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Are classrooms ready for laptops?

india Updated: Aug 10, 2007 00:00 IST
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There was a time, when notebooks in a classroom meant a sheaf of paper in a hardbound cover. Now, imagine a classroom in which the teacher is wirelessly connected to students through their notebooks – the computer variety. No messy tangled wires here, thanks to wireless connectivity. The student is served interactive content controlled by the teacher. This content includes primary curriculum as well as other resources such as encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Students practise their learning through tests, ensuring that they not only learn but also improve their scores and performance. The students are wired in a controlled environment with limited access to sites they can visit. The teacher controls the entire user experience.

Imagine again. The same computer network also performs mundane tasks such as attendance monitoring, preparation for lessons, and executing class tests, and providing feedback on students to administrators and parents. The network also empowers parents by enabling them to keep a close tab on their children by accessing feedback from teachers, helping them to coach their children in better ways.

Now, stop imagining. The good news is that such projects have already been launched in India. It has already been working in countries like Nigeria and Brazil.

Some of the biggest names in technology are behind the main project. Microchip makers AMD and Intel, software giant Microsoft, and HCL are among the backers of the idea of taking notebook computers, long considered the symbol of the yuppie executive, to schools.

Under the World Ahead Program, companies like Intel are looking at the huge rural Indian market of 6,50,000 villages. The chip maker’s Classmate PC, launched last month, fits into this big picture. Classmate PC has already run the pilots in India with sixth standard students at the Delhi Public School at Vasundhara in Ghaziabad. Intel also recently ran a pilot with the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) and initiated another pilot in which it has seeded Classmate PCs for fourth standard students at the Padma Sheshadri Bal Bhavan, Bangalore to research and gather engineering feedback.

“The primary charter of Craig Barrett’s visit to India is to drive the Intel World Ahead Program with communities, government, academia and industry. This program is an initiative through which Intel plans to invest $1 billion globally over the next 5 years to accelerate access to uncompromised technology across four major focus areas: accessibility, connectivity, education and content,” Intel said. There is also a project called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) . OLPC was founded by digital guru Nicholas Negroponte with a core of the prestigious Media Lab veterans, but quickly expanded to include a wide range of people from academia, industry, the arts, business, and the open-source software community.

OLPC has a plan to offer laptop computers at $100 –that is just about Rs. 4,000. The scheme was rejected by the government last year. The reason for rejection wasn’t spelled out clearly. Nigeria is said to have ordered 10 million pieces under the scheme. Intel joined the project last month. There are also unconfirmed reports that IBM is working on a Rs. 8,000 machine for students, to be launched this year.
The good news is that the student’s notebook is not fragile, unlike many corporate laptops that are delicate. It is as tough and rugged as computers could get. A water-proof keyboard, a seven-inch protected LCD screen, a shock-proof shell with an attachable cover all make it a strong proposition.

What if careless students lose their data? The notebook doesn’t have a hard disk. It has a flash memory of 1 to 2 gigabytes (GB) which means that even under strenuous conditions the data will be safe. For those worried about schoolbag weights, the news is that the device weighs only 1.45 kg and works on battery backup of 3-4 hours.

Though Intel has joined the OLPC project, its separate experiment earned the description of “Battle of Goodwill” for the project in which it rivaled OLPC in vying to equip children with aggressively priced laptops. Both were until recently seen as fierce competitors. While the success of OLPC largely depends on support and big orders from governments, Intel for the time being seems to be taking a different route by getting private financiers such as IL&FS into the project.

Both Intel and OLPC need orders to get the pricing right. OLPC’s $100 price tag in India can only be a reality if it gets large orders. Intel has priced its Classmate PC at Rs 18,000. However, the idea of laptops replacing paper notebooks receives mixed reactions from citizens.

Madhur, a teacher at a prestigious Gurgaon school termed it as “progressive and a step in the right direction.”
But not everybody is optimistic.

“In India everybody is out to extract money. The school, tutors and now private firms. Why can’t they simply work on the quality of education instead of gizmos?” said Supriya Rathore, wife of an army official.

(The author is the editor of a Internet site devoted to business and technology issues)

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