The quest for the optimal mobile device that can advance education by improving access to learning materials and reducing costs is engaging many countries, including India. Among the more promising gadgets for the task are e-readers, which use e-ink display technology that closely matches the look and feel of a printed black and white page. Tablet computers, on the other hand, offer a full-colour, backlit screen alternative suitable for multimedia and rich content. These technologies can significantly aid the teaching-learning process. And this concept has been put to the test in a field setting in Ghana involving distribution of e-readers to hundreds of school students. One striking outcome: 43 per cent of the students, who had never used a computer, learned to use the gadget quickly. Students who had access to only a few books at home were able to read an average of 107 titles overnight. These ranged from wirelessly delivered sponsored texts to open access volumes that they downloaded. Also, several students discovered that they could listen to music, and read newspapers using the data connection. Importantly, though, 40 per cent of the gadgets broke while in use mainly because of fragile screens. These results from the project make it clear that there are key problems to be ironed out.

India's grand plan to identify a tablet device for educational purposes has been virtually stillborn. The Centre has conceded that the Aakash tablet computer distributed in limited numbers does not measure up due to problems such as heating of the device, limited battery life and unsuitable screen technology. The Department of Information Technology, which has been working with the IIT system, must show the competence necessary to come up with a robust set of specifications for the ideal “low cost access-cum-computing” device for students. The key factor that should underscore the programme is a falling price curve for the hardware. Amazon's Kindle, an e-reader, has witnessed a price fall from $399 in 2007, to $79 now. If a similar graph can be ensured in India, there can be a free or subsidised reading-learning device in every schoolbag. Moreover, the gadget must be able to exploit the ubiquitous availability of mobile data connectivity. Crucially, learning materials need to be available free of copyright costs. Literature could be sourced, for instance, using Creative Commons permission for use by students. It would be a great leap forward if a robust, affordable device can be produced through multiple vendors on an open licensing platform, with the Centre specifying the benchmarks, and monitoring compliance through a certification mechanism.

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