In their haste to propagate the populist measure of distributing laptops to school students, State governments are overlooking the basic issues that can make this scheme a success
Finally, our new age sahebs are waking up to the crisis in education and showing the courage and the will to do something about it. Every politician worth a name has a silver bullet and promises if it’s administered that the country will be a superpower in no time.
In the long list of remedies proposed to redeem the system of education, a surprising new cure has come up recently overshadowing all the others. Suddenly, a number of Chief Ministers have realised that what our students really lack are laptops and tablets. It’s all very good to have decent public infrastructure for education but unless our students have a personal laptop or at least a tablet of good quality, they seem to suggest, nothing is going to work. So, in order to relieve the students of this lingering agony, the sahebs have decided to distribute laptops to as many students as possible.
As has often been the case in debates about the state of education, the three central actors in the business — students, teachers and educationists — are either silent or, for all practical reasons, have been muted out from the discussions. At the same time the governments concerned have also chosen not to learn anything from the Akash fiasco and the not so encouraging results of previous such efforts in other countries — Akshat Rathi’s article in The Hindu (Op-Ed, “Aakash is no silver bullet,” March 29, 2013).
Plans to distribute almost one crore laptops during the next few years have been already finalised. Orders have been placed and the money from the state exchequer is quickly being diverted into private laptop companies’ accounts.
The Tamil Nadu government plans to distribute free laptops to no less than 68,00,000 students in the next five years. The Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh has also placed an order for 15,00,000 laptops with Hewlett Packard and the distribution campaign is already under way. To fulfil its promise of giving a laptop to every student clearing the class XII examination, the government would need to buy another 8,00,000 laptops shortly as the total number of students clearing this exam in 2012 was more than 23 lakh. The Rajasthan government has plans to gift its meritorious students 3,50,000 tablets and 1,10,000 laptops in the coming months.
From the graphic it is apparent that in their competitive excitement about being the most modern and equipped with the state-of-the-art technologies, some of these State governments have forgotten that they don’t have even the bare minimum in terms of infrastructure required to run these laptops. U.P. and Rajasthan, for instance, show a very dismal level of preparedness for this change to occur at a practical level; most schools in these States do not have electricity, let alone desktop computers.
Public vs. private?
When a school is built or books bought for the school library, the facilities serve successive batches of students and remain accessible and open to everyone in the school. These remain state — and consequently — public property. However, when a government opts to gift laptops to the individual students, effectively it turns the public resources into private property. Once given away, these laptops would become the private possession of individual students and would cease to contribute to the enrichment of the collective learning processes.
There is no harm in giving students laptops or tablets and helping them develop essential soft skills. However, to reap the full potential of these efforts the governments concerned must pause and think their plans through. A few suggestions are worth the consideration.
First, the schools must be equipped with at least an electricity connection and Internet facility so that the laptops can function and new information can be accessed. Second and consequent upon the first, the laptops and tablets should be placed in the custody of the schools so that they continue to remain available to subsequent batches of students and the governments need not distribute them every year. Third, the teachers should be given adequate training to teach with the help of these modern pieces of equipment.
(Yogender Dutt is a student of education at TISS, Mumbai. He acknowledges significant inputs to this article from Prof. Poonam Batra, CIE, Delhi University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)