In a pioneering initiative, the Tamil Nadu government is providing free laptops to students of government-run and government-aided higher secondary schools, arts and science colleges, engineering colleges, and polytechnic colleges. The scheme, which will cover 912,000 students this year at a cost of Rs.912 crore, is designed to give a major boost to Information Technology literacy. Social welfare programmes intended to increase enrolment and reduce dropout rates in schools are not new to Tamil Nadu, which was the first State to introduce a comprehensive nutritious noon meal scheme. Boys and girls in schools run and aided by government are being provided free uniforms and text books. From this year, under another novel scheme envisaged by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, pupils in classes X, XI and XII will be given cash incentives to complete schooling. Even in this context, the free laptops scheme is exceptional — backed by a serious pedagogic effort, it could have a far-reaching impact on improving access to higher education for boys and girls from poor and needy families across the State. All higher secondary schools in Tamil Nadu have computer labs but students do not get sufficient exposure to computing, not to mention coding and programming. The free laptop scheme could open up a whole new world of knowledge-based opportunities to a generation of students who hope to do well in higher education and then in the job market.
As Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, emphasised recently in his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, there is a need to reignite children's passion for science, engineering, and maths. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in U.K. schools,” he told his British audience while recalling how the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1980s not only broadcast programming for kids about coding but also shipped more than a million BBC micro computers into schools and homes. “Your IT curriculum,” he pointed out, “focusses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.” Taking a cue from this, Tamil Nadu can forge ahead by introducing computer science immediately after primary school. At present, only classes XI and XII have a structured curriculum in computer science; and though the School Education Department introduced it as a subject in class VI last academic year, intending to extend it up to class X this year, schools have not received textbooks or the syllabus. Equipping every school with the necessary infrastructure and appointing trained computer teachers should be the next big step towards achieving equity and universality in computer education.