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Ethics and Laptops: Identifying Social Responsibility Issues in Puerto Rico

Module by: William Frey, Jose A. Cruz-Cruz. E-mail the authors

Summary: This module is based on a hypothetical case with some very real implications. Students are placed in the perspective of decision-makers charged with implementing a project to give public school students in Puerto Rico laptop computers to facilitate their education. Then they are provided with a socio-technical system methodology to help them identify potential problems embedded in laptop technology. Using these tools, they identify and solve ethical and social problems that are likely to arise when public officials work to implement laptop computer technology into the Puerto Rican public school socio-technical system. This module is being developed as a part of an NSF-funded project, "Collaborative Development of Ethics Across the Curriculum Resources and Sharing of Best Practices," NSF SES 0551779.

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Module Introduction

While social responsibility has been recognized as one of the key areas of business ethics, much more needs to be done to develop frameworks and tools to clarify the concept itself and to implement it in business and professional practice on a day-to-day basis. This module will give students the opportunity to practice using frameworks and techniques that address these two needs.

Developing socio-technical system analyses provides an effective means to highlight issues of social responsibility. Since socio-technical systems embody values, building their descriptions allows us to read off potential problems due to harmful impacts and value conflicts. To facilitate this, you will be building socio-technical system descriptions using a grid or matrix that provides the components of socio-technical systems, levels under which they can be analyzed, and the values that they tend to embody. Building socio-technical system descriptions also requires using methods of participatory observation. These include constructing surveys and questionnaires, developing interviews, and building day-in-the-life scenarios. This module will help you frame and respond to social responsibility issues by providing a framework for socio-technical analysis and a set of methodological tools taken from participatory observation.

Module m14025 (Social-Technical Systems in Professional Decision Making) provides background information on STSs, their construction and their uses. Links to this module and to the website, Computing Cases, can be found in the upper left hand corner of this module. They provide useful background information. This module makes use of a case, Texas Laptops, that was developed by Chuck Huff and C. Nathan DeWall for NSF projects, DUE-9972280 and DUE-9980768.

Texas Laptop Case

  1. In the late 1990's, the Texas State Board of Education proposed the ambitious plan of providing each of the state's four million public school students with their own laptop computer. This plan was devised to solve several problems confronting Texas public education.
  2. Laptop computers could make educational resources more accessable to students who were faced with special challenges like deafness or blindness. Computers offer software options (such as audio books) that promise to reach more students than traditional printed textbooks.
  3. Laptops also promised to solve the problem of obsolete textbooks. Texas purchased textbooks for their students at considerable costs. The purchasing cycle ran six years. By the end of this cycle, textbooks were out of date. For example, in the late 1990's when the laptop plan was proposed, history textbooks still referred to the Soviet Union and to the existence of the Berlin Wall. Laptops, on the other hand, would present textbook content in digital form which would eliminate printing and shipping costs and facilitate updates through online downloads.
  4. Texas business leaders were concerned about the computer literacy of the upcoming generation of students. By employing laptops in more and more teaching activities, students would learn how to interact with computers while taking advantage of the new and more effective modes of presentation offered.
  1. However, adopting laptops also presented problems that critics quickly brought forth.
  2. Teachers would need to learn how to use laptop computers and would have to change their teaching to accomodate them in the classroom.
  3. Apparent cost savings disappeared upon further, closer examination. For example, it became clear that textbook publishers would not so easily give up the revenues they had come to depend upon that came from textbook purchases for public school students. Updates from downloads could turn out to be more expensive and eductional software could be coded to restrict access and dissemination.
  4. Further studies indicated that technical support costs would run two to three times initial outlays. Keeping laptop hardware and software up and running required technical support and continued investment.
  5. Texas found that while some school districts--the richer ones--had already begun projects to integrate computing technology, the poorer school districts would require considerable financial support.

To deal with these problems, Texas carried out several pilot projects that examined the effectiveness of laptop integration in select school districts. While several successes were reported a series of problems arose that led Texas Board of Educaton officials to postpone the laptop project. First, pilot projects depended on donations from private computing vendors. While some were forthcoming, others failed to deliver hardware on time and provided only minimal technical support. Second, teachers resisted laptop integration due to the extensive investment of time required to appropriate computing skills and the difficulty of modifying existing curricula and teaching styles to accomodate laptop hardware and software. Third, at that time the available educational software, such as digitalized textbooks, was expensive, inadequately developed, and narrowly focused on curricular areas such as writing and math practice. Teachers also began to develop more comprehensive and philosophical criticisms of laptop use. Education specialist, Larry Cuban, argued that while laptops provided good support for a vocational education, they failed to deliver on other educational goals such as teaching children how to interact with their peers and teachers and teaching children the civic virtues necessary to become active participants in a democratic form of government. Studies began to appear that argued that skills developed through computer use came at the expense of other, more social skills.

The Texas Laptop plan was never formally implemented beyond the pilot project phase. However, several computer integration projects have been carried out in other parts of the country. For example, Larry Cuban reports on computer integration projects carried out in Silicon Valley in California. MIT has developed a cheap laptop computer for use in developing nations. You can find a link to computer integration projects that have been implemented in Philadelphia public schools through the support of the Microsoft Foundation.

Students in computer ethics classes at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez have looked into the feasibility of integrating laptops in the public school socio-technical system in Puerto Rico. They began by looking at the project to provide public school teachers with laptops that was carried out in the late 1990's under the Pedro Rossello administration. The student research projects came to focus on three problem areas. First, they examined whether there were structures in laptop design that made computers unfit for use by children. Second, they studied whether social or ethical problems would arise from disposal of spent laptops. Third, they investigated the impact on copyright law and intellectual property practices that digitalizing printed textbooks would have.

Exercise 1: Prepare a STS Grid

  • Construct a socio-technical system (STS) grid for public schools in Puerto Rico
  • Using the templates found at m14025 (Socio-Technical Systems in Professional Decision Making) identify the key constituents such as hardware, software, physical surroundings, etc.
  • Select key levels for analysis. For example, you may want to look at the STS from the standpoint of individuals (students and teachers), small groups (public school systems), and institutions (education and business).
  • Starting with a short list of values, identify the values embedded in the public school STS and, if possible, the specific components in which these values are embedded. A good place to start is to see how different physical arrangements of the classroom embody different approaches to education.

Values in STSs

Values that can be used for exercise 1 include Justice (equity and access), Property, Privacy, Free Speech, Responsibility (Safety). More on these values can be found by clicking on the Computing Cases link provided in this module. Several of these values are defined in the Ethics of Team Work module, m13769.

Exercise 2: Identifying Potential or Latent Problems in STSs

  • Choose one of the following three problem areas to help focus your work: (1) value problems that may arise when laptops with their current design are integrated in the PR STS; (2) value problems that may arise by the digitalization of textbooks and other educational materials; (3) value problems and potential harms that may arise during the disposal of spent laptops.
  • Compare values embodied in current laptop design with those embodied in the Puerto Rican public school STS. Are there any conflicts? What are these?
  • Look more closely at the Puerto Rican public school STS. Are there any conflicts that will be highlighted, exaggerated, or increased by the integration of laptop computers.
  • Finally, look for potential harms that could occur in the short, middle, and long term future.

Exercise 3: Develop Counter-Measures to Problems

  • Generate 5 to 10 options to respond to the problems you have identified. Make sure that you include the status quo among your options.
  • Check each option against the problems you have identified. Does the option solve the problems identified in your STS analysis? Does it integrate the conflicting values and avoid untoward results? Does it give rise to new problems?
  • Prepare a short presentation for the class (5 to 10 minutes) where you outline your problem, set forth the range of solutions you have identified, and describe and justify your solution. Be sure to address issues that may arise when you turn to implementing your solution.
  • Provide a one or two sentence argument that your solution is best for delivering on social responsibility.

Exercise 4: Evaluate the Microsoft Philadelphia Public Schools Project

  • Listen to/read the news report on the Microsoft Foundation's project to integrate computing technology in Philadelphia. (You can find it by clicking on the link in this module.)
  • Is this an example of a corporation carrying out its social responsibility to the surrounding community?.
  • Evaluate Microsoft generally in terms of its social responsibility.

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