WE INDIANS often tend to reach among the world’s ‘only’ or world’s ‘best’ in our ambitions, and then usually cut a sorry figure. Now we have come up with the world’s ‘cheapest’ – a touchscreen tablet, Aakash, which costs Rs 2,999 (around $60). The aim is to revolutionise education by endowing each child with a computer. We have such programmes around the world, but the revolution is yet to come. We know the fate of the simputer – and other such applications – which have disappeared because they could not keep up with the times. And we also know the Indian education scene where we still have schools with no blackboards, leave alone computers.
True, India has jumped stages in satellite technology and telecommunication and it can, if it genuinely wants to, jump the blackboard stage in education infrastructure and directly enter the modern age. We know the success of the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in the Mumbai slums where children learn to use computers on their own without guidance. The success of the ‘minimally invasive education’ partly inspired the movie Slumdog Millionaire but the Indian education experiment is no Bombay Talkies or Hollywood movie.
Aakash will first be distributed among college students and then the schools. It finally also aspires to enter the rural areas. But why cannot it be reversed – and reach the masses first? Aakash is supposed to remove the digital divide. If we go back to the history of the introduction of English in India, we know how the British government accepted the Macaulay report – which deliberately created a divide in education – and not the Adams’ report which promoted the rural education system (lokshiksha) to reach the masses. So now we have an education superstructure, thanks to Macaulay, without a proper foundation. Should Aakash continue to encourage the existing divide in education or, as professed by the government, help revolutionise the change?
So Aakash should start with the villages. We need not worry how the students will learn to use them. Let us have faith in our future generations – experiments have shown they can learn on their own – give them the toys. It is fun and simple enough to operate. The real obstacle is the connectivity. China may not be free with information, but the internet access in the country has grown phenomenally. But not so in India. Why? We still deprive access and talk of removing the digital divide. We cannot get away by saying they cannot afford it. If the tablet can be made affordable, so can the internet connectivity. In the remote Sunderbans, where there are villages with no electricity yet, every household has a mobile phone – such is the intense desire of the people there to be in touch with the mainstream. And they can afford it from their measly earnings. They travel miles to get their mobiles charged. The mobile phone saved lives during the cyclone Aila. The private phone manufacturers rivalled with each other and made the gadget affordable and placed the towers in almost inaccessible areas to reach out to their customers. Why cannot this happen with the internet? Or the wifi or the cloud?
The Indianisation of the tablet Aakash endows it with an USB port to suit the local conditions. It’s a welcome innovation though it might be argued it goes against the sleekness of its design. Steve Jobs’s newest iPad for example has its connectivity in the cloud. The makers of Aakash say that they are trying to procure internet connections for the users at Rs 99 a month. But connectivity (as the Sunderbans example proves) is becoming an essential commodity more than even electricity. A policy is needed here so that the private vendors compete and make it affordable in the remotest villages – just like the mobile phone. Even the manufacture of Aakash should not be left to a single vendor.
The success of Aakash will depend on the spread of connectivity. We don’t have to burn coal to give connectivity. It’s cheaper than supplying electricity. And today, the technology is to supply it without towers.
BUT WHAT about the software? What do we teach? Old wine in new bottles? We have language barriers; we have different education systems colliding with each other. The 3D modules for education can break the language barrier; but they have to be interesting – not repeat the dull gyaan-jyoti variety models. The distance education modules of the universities are undergoing technological changes. The V-sat transmissions are being replaced by the cheaper transmissions through the internet. But the internet has to be much faster – too much buffering time will only distract the student and destroy the essence of education – to improve concentrated work. The children are more tech-savvy. The dead weight of teachers who are slow learners, let us admit, will have to be eliminated from this revolution. Let the hardware – the technological infrastructure – reach the children first; they will learn faster than their teachers.
We should not get into a bind, for example what a state like West Bengal has got itself in, where all the education development money goes to pay the salaries of the teachers. You ask for computers; the authorities say they have no money. It is common knowledge that none of the universities of India come anywhere near the first hundred universities of the world, primarily for lack of quality research. Let more funds be allocated for a central pool of education researchers (which is not meant to be mere salaries but) who will create the new education software – something which will hold the child’s attention and not bore them to death.
We need more experiments, research – and funds – for this vital role of developing knowledge capsules for all subjects, which is simple, attractive and yet up-todate. We can then disseminate them – to the last mile – through connectivity and the tablet in place. Aakash will touch ground zero only then. Good that it is cheap; competition will make it cheaper. But the education software it is supposed to provide has to be value-added. And that has to come cheap too. We dread the prospect of privatising education – and justifiably too. But the competition of the private corporate world possibly needs to touch education too – to overcome its slumber. Can technology – in the form of Aakash and connectivity – do it? The quality of education capsules can be made competitive.