The launch of the Aakash tablet has attracted a lot of attention primarily because of its price and also the role the government seems to be playing in making it available initially to college students at a subsidised rate. Of course, we recall that the Rs 1 lakh car in the end costs twice as much on the road and the $100 personal computer that made news a few years ago was beaten by the $300 notebooks in the market. Yet, the idea of giving students access to a reasonably priced personal tablet is exciting.
So, what do we expect Aakash to actually achieve? It is certain to drive the prices down but will its use be restricted to higher education and in upper income private schools? Or, will it also find utility in government schools in the secondary, upper primary and primary sections? Clearly, affordability of the technology will not be a major issue in about five years. Will it drive the quality of education in the country?
Most enthusiasts of using information and communication technology (ICT) in education often miss the crucial new element that the technology introduces. PCs, the Internet, cell phones, and now the tablets together with cloud computing are all about random access to information and knowledge. Add to this the availability of direct-to-home (DTH) TV technology that can allow beaming of ideal classroom 'lessons' at affordable prices. Further, knowledge is not only becoming freely available but has a tendency to become available free or at rapidly dropping costs.
Wikipedia is an example of a knowledge 'movement'. There are sources and projects that make books and information available free of cost. The Khan Academy is an example of cost-free access to academic learning, and a little organised search on YouTube and other sites can throw up a huge amount of non-academic but valuable knowledge that anyone can access. This random access and already overwhelming body of knowledge outside the education system is in complete contradiction with the centralised system of schooling and certification. The mindset is the main block. The education system of today has a linear assembly line mindset of the early 20th century, while the technology spreading outside this system among young people in all economic groups is encouraging a different non-linear mindset.
Although technological and economic barriers are breaking down to make knowledge accessible free or nearly free of cost up to a certain level, there are several barriers that are not easily surmountable for more than 50% of India. First, most of the knowledge available on the internet is in English. It is not a matter of mere translation of English content but also a matter of creating indigenous content in Indian languages.
Second, the school system does not teach children even the basics of reading, comprehension and writing to be able to freely access and absorb any knowledge.It does not encourage curiosity and kills all enthusiasm for learning. Third, which is related to the second, is that the education system does not acknowledge anything outside the textbooks as knowledge and it has no regard for skills. While universities and colleges are dead places where creation of knowledge is concerned, innovations and enterprise are growing in practically every field outside the education system.
Fourth, the education system tries to fit the technology to serve its dead content and dull processes that deliver a linear curriculum rather than taking advantage of the randomness of access to live knowledge that the technology facilitates. Using ICT without changingthe mindset about education will not improve the system of education. The tablet alone is unlikely to cure the patient. It requires a change of lifestyle as physicians often say.
Madhav Chavan is CEO, Pratham Education Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal