Reaching for the... sky?

This article, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu on December 4, 2012.

The Aakash initiative of the Indian government is an attempt to bolster the academic experience of students in the country by equipping them with purpose-built tablets at subsidised rates.

The Aakash 2 tablet was unveiled on November 11, 2012. It is the third iteration of a product first unveiled in October, 2011, and is designed and licensed by a British-Canadian-Indian company named DataWind, headed by chief executive Suneet Singh Tuli.

On November 29, the tablet received an endorsement from the United Nations, where it was presented to Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon by India’s ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, and Tuli.

DataWind will sell Aakash 2 to the government at Rs. 2,263, which will then be subsidised to students at Rs. 1,130. However, the question is this: is it value for money even at this low price?

When it first entered the market, Aakash was censured for being underpowered, underperforming, and just generally cheap. Version one was a flop. The subsequently upgraded successor, released April, 2012, was released commercially before it was remodelled into the Aakash 2 to suit the government’s subsidised rate. As a result, some critical features were substituted with some others whose benefits are either redundant or unnecessary.

Aakash 2 is more durable and slimmer than Aakash, even though both weigh 350 grams. If Akash is going to act as a substitute for textbooks, that would be a load off children’s schoolbags.

But the Ministry of Human Resource Development is yet to reveal if digitised textbooks in local languages or any rich, interactive content have been developed to be served specifically through Aakash 2. The 2 GB of storage space, if not expanded to a possible 32 GB, is likely to restrict the quantity of content further, whereas the quality will be restrained by the low 512 MB of RAM.

The new look has been achieved by substituting two USB ports that the first Aakash had for one mini-USB port. This means no internet dongles.

That is a big drawback, considering Aakash 2 can access only Wi-Fi networks. It does support tethering capability that lets it act as a local Wi-Fi hotspot. But not being able to access cellular networks like 3G, such as in rural areas where mobile phone penetration is miles ahead of internet penetration, will place the onus on local governments to lay internet-cables, bring down broadband prices, etc.

If the device is being envisaged mainly as a device on which students may take notes, then Aakash 2 could pass muster. But even here, the mini-USB port rules out plugging in an external keyboard for ease of typing.

Next, Aakash 2’s battery life is a meagre 4 hours, which is well short of a full college day, and prevents serious student use. Video-conferencing, with a front-facing low-resolution camera, will only drain the battery faster. Compensatory ancillary infrastructure can only render the experience more cumbersome.

In terms of software, after the operating system was recently upgraded in Aakash 2, the device is almost twice as fast and multi-tasks without overheating. But DataWind has quoted “insufficient processing power” as the reason the tablet will not have access to Android’s digital marketplace. Perhaps in an attempt to not entirely short-change students, access to the much less prolific GetJar apps directory is being provided.

Effectively, with limited apps, no 3G, a weak battery and a mini-USB port, the success of the tablet and its contribution to Indian education seems to be hinged solely on its low price.

As always, a problem of scale could exacerbate Aakash 2’s deficiencies. Consider the South American initiative of the One Laptop Per Child program instituted in 2005. Peru, in particular, distributed 8.5 lakh laptops at a cost of US $225 million in order to enhance its dismal education system.

No appreciable gains in terms of test scores were recorded, however. Only 13 per cent of twelve-year olds were at the required level in mathematics and 30 per cent at the required reading level, the country’s education ministry reported in March 2012.

However, Uruguay, its smaller continent-mate, saw rapid transformations after it equipped every primary-school student in the country with a laptop.

The difference, as Sandro Marcone, a Peruvian ministry official, conceded, lay in Uruguayan students using laptops to access interactive content from the web to become faster learners than their teachers, and forming closely knit learning communities that then expanded.

Therefore, what India shouldn’t do is subsidise a tablet that could turn out to be a very costly notebook. Yes, the price is low, but given the goal of ultimately unifying 58.6 lakh students across 25,000 colleges and 400 universities, Aakash 2 could be revised to better leverage existing infrastructure instead of necessitating more.