It has been a couple of months since Kapil Sibal announced the $35 Indian tablet Aakash which the government will make available for 10-12 million children by the end of 2012. This indeed is a bold dream which can leapfrog the internet penetration in India. It will put technology in hands of children who will drive the next generation. Hopefully, we will have citizens who are not in awe of technology but understand the its capability and how they can leverage it.
The demo device seems to have got good reviews from leading technology site:
While we applaud the government in making such a bold move, some doubts remain.
1. The device completely depends on the software library that exists for it. What progress has been made on that front ? For example, can all NCERT and state board books not be pre-loaded on these devices? After all the government owns the Copyright to them.
2. The power of these tablets really lies with the internet. The device has WiFi and GPRS capability. How will internet connectivity work in government schools in rural areas? If the Telcos do not provide connectivity for free, will the government hand out massive contracts to Telcos to subsidize the connections. Scope for scams yet again.
3. Meanwhile the Tamil Nadu government has been able to procure laptops from Lenevo for around $200. A laptop is still much more powerful than these tablets and probably more rugged. Maybe the central government could follow a similar scheme and make these available throughout India.
4. With the device available, how can private publishers make their books available? What kind of education software would be available on these devices?
In our opinion, the government's job should be to setting up direction and letting private players implement a scheme. It has done a good job by setting Android as the OS and tablet form-factor. Now it should let private entrepreneurs innovate on that further.
Hindi movie industry top rung actress and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra has joined the campaign for right of every child in India to go to school. Priyanka was appointed UNICEF national ambassador earlier this year.
The National award winning actress is lending support to the Awaaz Do campaign, and has voiced her support in a video message encouraging people to sign up on the campaign website. Priyanka said in the video “School was the best time of my life, I loved school. Every time I see kids going to school, it brings back such amazing memories of my own time,"
"Education can change lives. That's why I'm raising my voice for the 8 million children who are out of school... We've tried silence. It's now time to speak up for every child's right to be educated," she added.
The Awaaz Do campaign was launched nationwide in November to increase awareness of low schooling numbers in India. It is a fact that about eight million children in India, aged six to 14, still do not go to school.
Since the launch, more than sixteen thousand Indians have supported the cause, and signed up on the campaign website or by sending an SMS.
NCERT most likely is the largest provider of text books in the country. All CBSE government schools use their books, and all private /unaided schools use their books. Each year, at the beginning of the academic session, there is a perpetual shortage of NCERT books. Each distributor that we have met so far has been moaning about the pain they have to go through to procure NCERT books. Every school we talked to this time including Vasant Valley, and Genesis Global has shown concern mentioning that their time tested distributors and publishers are unable to get NCERT books on time. And this is in Delhi. In Bangalore, its the usual every year story too.The situation as we understand, is the same in West Bengal, Orissa or any other state in the country.
The shortage gets reported in the newspapers every year (2004 report, 2007 report)without fail and 2010 was no exception. Distributors complained that they receive the books in installments and the first installment never more than 10-15% of their total requirement. The books are cheap (thankfully), but late. For distributors who cater to Indian schools outside the country (middle east, Africa for example), they need to airfreight the books thus adding to their operation cost, on top of low margins. Even with the multiple installments, the distributors do not manage to get more than about 80-85% of their total requirement. This obviously impacts the syllabus completion in schools adversely.
There must be hundreds of distributors who pick the books from NCERT. Given that, and there is a perpetual shortfall of 20-15%, it surely can't possibly be that difficult for NCERT to print more and early. If the government is unable to provide books, how will the forcible admission of extra students through RTE work well? Just that this gives rise to a different industry. Distributors mention that fake (or photocopied) versions of the books invade the market every year to make up the shortfall.
At a Brand New school: We visited a brand new school (on the Yamuna Expressway in NOIDA) with this being their first year of operation. This is one of those completely air-conditioned building schools. They liked our proposition, and asked us to put in a quote. The principal gave us an optimistic base number (of students) to calculate from, and we produced the quote in a day.
Their procurement officer (the chances of the person in this role to be not straight as an arrow is high) bargains and haggles with us. Also, to prove his point he does an open book and shows us the discounts that he currently gets from different publishers and NCERT. After our first quote, this gentleman asks us to use a simple mechanism to put in the quote, appreciates that we might not be able to do deep discounts and mentions that the base number that we were told needs to be halved. This came as a pleasant surprise, this openness and honesty. He also mentioned that he will now go ask for quotes from some of his usual vendors. That is not great for us, but is surely the right thing for him to do. Well done, Mr. Sharma!
CBSE wants to adapt the virtual lab for Chemistry and Physics experiments. (Read More...) The whole idea of a lab is for the child to execute and witness the actual laws of the universe and remembers it. With an overdose of television and computers, it is hard to believe all that a child gets to see, hear or grasp. But, when someone holds the beaker in one's e hand and the chemical turns a different color, the theory takes life. Our previous blog on Mr. Gupta's 3-H principle, talked exactly about that. By turning the lab into a virtual lab, you may get the child's head but not his/ her hand and heart.
The education system in India though widespread, is not really as effective as we or even the government would want it to be. Many of our students seek admissions in institutions outside the country. And of course, more and more students seek admission in non-government schools. The ailments are many, as are the solutions. Lack of effective and trained teachers has been a perpetual pet peeve of many. Similarly, most of us keep complaining about lack of innovation in our schooling system or from the government bodies.
But, there are some exceptions. Just before visiting Delhi one time, I sent out emails to publishers that we wanted to tie up with so that we could fix meetings. One of those emails was sent to the workshop department of NCERT to locate and learn more about what they call school kits. One Mr Hari Gupta (head of the workshop department) wrote back mentioning that he was happy to meet.
After some logistics related conversations, we landed up to see Mr. Gupta a quarter hour late for the appointed time at 5.45pm on the particular day. We reached his office on time, but were told by the hangers on "Gupta sahab to bahut pehle ghar gaye" (Mr. Gupta has left for home long back). We were a bit disappointed, but still did call him on his cell phone. To our delight Mr. Gupta informed us that he will be back in his office in 10 minutes. We walked into his large almost typical government office and waited. The large desk had a PC, a printer and bunch of files, sheets of paper and all that you would expect. That is where the similarity with a babu's office ended. The other side of the large room had cupboards, and there were large desks with boxes, and laboratory equipment. Just that the laboratory equipment (pipettes, burettes, test tubes etc) seemed from liliputland. While we waited curious, Mr. Gupta showed up.
We spent time explaining what KOOLSKOOL was about and what we were setting out to do. Mr. Gupta's team designs, prototypes and manufactures (on a very small scale) Mathematics, and different science kits for schools. These include laboratory in a box which caters to four students at a time, molecular structure kits, advanced kits for higher classes. The chemistry kits have miniaturized equipment, made of readily available and cheaper material. e.g. the pipette is small soft transparent plastic affair. All the kits are based on experiments or concepts from the NCERT text books and ingeniously and simply implemented.
What surprised us pleasantly was that Mr. Gupta came back from home (in the NCERT campus) to meet us, and the amount of delight and pride that he took showing us what his lab was creating. The sheer childlike delight was heartening, as was his conversation (which we could not help over hearing) with an associate who got lectured about not being confident about pushing these kits. Mr. Hari Gupta truly does believe that he is serving the nation and it is his duty (being in the position that he is) to be ingenious and help education in our country. He believes, and wants all that is lab produces to follow the "3 H Principle". The Hs as Hand, "Hurt"(that is how Mr. Gupta pronounces Heart) and Head. Mr. Gupta says - "my kits should help a student use his hands, make education practical...should delight his heart, and get him to use his head"! Simple, and beautiful isn't it?
Mr. Gupta will launch an expression of interest type request, for manufacturers to come forward (from different parts of the country) to manufacture at scale what his laboratory prototypes. This man, does not want to patent his creations so as not to restrict free production. Though we feel not patenting will permit manufacturers to produce and deliver sub-standard product quality. But, that is a different discussion.
We just wish, there were many more Mr. Guptas in this country, and all related to education!
PS: Couple of related links