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<nettime> Akshat Rathi: Aakash is no silver bullet (The Hindu)
Patrice Riemens on Fri, 29 Mar 2013 17:55:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Akshat Rathi: Aakash is no silver bullet (The Hindu)

Aakash is the - even cheaper - Indian clone of MIT's Negroponte baby
One-Laptop-per-Child (OLPC), struggling, not to say failing (just like
OLPC), because of 'technological overreach' - we keep it polite - since
2011. Same causes = same effects.

Aakash 101 on WKP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aakash_%28tablet%29

Original to:

(bwo Bytes4All list/ Sasi Kumar)

Aakash is no silver bullet
Akshat Rathi

PROMISE AND HYPE: When officials are themselves confused over the tablet?s
future, it would be a good idea to step back and analyse the reasons for
going ahead with the project.
The government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological
utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education,
poverty or inequality.

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media
limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M.
Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the
project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started
the project, denied Mr. Raju?s comments. He further added: ?I want public
services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform
for 1.2 billion people.?

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers? money
on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First,
there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he
claims it can. Second, it is not clear how it will ever be able to produce
a laptop that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with
it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project
launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. OLPC?s hope was that empowering children in the developing
world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn
faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it
hadn?t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable
cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up
production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100),
though they weren?t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the
panacea to all problems irrespective of a country?s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations
Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its
large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the
results are in and OLPC hasn?t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 850,000 laptops
were given out at a cost of Rs.108 crore ($200 million). In treatment
schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to
1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC
failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal.
Enrolment isn?t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those
children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in
its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn?t
have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale
study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up
until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior
economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark
Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says:
?Unlike Negroponte?s approach of simply handing computers to children and
walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.?
It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme
that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC?s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr.
Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all
problems. It?s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the
cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a
Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than
$35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The
newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will
default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to
get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims.
Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school?
Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water,
toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth
among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce
to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the
National Mission on Education through Information and Communication
Technology ?strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the
content created can reach the learner.? This adoption of OLPC?s main idea
is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing
out laptops, or in India?s case, tablets, ignores the local context and
thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the
future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for
pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would
be foolish to continue.

(Akshat Rathi is a science and technology journalist based in the U.K.
E-mail: rathi.akshat {AT} gmail.com)

Keywords: OLPC project, Datawind, Aakash tablet, HRD ministry

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