India, Cargo cults and the Aakash tablet

Who do the numerous freebie tablet and laptop schemes really benefit? The Government's inflated ego, computer companies or the students?

The Aakash tablet is in the news again, none of it very flattering. Our dear ‘tablet in the sky’ has courted controversy enough for a life time, and, consequently, this post will not dwell on problems of the past.

Nonetheless, every time Kapil Sibal insists that the Aakash will be delivered to every student, (regardless of whether or not they need or want it), it reminds me strangely of that French princess who, after learning that there was no bread for the peasants to eat, proclaimed: “Then let them eat cake!”

The analogy, though not immediately apparent, becomes clear when one realizes that both the peasants and the lower-to-middle class school and college students have no immediate need for either cake or the Aakash tablet. They would rather prefer bread, proper teachers and up-to-date educational facilities.

The grand Aakash tablet programme and its other uglier offspring—the one laptop for every child, one computer for every student gimmicks— are a classic case of the ‘ >cargo cult scenario’ that has utterly consumed India.

Cargo cults were first properly noticed back during World War II, when the American and Japanese armies brought in large amounts of equipment/food/technology onto various islands in the Pacific region. These islands were mostly inhabited by a tribal/technologically backward population.

The combatants used these islands as various staging points in the war and distributed the food and technology, which were brought through planes, freely to the local population. When the war was done, these military bases shut down, thereby ceasing the flow of goods and materials to these islands. This is when the cargo cults started popping up.

In an attempt to attract further deliveries of these goods, the natives started engaging in ritualistic practices such as building imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment out of bamboo and so on. They thought by building these things, they could bring back the airplanes that brought them that wonderful technology and equipment.

Unleash the natives

The Aakash programme is very similar to what the natives of the Pacific Islands were trying to do. By mimicking behaviour that was observed among the holders of ‘wealth’, the natives believed the wealth would come to themselves as well.

The Government at this point is blinded by the technological prowess of more developed nations and believes that if we put a piece of mediocre technology in each of our childrens’ hands—we will suddenly fast-forward the process of our development.

If every American child has an iPad, then our children must have the Aakash – surely that will bring our educational and developmental process up to speed? This is a deeply flawed logic.

At no point has there been significant debate on what these students will do with these tablets and laptops that are being thrusted at them from every corner. Neither has there been any debate on what are the other possible factors that have boosted the quality of education in other western countries. For example, how should it be implemented into the education curriculum? If so, will the teachers be taught as well?

Why has there been no talk of whether NCERT plans to digitise its textbooks and load it up onto the Aakash? Also, if the tablet is supposed to help students learn from the Internet, are they being taught how to access the multi-language Wikipedia—easy as it is— such as Tamil/Hindi Wikipedia?

Utterly rudder-less

The problem is that in our rush to show that we are on the path towards development, we have forgotten to chart a proper course >on how to get there.

For instance, we have already seen what happens when laptops are dumped on college-aged students— >they sell them for a quick buck as soon as they lay their hands on them. These projects are, perversely, being used to stimulate our economy rather than being used to further education.

Dumping technology on children will not magically transform them—hell, there isn’t even enough data on whether >mixing technology with a properly guided pedagogical method has proved to be a success.

A multi-pronged approach on the goals of such laptop/computer/tablet scheme is necessary. Various factors such as literacy, technical knowledge, etc must be measured in order to ensure the effectiveness/failure of such projects as well.

What is truly surprising, however, is that instead of the above— the topic of how the Aakash and other freebie laptops can be used to enable students is just emerging now. This is after two years and hundred of crores of rupees down the drain!

The bottom line is that Indian politicians are hopelessly obsessed with cyclical fads, peddled by vendors, which bear only the loosest relationship to pedagogical research. They rarely sit down and think, and instead are thrilled to spend a great deal of taxpayer money to learn new jargon and collect new equipment.

The latest ‘whiz-bang’ technology only makes this problem more apparent—but it isn’t a problem of institutional purchasing— and it certainly isn’t confined to the Aakash.

Sniff that scent

‘Follow the money’ goes the famous journalist saying. And where does the money lead us? The number of ‘force a laptop down every student’s throat’ schemes, which have only multiplied as each State rushes to outdo the other, has quietly benefitted Messrs. Hewlett-Packard, HCL Technologies, Acer and a hundreds of other technology firms that mass produce these products.

Currently, >20 to 25 per cent of these companies’ revenue comes from these Government sanctioned distribution schemes.

So there we have it. The cargo-cult syndrome keeps the Government’s ego inflated, god forbid it ever comes down to earth! The laptop industry is kept happy, especially at a time when the consumer market is stagnant. And what of our nation’s students? Well.. they have cake, if they get lucky.

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