Engeström, 1987, 6). The basic premise of this theory is that knowledge is first constructed in a social context and is then taken up by individuals, influenced by their background, culture or embedded worldview (Cole, 1991). In this sense, the Activity Theory considers every kind of human activity as object-oriented, collective and culturally mediated. Stating that all knowledge is the result of an active construction endorsed by the subject, it claims that “instead of just individual transformation, development should be viewed as collective transformation” (Engeström, 1987).

The purpose of the research here presented was to identify what the rationale of this educational trend is, what the first observable students’ achievements through the access of one-to-one technologies are, and what could be considered positive and negative aspects that make a difference in a classroom where every child owns a connected computer.

Activity Theory and one-to-one technology

The pedagogical stance promoted by the OLPC and the UCA projects holds that students should learn by doing, while the teacher’s role is to mentor the learner, as a facilitator of the whole process. The idea is inspired by the Activity Theory approach, and it argues that students generate new knowledge from their direct experiences, building it on the notions and information they already hold (Papert, 1983). On these grounds, every child who has access to a mobile digital ← 204 | 205 → device is expected to become an active participant in a learning community, and contribute to a substantial change of the traditional school environment, where students are generally passive consumers of knowledge (Greeno et al., 1996). According to the OLPC mission statement, “it is an educational project, not a laptop project” (OLPC website: Giving children direct access to a personal technology will involve them actively into knowledge construction processes, improve their learning approach and broaden their opportunities for social inclusion.

This study is an attempt to address the issue of students’ and teachers’ engagement with technology. Three areas of skills development are identified as crucial in the purpose of the one-to-one initiatives: digital literacy, collaboration, and problem solving. The figure below illustrates their core elements.


Fig. 1: Expected skills development with one-to-one technology

1) Digital literacy

ICT has changed the landscape of information access, and made a framework integrating various kinds of literacy necessary. What is required nowadays is the ability to understand information and – more importantly – to evaluate and integrate information in multiple formats that the computer can deliver (Gilster, 1997). Hence, if the ability to construct information from multimedia tools is lacking, ← 205 | 206 → then however good the operational skills are, information will not be capitalized on effectively. In a one-to-one perspective, teachers have to guide their pupils towards the development of meaningful and complex digital skills, which comprise the ability to use the media strategically (Jenkins, 2006; Van Dijk, 2005).

2) Collaboration

According to constructivists, the process of sharing other persons’ points of view results in learners building understanding together that would not be achievable alone. This process is known as collaborative elaboration (Brown & Campione, 1994) and allows learners to discover principles, concepts and facts that make sense for them (Mills, 2010). Central to collaborative learning is Vygotsky’s concept of “Zone of Proximal Development” (1978), where learners are challenged within close proximity to, yet slightly above, their current level of development. The ultimate goal of this approach is the embodiment of a method of learning that makes the subject progressively autonomous in their cognitive acts. Transferred to the one-to-one programs, the model is that of the community of learners in which each member is at the same time apprentice and teacher (Ligorio, 1994).

3) Problem solving

The logical-mathematical intelligence – as Gardner (2006) points out in his major work – not only has to do with numbers and abstractions, but also with reasoning, critical thinking, and the capacity to understand the underlying principles of some kind of causal system. In an evolutionary perspective, this intelligence is available to the individual as a means to enhance his or her adaptation to the environment, finding the best solution to the problems that could be offered (Fabio, 2002). This results in the cognitive ability to respond to these demands autonomously, as well as in openness to divergent thinking in the future (Robinson, 2001). As a consequence of a new learning setting, teachers have to adapt to the role of facilitators, paying attention to both content and cognitive strategies (Vattimo, 2002). Instead of didactic lectures that cover the subject matters, the teacher has to support the learner to get his/her own understanding of the content, through a process of heuristic problem solving.

The present research was designed to examine if school-aged children engaged in laptop immersion programs are more likely to learn how to learn, in a perspective that includes the three mentioned skills areas. It centers on the relationship between these skills and the evidence of a change in the learning environment, drawing upon the assumption that technology represents only one of the aspects that will promote school innovation. The foregoing discussion aims at identifying ← 206 | 207 → what the elements of a successful program implementation are. The main issue under scrutiny is the teachers’ reaction to the laptop presence in the classroom.

Three comparative case studies: Italy, Ethiopia, and Brazil

This section introduces a comparative research on three case studies. The first two were conducted in Italian and Ethiopian primary schools, where OLPC was implemented, during the school year 2008–2009. The third one was carried out in Brazil with the same methodology, on the parallel UCA program, in 2012. The research question that drives them is whether a one-to-one technology approach can bring about the envisaged educational change, and what the key elements of success are. It starts from the initial hypothesis that the expected change in a learning environment will mainly relate to the teachers’ attitude towards the didactical use of the new device.

Research methodology

The fieldwork research followed a qualitative methodology, based on three different tools:

  • Participant observation in the classrooms throughout the school year (10/country);
  • Focus groups with children at the end of the school year (10/country);
  • Intensive interviews with teachers and coordinators throughout the school year (20/country).

In all three contexts the sample was composed by schools equally distributed in rural and urban areas.

In Italy, the area for fieldwork research was the province of Brescia, where the regional school board had distributed 300 laptops in 10 different primary schools. In terms of availability and access to ICT, 84% of children of the sample already had a computer at home before they received the OLPC laptop. Those who did not have access to technology were mainly children of immigrant families, which compose 18% of the examined classrooms.

In Ethiopia the Engineering Capacity Building Programme (ECBP website: was in charge of distributing 5000 XO laptops, of which 300 were donated by Italy as a result of the 2007 Give One, Get One promotion1, to Ethiopian primary schools. In the sample the research included ← 207 | 208 → all three primary schools that were part of the project: two schools located in the capital of the country, Addis Ababa, and one in the rural area of Mullo Sayyo (Oromia region). None of them were connected to the Internet. The infrastructure for Internet connection in the whole country is still very limited and this is the main reason why the service is very expensive. Even among children of the urban area, coming from a higher socio-economical background, only 6% had seen a computer before the OLPC project.

The last fieldwork research, held three years later on a different one-to-one program, the Brazilian Um Computador por Aluno, could not include all the primary schools that received laptops in the sample. This led us to select four of them: two situated in the South of the country, in Santa Catarina state, and the other two located in Bahia, in the north-east region of the country. While Santa Catarina is a state with a generally high socio-economical level, Bahia is one of the Brazilian states with the highest rates of school drop-outs and the worst educational infrastructures (IBGE, 2010).

The overall data collection involved 30 classrooms, and led to a total of 30 focus groups with pupils and 60 interviews with the teachers/coordinators. The study was based on a set of questions:

  • What is the impact of a one-to-one technology introduction in the local educational system?
  • How was technology integrated into the existing teaching methodologies?
  • How does the laptop influence both children’s and teachers’ skills development?
  • Does the development of new skills result in a change of the learning environment?
  • If there was a change, can it be considered towards school innovation, and why?

The study involved discovering how the whole community reacted to the introduction of a new didactic tool in a traditional educational setting, considering both advantages and disadvantages. It is premised on the awareness of the difficulty of isolating one variable – such as technology – in a complex concept such as student achievement, especially considering that the data were gathered in the relatively short time of a school year.

The method used for data analysis is the one suggested by the authors of Grounded Theory (Glaser& Strauss, 1967). The transcribed texts are read with an inductive approach, in which individual events, situations and personal opinions are grouped to form general categories of interpretation. The analysis of the data collected gives some interesting information. ← 208 | 209 →

Main findings

In all three contexts, the findings suggest that technology certainly does have a role in encouraging discovery learning and knowledge sharing.

In Italy, the study shows the beginning of a culture of “disseminated leadership” (Pischetola, 2010), which highlights an increased active participation in school activities among less-motivated students. Teachers underline how the laptop helped socially excluded children – especially the second generation immigrants – to become the most respected students in the class, after being recognized by the group of peers as the “experts” in technology. This links up to personal motivation as the real key for change and innovation. In fact, as literature has often pointed out (Maslow, 1954; Glasersfeld, 1989; Van Dijk, 2005), motivation to learn is strongly dependent on the learner’s belief in his/her potential for learning.

In Ethiopia, the results call for placing value on the role of active students, and their initiative in innovative uses of technology in education. The outcomes identified that one-to-one technology embodies an ethos, in which social support acts as the core of the learning process. Among the three researched contexts, Ethiopian children were the most creative users of the laptop. They employed effective search strategies to access new information, texts, images, and videos, facing the absence of an Internet connection through the construction of an impressive social network among them. They collaborated to provide each other technical support and were able to produce interesting and esthetically beautiful graphic contents.

In Brazil, one of the most striking results to emerge from the data is that older students, who also received the laptop, imposed to themselves a self-regulating frame about the use of the Internet at school. Whenever the rules for the use of the laptop were not clear and led to distraction (or web addiction), teenagers reacted by building their own set of rules, basically looking for self-discipline. Another issue that is worth commenting on is the very positive result given by collaboration between children and teachers, in those schools where the direction asked students to contribute to laptop integration. The correlation between these results is interesting because of the value that pupils’ help represents for teachers, weather they accepted it explicitly or not.

It is clear from the above that collaboration and problem solving skills were comprehensively detected in different proportions in all the examined contexts. However, it must also be noted that digital literacy was not attained by many: the skills achieved by students and teachers are mainly technical, operational competences. In fact, technology was considered by the majority simply as a new tool, more than a new space for work. This finding has important implications for reflecting on the general meaning of school innovation. The most crucial ← 209 | 210 → point which arose in the research is that the integration of a new technology at school represents an enormous challenge to teachers’ established methodology. The OLPC/UCA constructivist approach expects the teacher to support the children’s spontaneous desire to discover, and turn the class into a learning community (Brown & Campione, 1994). It is important to stress this, assuming that the teacher’s attitude has an impact on the class attitude and on the perception that children – and families – have of the new tool.

One of the most interesting results of the research in the schools of Italy, Ethiopia and Brazil concerns the approach of teachers to a new teaching situation. In the cross-analysis of the data, we can identify methodological differences among the teachers that we have grouped into four categories (Pischetola, 2011).

  1. Traditional method. Some teachers have received the laptop with caution. Their manner of using computers in teaching has been the traditional way, where the children were asked to follow the steps outlined by the teacher. This prevented the children from learning by discovery and, in general, increased dispersion in the classroom. Whenever this approach has not changed during the school year, a gradual loss of control and authority was observed among teachers, with a feeling of frustration and disappointment that turned into a negative perception of the project.
  2. Interactive method. The attitude of the teacher is rather open to dialogue with the students, with the results of much greater participation than the traditional frontal method. Children are often called to the blackboard and there is always an involvement of the class, with competitive dynamics that act as a positive stimulus to the attention. The computer is partially integrated in teaching, although more as a tool to support education than as an element of structural change.
  3. Driven experimentation. Instead of waiting for the teacher’s instructions, pupils are encouraged to direct the desire for discovery to solve specific tasks. Their assignment concerns not only searching for new information, but also using their existing knowledge to build new skills. It goes without saying that a methodology of this kind encourages collaboration between students, joined in the search for a solution or in the advancement of a task. As for what concerns the teacher, he/she controls the progress of activities by giving constant feedback to the pupils and reinforcing their motivation.
  4. Free experimentation. The teacher leaves full freedom for learners to experience individual paths of discovery, and assumes that the child possesses a greater curiosity than the adult, as well as better technological expertise. Moreover, the teacher puts himself/herself at a peer level with the pupils, sharing the learning ← 210 | 211 → process with them, both of the laptop features and their application in didactics. Interestingly, observations have demonstrated this methodology to result in distraction more commonly than in focused work practices, as the students often perceived the free experimentation of the laptop as simple recreational activity.

A comparison of these results reveals that the approach that can be considered closest to the constructivist model of teaching is the one we called driven experimentation. However, it is also the teaching methodology that was least observed in the surveyed classes. In fact, most of the interviewed teachers pointed out the difficulty of managing the role of facilitator of a discovery process, and explained their resistance to this methodology with three main reasons.

Firstly, there is a challenge related to the class size and student-teacher ratio. In Brazil the classes of primary schools can consist of 40 students. In Ethiopia the number of pupils sometimes reaches 60 per class. Moreover, we should consider the socio-cultural issues that make the teachers’ work conditions even more critical. In Italy, for example, in a class of 25 children 20% are immigrants, which represents a problem in communication and mutual comprehension (ISMU, 2007). In Ethiopia, students start school with different ages, which results in classes that are very heterogeneous (Hartel, 2008). And in Brazil, schools face challenging structural problems, given the unequal access to education and its quality, and the excessive drop-out rate (EFA, 2000).

Secondly, giving space to collaboration concretely means that the teacher has to face a setting where children move in the classroom, compare their results and help each other. Many teachers experience this as a very difficult situation to handle, both in terms of time and space. They often shared their worries during the interviews, about the use of the laptop not being compatible with the requests from the school system, where lessons are 45 or 50 minutes long, which is not even enough time to give the students a clear task, switch on all the computers (facing all kind of very frequent technical problems), and start working. And teachers still have to cover all contents of their subject, give evaluations, and comply with the lesson plans.

Thirdly, OLPC states that the laptop should be transversal to all disciplines. This means teachers should collaborate to design the contents and build interdisciplinary projects. But the way schools structure teachers’ time does not give them any spare time to meet and discuss their didactics together. They hardly find the time for training, and only if the management of the school cares about it. The one-to-one technology programs implicitly expect teachers to work in their free time to learn about the use of the laptop in didactics. A minority of teachers (10 to 20% of the researched samples) do, and the findings show that these are also the ones ← 211 | 212 → who achieved the best results in building a learning community in their classes. The question is then: do we expect school innovation to happen spontaneously, as a result of teachers’ personal motivation?

To sum up, teacher motivation and his/her methodology– as well as the personal conviction of the importance of the technology– are critical issues for the integration of a new tool in teaching and learning. And yet, they are not always spontaneous elements: they depend on the teacher’s socio-cultural background, the working context and conditions, the school administration, the technical support, the exchange and collaboration with colleagues.

Lessons learned and future work

In the constructivist model of learning which is at the base of one-to-one initiatives around the world, the teacher’s role is to mentor the learner by enabling quested problem solving and allowing creation of new knowledge (Calvani, 2001; Glasersfeld, 1989). Nevertheless, the evidence of the OLPC/UCA deployments in Italy, Ethiopia and Brazil suggest teachers often do not have the required capability to adapt their methods to participatory learning. That is because the one-to-one formula brings into focus the need of a change of the traditional hierarchal relationships between teachers and pupils. It calls for a new learning paradigm, but at the same time it does not consider how teachers will coordinate the use of a new device in their overcrowded classrooms without receiving any methodological assistance. One major drawback of this approach is that a connected laptop on every student’s desk is obviously not only a tool, but more – as in the words of a Brazilian teacher – as giving children the world. The great majority of the interviewed teachers recognized the importance of technology for school innovation, but also expressed their frustration over a new classroom setting which is difficult for them to manage. They universally agreed on the need for more assistance in incorporating technology into the curriculum, and for a slower assimilation in their didactics through training.

Further analysis revealed that the OLPC approach failed to take cultural and methodological aspects into account. In some cases, as it happened in Ethiopia, fostering cooperation and exchange of knowledge between teachers and pupils would mean to completely change established didactic methods towards a child-centered approach, which is not acknowledged as effective in the local culture. The lack of a needs analysis before the implementation of laptop programs might result in a distortion of the innovation concept and lead to a reproduction of the same traditional teaching methodology, which merely substitutes an old tool (the ← 212 | 213 → textbook) with a newer one (the laptop). That is to say that rather than being an innovative solution, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what is already occurring in schools, for better or worse.

These observations suggest that the provision of technology alone will not change education. Not only are the tools needed in the knowledge culture, but also the motivation, the enthusiasm for taking initiative, and the satisfaction of achieving goals (Ferneding, 2003). Certainly, for school innovation to occur, it is necessary to disrupt the teacher-centered approach, and place the learner at the center of the learning process. However, it should be considered that it is challenging for teachers to adopt this approach, as it involves a change, sometimes radical, in their work. Moreover, there are cultural aspects to take into account when implementing a project with technology in a new reality. Many initiatives addressing school innovation through technology expect positive results without enough preparation of the teachers, adequate planning and a sufficient infrastructure. On the contrary, it is our belief that a systemic strategy for school innovation will position technology as an assistant tool for teachers, rather than the other way around. It will provide a more comprehensive cultural approach, particularly taking into account the teachers’ needs, including technical support and systematic cycles of training. That is to say, transformation of learning environments is unlikely to happen by itself in a spontaneous process. A systemic approach is needed, if the program is to achieve some of the desired educational goals.


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  1.    Give 1 Get 1 Program information can be found at the URL