What can you buy for $20? A lunch for two? A new shirt? A few groceries? For India’s 220 million schoolchildren, $20 may soon buy a tablet computer.
Not a cheap toy, but a fully operational tablet computer running on Android or Linux, more powerful than the first generation iPad and with the capability to build its own computer programs. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of the tech firm DataWind, told The Daily Beast that he’s confident his tablet, the Aakash 2, is set to revolutionize the developing world’s education system. The company’s testing ground is certainly not modest: India, the world’s most populated country, where 80 million students don’t complete elementary education; where only 17 percent of students enroll in college; where 20 percent of teens and young adults are illiterate; and 95 percent of the population doesn’t own a computing device.
Montreal-based DataWind has partnered with the Indian government to begin providing its low-cost tablets to the country’s estimated 220 million students. The real cost of the tablet is $40 but the Ministry of Education is subsidizing half the price. The partners hope the money local governments will save on printing textbooks (which are currently provided to students) will be redeployed toward the tablet, making them free for young generations who are being disenfranchised by an overloaded and undermanaged education system.
Twenty-thousand tablets are already in schools in across India—only 19 percent of which currently have computers. By March 31, 100,000 Aakash 2 tablets will be in the hands of students and teachers. A $4 keyboard and $1 solar-powered charger are in the development stages. The next order, of the third-generation Aakash, is expected to be at least 50 times larger than the last, around 5 million tablets. It will probably also have SIM-card capacity, so it can be used as a mobile phone as well. Within five or six years the government hopes every student can be a proud owner of the low-cost tablet.
“I believe that it is going to be a game changer for India,” said Kannan Moudgalya, who has spent 25 years as a professor of control systems and education technology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and has been leading the development of software for the Aakash tablet. “The processor that powers Aakash is more powerful than the computers we used not too long ago,” he says.
Moudgalya outlined the programs his team have created for the device, each more intricate than the last. The first is converting textbooks to e-books, which will save local governments large sums of money in printing and revising annually. Next, educational videos are being developed in 32 Indian languages. They have even used the Aakash to operate a robot thousands of miles away in the U.S. and figured out a way to turn it into a diagnostic cardiac machine that would make health checks cheap and routine in rural areas. Finishing his overview, Moudgalya declared: “Yes, it’s a fairy tale.”
The tablet can be a machine for creation, not just for consumption. As the information technology sector grows in India, many students focus on technologically geared careers. On the Aakash, they can build computer programs--something you can’t do on the iPad or Surface. “These children can only dream of having such a device to practice some of the things they learn in school,” Moudgalya said. “To connect to the internet we make our bandwidth free, but how do these children access the rich educational content, if you don’t give them a connection device?”
Reimagining the education system in India is no small feat. As one of the world’s burgeoning economic powers, India has resources and manpower at its disposal. But despite government efforts the education system remains sprawling, frequently chaotic, and difficult to manage. The country boosts around 1.5 million schools, according to the District Information System for Education. But a 2005 World Bank study found that 25 percent of teachers are regularly absent from school—the second-worst turnout in the world. Even more problematic, of those who did attend, around half were actually teaching. The poorer areas had much higher absentee rates, up to 42 percent.
Urmila Sarkar, the chief of education for UNICEF in India, noted that teacher absenteeism isn’t the only challenge facing the Indian education system. She names a few: shortage of age-appropriate textbooks, untrained teachers with no support structure, and high dropout rates within the most disadvantaged groups and strife-torn areas. “I think having that access for every student around the country definitely has the potential to revolutionize education,” she said. “The only point I would say is to make sure it doesn't replace the role of the teacher in the early years and that kind of face-to face interaction.” But in India, as in most of the developing world, many qualified educators are flocking to urban centers, where salaries are higher, leaving rural areas with a teacher drought of sorts.
“How do you deliver quality education if quality teachers aren’t going to those places?” Tuli asked. “The question is not, ‘Can we replace teachers?’ I don’t think that anybody is audacious enough to suggest that. But it is, ‘Can we improve the quality of what teachers deliver? Can we take learning beyond the classroom and allow students to have access to it everywhere?’ ”
Enter the Aakash. Moudgalya foresees a generation of Indian youth lifted up by this platform. But he has highest hopes for that young boy or girl in a rural classroom who could have been a valedictorian if born into different circumstances. “I believe it is through them we are going to see profound changes in our education system,” he said. “No matter how ineffective we may be in our pedagogy or conceptional methods, these 10 percent who are craving access will latch onto it and achieve great things.”
If all goes according to plan and the Aakash boosts continuing education among India’s younger generations, there will be another issue. The Indian government hopes to ramp up college enrollment to 30 percent in the coming decade, which will require 1,500 new schools to handle the influx. Distance learning, which the Indian government began to regulate in 2009, is being recognized as a plausible solution to the problem. Tuli cites online offerings from prestigious schools from Harvard to Stanford as free resources that can be utilized through the Aakash. IIT, Bombay has been testing distance learning programs via its remote learning centers, some of which are as far as a four-hour drive from the nearest railway station.
Sarkar anticipates that UNICEF might be involved in helping implement the tablet in India’s most out-of-reach areas in the future, which will be a delicate process. “If you’ve ever visited these villages in these remote areas, it will be such a change that cultural acceptance of technology would have to be looked at in a planned way, and it might be something the private sector can work with the public sector on,” she said.
The idea of a personal computer for each school kid is hardly groundbreaking. Multiple companies have tried, and failed, to get their price point to the level that’s affordable for the millions making under $2 a day. DataWind believes it has found both the happy medium, and the perfect testing ground for it. “It’s a market that I call the forgotten billion,” Tuli said of the number of Indians who subsist on around $200 a month and are clearly without the means to purchase existing low-cost tablets and laptops.
DataWind is the third company started by Tuli and his older brother, Raja Singh Tuli, who is based out of Montreal. For Suneet, who lived in India before moving to Alberta, Canada, when he was 8, working in his homeland has proven to be a natural fit and as the project ramps up he’s been spending two weeks a month in India. But the early stages haven’t been all smooth sailing. In late November, controversy arose over whether the company was buying pre-made Chinese tablets and passing them off as its own. Tuli vehemently denies these claims, explaining that while the parts were sourced across the world (the touch screens are actually made in DataWind’s Canadian factory), the tablets are fully assembled in India, where he hopes more of the production can be centered in the future.
For DataWind, success is timing. “It’s the perfect storm,” Tuli said. Five years ago, broadband accessibility across the country was scarce. Just two years ago a gigahertz processor cost $18 to $20—today it’s $4. And the prices will continue to drop. While DataWind isn’t making much of a profit, the company says it is not operating at a loss. They get $3 in profit per tablet, but a higher percentage for add-ons like apps and software.
With such a daunting task ahead, how can Tuli be so sure of his success? For the entrepreneur there’s one undeniable sign that his product will be utilized. “My kids use it, and to me that was my proof. I know I can’t force them to prefer one versus another, but the kids actually do use it.” He told his kids they can view it as a toy and hopes that others do as well. In rural schools, Tuli says, textbooks are often locked up after school, to keep them from being lost, stolen, or ruined. Tuli’s goal for the Aakash is the opposite, he wants to see his product roughed up, used so frequently it gets dropped or broken. After all, it only costs 20 bucks.
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