Response to comments on the Aakash Op-Ed

On March 29th I wrote an Op-Ed in The Hindu, a national newspaper in India, 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 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

This tablet is not the magic pill

The Indian government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education, poverty or inequality

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started the project, denied Mr. Raju’s comments. He further added: “I want public services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform for 1.2 billion people.”

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers’ money on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First, there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he claims it can. Second, it is not clear how the Indian government will ever be able to produce (or procure) a tablet that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OLPC’s hope was that empowering children in the developing world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it hadn’t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100), though they weren’t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the panacea to all problems irrespective of a country’s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the results are in and OLPC hasn’t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 8,50,000 laptops were given out at a cost of Rs.1080 crore ($200 million). In treatment schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to 1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal. Enrolment isn’t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn’t have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says: “Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.” It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC’s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr. Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all problems. It’s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than $35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims. Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school? Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water, toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology “strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the content created can reach the learner.” This adoption of OLPC’s main idea is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing out laptops, or in India’s case, tablets, ignores the local context and thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would be foolish to continue.

This is a referenced version of an Op-Ed that was first published in The Hindu.
Image credit: The Hindu

On being creative

This week’s Brain Picking’s newsletter brought to my attention this gem of a talk on creativity by John Cleese of the Monty Python fame. Of particular interest to readers of this blog should be a quote from the talk:

Keep your mind gently round the subject you ponder. You can daydream, of course. But keep bringing your mind back [on to it], just like meditation. Because – and this is the extraordinary thing about creativity – if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious self. Probably in the shower later or breakfast the next morning, but suddenly you are rewarded and, out of the blue, a new thought appears mysteriously. If you have put in the pondering time, first.

In short, persistent contemplation is very important to be creative. The importance of creativity in any profession cannot be overstated and such nuggets of gold should not pass through our mental sieves. Thinking about something with purposeful intent requires effort but with practice it becomes a habit.

Cleese says, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” Persistent contemplation is one way to operate to be creative, but that alone may not be enough.

In another fascinating talk that John Cleese gave on creativity, almost two decades later, he reminds us, in a rather funny way, that our ideas come from our unconscious. He calls our unconscious mind a tortoise – one that hides in its shell unless the right conditions are created to allow it to come out. To create those conditions, Cleese asks us to create boundaries of space and time. By space, he means, not just the physical surroundings but also the mental ones which allow the tortoise to come out and play without distractions.

The most profound insight to be gained from the talk comes right at the end when Cleese reveals a profound discover he made about life. He says, “To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it requires to be good at that thing.” Applying which he finds that those people who have no idea about what they are doing have no idea that they have no idea about what they are doing.”