Aakash, the celebrated and vilified tablet ‘solution’ to the issues in education in India, seems to be discussed for all the wrong reasons. Whether by design or by default, the conversation is around the device and the controversies it has been associated with rather than the solution it is supposed to offer.

The device has navigated storms over the price point it aimed at, its operating system, the choice of screen, the sturdiness of the device, its designers, its delays and disappointments. The latest storm is about the revelation that, contrary to jingoistic statements that the device was indigenous, it has apparently been sourced from China. Whether there has been any mendacity or not is a mere distraction.

The real issues remain in the understanding of the process of teaching and learning. Yes, there are flagship studies that say that children can teach themselves to learn and to navigate the Internet. There are other studies that say that standalone devices with learning programmes built into them help children transform into self-teaching achievers. At the same time, there are significant studies that do point out that the key elements that aid student achievement are teacher engagement and school leadership. Significant strides in learning happen in immersive experiences that are curated and mentored. Even a decade of e-learning has taught us that technology cannot substitute for a good teacher even if it can perform a supportive role. The new success on the block—the MOOCs (massive online open courses)—is a success because of the peer learning networks and the shared, interactive learning it has spawned. The classroom aspects of learning are clearly essential to systematic learning.

A tablet is just one device that is popular at this point of time in history. Given the timeline of technology media, we should not try to predict how soon they will be succeeded by smarter devices. Aakash is accused of being substandard compared to what else is available in the market.

The price point is rather low—to compare a `4,000 device with what costs 10 times as much seems hardly fair. Yet there is no denying that the device is not what children in rich schools work with (such as the iPad) nor what is available to students in other countries.

The scale of the operation in India is such that even a large allocation in absolute terms feels small when the ‘cost per child’ is what one can afford. If that is so, then the fixation on a tablet seems inexplicable. This is then a top-down decision that may not even take into account the will or circumstances of the people it seeks to serve.

The device is only as good as its usability and its degree of adoption and adaptation. It may be possible to easily import the hardware in today’s flat world, and that is merely an economic decision. But it is not that easy to expect the same of software and content. The learning materials available freely on the Internet, and for free, may be vast. But very few of them can substitute for a good teacher. They may at best support the teachers in their endeavours, or supplement class material. But if the purpose is to provide an alternative channel of learning where traditional teaching has failed to reach, then it is unlikely to happen. A tablet cannot supplant a teacher. An absent teacher is a different problem and throwing content via textbooks or shiny devices at it does not resolve that fundamental issue.

The issue of content for pedagogical engagement is crucial to the discussion on a technology solution to upgrade the quality of education.

To purchase and issue tablets with nothing that directly serves the student is akin to saying—build the shop and the customers will come before filling the shop with goods to purchase. Even more challenging is the aspect of basic infrastructure. Without reliable electricity, the tablets will need special arrangements for charging. Not only is the shop without goods, it has no power. The path, the broadband, is yet to be put in place—so the road to the shop does not exist yet. And of course, the device can be broken or stolen—the shop is a glasshouse. It is easy to be worried about the quality of the decision.

The investment requirement is for an efficient, scaleable solution to deliver affordable quality access to those who are left behind. With the basic building blocks crumbling or nascent, the fixation on one device seems strange. Given the strides in mobile phone penetration, maybe the emphasis should be on increasing the reach of effective content.

Meeta Sengupta is an independent consultant in education strategy.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com


This article was published in the Mint newspaper on December 14, 2012 and is linked here and http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/1H9F8TQkaqDsLOulrYRZXO/Tablets-and-a-lesson-to-learn.html

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