In response to an Op-Ed he had written for The Hindu, UK-based science and technology writer Akshat Rathi received some interesting comments from our readers. Here are his clarifications.
On March 29th I wrote an Op-Ed in The Hindu on the Indian government's plans to hand out $35 tablets to poor students. It attracted a number of comments and emails. I'm writing this post as a response to some of the common points that they raise.
1. Are test scores the best way to evaluate student's learning?
The studies I quote (references to which can be found here) also took into consideration other factors. For instance, the Peru study looked at behaviour of the students: enrolment, attendance, study at home, and reading habits. While even this is not perfect a way to evaluate students, but I believe it enough to draw conclusion about the success or failure of this large scheme.
2. India already has plans in place to take care of malnourished children. There are mid-day meal programs and healthcare program like the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). Isn't it ok for the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry to work on other issues?
This is true. But consider the fact that NHRM was started in 1975. In nearly 40 years it has not been able to cut down the number of malnourished children. More than 40% still suffer from stunted growth, which means that they don't reach their proper physical or mental potential. Read detailed report here. These are serious worries, and despite government's efforts little has happened. One of the reasons may be that it is not just the lack of food that is causing malnutrition. Read this excellent article to find out more.
3. Many schools don't have access to books beyond their curricula. Aakash will enable them to get that access without added expenditure. Isn't that good?
I'd accept the first argument about scalability But one needs to weigh the utility of gaining more knowledge while most of those who will get it may not even have the basic knowledge to approach the idea gaining more knowledge.
4. The infrastructure requirement for 3G is minimal when compared to building schools and it has a profit component which invites private expenditure. Even if it's not profit-based, it's easier for the govt. to deal with huge mobile companies than with different contractors working in every village.
The physical infrastructure needed for Aakash might be less, but the software and educational material that will be needed for it is by no means a small project. It is scalable as it can be deployed on all tablets at once, but the implementation of that material will need teachers on the ground. So I don't think it's as easy as that.
5. This is only the beginning. The trickle down effect of this initiative will be large.
This particular comment can be made about pretty much every initiative of the Indian government. See the NHRM example in answer 2 above.
6. Your complaint of poor hardware is justified, but if that is overcome then content will reach more people. The content is there, look at Khan Academy.
It's nice to hope that content that worked for the west will also work for India. See answer 4.
Some notable comments below:
It also seems that the government has taken pre-orders for the device. From an email:
"I've made an advance payment of Rs. 2999 for the much publicized Aakash Tablet by GOI in Feb 2012. Now even after a year, Datawind has not delivered it. My reminders are answered with a reply stating that the delivery is under process."
On The Hindu's website:
From Himanshu: "The middle ages had Tughlaq and his leather currency .. we have Sibal and Akash."
From AAKASHHULK: "ITS JUST A POLITICAL TRICK TO GRAB A FEW VOTES."
From Saurabh Sharma: "I got a SIM Card buy just showing my Aadhar card. The pleasure was immeasurable. For once I felt I was a decent human being and not a punching bag of government rules. Aadhar is another favourite punching bag of pessimists and armchair critics."
From S Nandakumar: "Whatever said and done even in the age of e-learning and Computer Based Training there is nothing like effective classroom interaction between students & teachers."