15th Nov 2012
As the news of the Aakash 2 came in, I couldn't help but reflect upon a phone call of a couple of weeks ago — from a gentleman in the North-East, who represented a government agency. He was seeking advice on what kind of tablets needed to be procured for school students' use, for educational purposes.
I explained to him how a tablet is a content consumption device (and in a limited sense, a content creation device), so it is only as good as the content available — and the presentation of that content. I asked him in what format the educational content was available. Was someone making an app? Or are lessons going to be simply available as PDFs? Are lessons online (which gives great flexibility, but comes with higher costs)? His answer baffled me. It turned out there was no plan of pushing any educational content onto any device at all! It seemed like yet another populist scheme. Colour televisions in exchange for votes (yes, that's happened) is old fashioned. Tablets are the flavour of the season. What's this got to do with the Aakash 2? Bear with me for just a bit longer.
The Aakash is not the first time anyone's attempted a low-cost computing solution for students. Back in 2005, the ambitious $100 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project took birth, but ended up costing more. A lot more. Today, OLPC India lists Rs 16,500 per device when asking for people to make contributions to the project. (Even if you consider project overheads to be included in that amount, the cost of the device is still more than twice the $100 mark.)
Now taking the Aakash 2's unsubsidised price of Rs 2263, and assuming there are no "additional" charges or taxes, it is by far the cheapest 7-inch tablet I have come across.
As of now, all that the Aakash project, as it were, has proved is that it is possible to make and sell a tablet for Rs 2263, the price at which the tablet is sold to the government. While some members of the world press are all praise for the device (I agree it sounds great on paper), I wonder how many people have taken a detailed look at the real issues in our educational system — and mapped those to the Aakash's capabilities.
The fact that we managed to make what appears to be the world's most value-for-money computing device does not necessarily mean it is going to help our education system.
For instance, an outdated syllabus, whether consumed through a big fat hand-me-down textbook or through Aakash, is not going to make students any better prepared for professional life. Ask any engineering student about his syllabus, and you'll regret asking, trust me. Let's not even talk of inspiration and motivation which are conspicuous by absence in most of our colleges – that needs human intervention, not a gadget's.
Worse still, if the gadget is viewed as some sort of a human void filling mechanism, it'll only make the experience more sterile for students.
Let me move on to some tech things related to the Aakash and its purported mission.
- A tablet, as an education enabler, is only as effective as the content and the presentation of that content. It remains to be seen how exactly content gets pushed to Aakash. An interactive app that contains the syllabus for every university's every course? Now, that would indeed be something. Or would it be just PDFs? In that case, it would be a gross underutilisation of the gadget.
- To have any sort of networking (of the social kind) to help students get together, or to look up the latest news, etc., the device needs a campus-wide Internet connection. A far cry in all but the top-tier institutions in India.
- Many colleges and universities have banned mobile phone use by students citing "the harmful effects of distraction" and "spoiling our learning environment and culture." And now we are talking of Internet enabled tablets and campus-Internet. Does anyone else see the irony?
- Has anyone thought of what students need to do after three or four hours of use when the battery runs down? How many plug points does a classroom have? Moot point if there's no electricity.
- It is an Android device. "Android" and "stable" when used in the same sentence usually bring along the word "not". Let's admit it – we've seen the best of devices just lose it sometimes. I can very much imagine an error going this way: "process.com.android has stopped working and your preparation material for tomorrow's exam is not available. Click here to check schedule of supplementary exam".
If you're about to say "...but laptops are being used by management students for about a decade now...", let's not get carried away with the tablet tide. A laptop allows you to type in fairly fast (certainly faster than possible on a 7-inch tablet with average touch response), and can multitask fairly well.
The single biggest objection I have to this populist initiative by the government concerns the subsidy it is offering. The government buys the device at Rs 2236 and sells it for Rs 1130, which means the difference amount of Rs 1106 per device comes from the taxes you and I pay. For a device which may jolly well see more use as an entertainment device than as something that makes education better.
I am a complete believer in the potential that technology has to transform our lives. But to think cheap tablets will magically make better students is hare-brained.
Editor-Speak: Aakash 2 Sees Big Launch, Big Hype. Where's The Substance?
Textbook, blackboard, chalk, tablet...
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