x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

India's low-cost tablet scheme doesn't compute

Poor quality, shortfall in supply tarnish project to bring online learning to poor students.

A group of students tries the Aakash low-cost tablet after its launch in October 2011. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg
A group of students tries the Aakash low-cost tablet after its launch in October 2011. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg

NEW DELHI // The long, tangled story of Aakash, the Indian government's low-cost tablet for students, looks now as if it may come to a confused and bitter end.

The Android-powered tablet, launched in October 2011 and upgraded last November, was intended to bridge India's digital divide, enabling poor students to access online educational content.

"Today we demonstrate to the world that we will not falter in our resolve to secure our future for our children," said Kapil Sibal, the minister for human resource development at the time Aakash was launched.

The tablets were made available to students at a subsidised price, equal to US$35 (Dh129) at exchange rates then, and Mr Sibal had said that they would eventually be given away free. They were also to be sold on the open market at the unsubsidised price of between $70 and $100.

Since then, however, the project has hit several roadblocks. DataWind, the British company that won a 227 million-rupee (Dh15.4m) contract to manufacture Aakash, had delivered only about 17,000 of the 100,000 tablets scheduled to have been distributed by today.

The tablet was criticised for being technologically inadequate. Reviewers cited Aakash's inabiliity to multi-task, its slow browser and processor, and functional capabilities "of an entry-level smartphone".

Several buyers also complained of long delays in receiving the tablet.

The new human-resource development minister, MM Pallam Raju, admitted on March 22 that "manufacturing is obviously a problem" and that his ministry should shift focus from "an obsession with hardware".

But the next day, he hailed Aakash as a "fantastic initiative" and promised that new upgrades of the tablet would be released. Mr Sibal, now the minister for communications and information technology, also insisted that the project was "alive and kicking".

A few months ago, the cabinet of ministers had prepared a plan to order five million more Aakash tablets for distribution around the country.

That order has now been put on hold. Instead, the government has set up two committees over the past few months to evaluate, among other things, the merits of continuing the Aakash project.

The very concept of the Aakash project was a flawed one, said Nikhil Pahwa, the editor and publisher of MediaNama.com, a website that analyses India's digital industry.

"I disagree with the idea that the Indian government needs to develop its own tablet and subsidise it for people," Mr Pahwa said yesterday.

"When it comes to products and devices, it should be an open and competitive market, and let the consumers decide what to buy."

Mr Pahwa also pointed out that tablets were essentially devices for the consumption of media, and that educational applications and software could just as easily have been streamed to computer laboratories or even mobile handsets.

"The overarching reason for the failure of this project is that the government tried to do it," he said. "Governments are inefficient, and the Indian government has hardly been transparent about what it was doing or how it was going about it."

The Aakash project has inspired other government initiatives as well. In 2011, the state of Tamil Nadu began distributing 6.8 million laptops free to students in government high schools and colleges, at a cost of 102 billion rupees.

In Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav recently launched a scheme to give out 1.5 million laptops, each worth 19,000 rupees, to first-year college students.

The expenditure on such technology angers TA Abinandanan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the author of Nanopolitan, a popular blog focused on higher education, who feels its benefits are unproven.

"In Tamil Nadu, I think each laptop cost about 15,000 rupees," Prof Abinandanan said, "whereas it costs in the order of 7,000 to 10,000 rupees to send a kid to school from the ages of five to 15. So when I read about these expenses, and then when I read about government schools not having toilets, it makes my blood boil."

Prof Abinandanan pointed out that no study had been able to effectively establish a link between tablets or laptops and an enhanced learning experience.

In a best-case scenario, he said, a tablet could be used in a "hybrid classroom environment", where it augments targeted teaching methods. But in India's poorest districts, he said, "we cannot take the internet or sufficient teachers or even a classroom building for granted".

Experiments to determine how best to use computing devices in schools were ongoing across the world, Prof Abinandanan said.

"But the government, instead of doing such experiments, is only talking about producing millions of tablets and dumping them on school kids and college kids," he said.

"Without doing any study, why is it spending so much money on something whose efficacy is not even proven?"

ssubramanian@thenational.ae