The Digital Agency for International Development

How can a $35 tablet computer change the world?

By Chris Wilson on 21 October 2011

Osama Manzar poses some very interesting questions about India's new $35 tablet computer "for the poor". However he doesn't attempt to answer these questions, leaving the reader in no doubt that he thinks the answer is No! in all cases.

I must admit to being skeptical about any such innovation, and I've been listening to both sides of the debate on the BytesForAll mailing list. Despite my skepticism, Osama's questions have some answers, and I'd like to present them for comment.

  • India has one of the lowest ratio of teachers—just 456 teachers per million people.
  • Seventy-two percent of our primary schools have only three teachers or less.
  • 25% of teachers were absent from school, and only about half were teaching, during unannounced visits to a nationally representative sample of government primary schools.

How is the $35 tablet going to solve any of these problems?

Of course technology on its own is not going to solve these problems. It is just a valuable weapon in the armoury of those who would launch an all-out war on poverty (and other abstract nouns).

Kentaro Toyama, an ex-Microsoft guru turned ICT4D researcher, says that "technology is [just] an amplifier of human intent and capacity." And when faced with a task that's possible but simply too large, an amplifier is exactly what we need. It doesn't need to be high tech. Tanzania did just fine with radio, one of the oldest, simplest and most inclusive ICTs:

About ten years after independence, Tanzania decided to move towards universal primary education, almost doubling the number of children in school. The government estimated that it needed an extra 40,000 teachers. As the existing training colleges were producing only 5,000 new teachers a year, it was decided to recruit secondary school leavers and train them on an apprenticeship model, partly on the job and partly through distance education. Over a period of three years, they were posted in schools where they had a reduced teaching load. They then followed correspondence courses backed by radio programmes; they were supervised and tested on their classroom practices, and passed their examinations. Two evaluations found that they ended up reasonably competent in the classroom (Chale, 1993; quoted by Perranton, 2000; retrieved from UNU)

If India were to launch a massive teacher education programme, they would find it cheaper to implement that programme using technology. For example, they might distribute radios, TVs, portable audio players or even (heaven forbid!) computers to trainee teachers. It might take longer for those teachers to reach high standards, and more might drop out, without the personal connection and feedback of face-to-face training. Even so, one could train more teachers for more time and achieve a similar number of fully trained teachers at a lower cost.

In the business sector, more than 70% micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are not connected to information society to leverage opportunities of business and efficiency. How will the $35 tablet help in the financial inclusion of MSMEs, which are largely situated in small towns and remote areas?

It's unfortunate that the tablet doesn't include a long-range wireless network (such as GPRS), which must surely cover most of India as it does Africa. Even without an Internet connection, it can still provide useful services such as record keeping, business accounting and stock tracking to small enterprises. The tablet is based on Android, but the marketplace has been disabled, and this is a serious limitation. I think it's likely to be overcome soon. When that happens, India's many skilled software developers will be free to create localised applications for a potentially huge local market.

Most of India’s 3.3 million non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also located in remote areas—70% of them lack any sort of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure or connectivity, and have no websites.

How can the $35 tablet help these NGOs’ global outreach efforts or aid the millions of people working with them in rural areas?

You probably know the answer to this question as well as I do: The same way as computer and phones can, only more so. Helping people to communicate and to do their work is exactly what ICTs do. All of them. With the possible exception of Angry Birds. A computer can help us to make leaflets, track visits to patients and beneficiaries, diagnose illnesses, improve farming techniques, or learn about anything we wish to know in the whole world of knowledge.

Can it bring transparency in governance at this level?

Good question. Not by itself, sure. Transparency comes from open data. The people might get together to publish what the government would rather hide, or pressure the government to release the data, but a $35 tablet won't help them much.

When they do release that data, however, the usual problem is how to make use of it. Government data tends to be massive and unwieldy, and answering difficult questions takes much time and significant skill even with the best of data. I think that free, open, widecast media provide the biggest opportunity to make real use of transparency, and our use of the Internet as an enabler of democracy is the best example of that. Potentially, a simple but powerful Internet device could help bring people together to investigate and answer those difficult questions. But by the sound of it, this tablet is not quite there yet. Hopefully it will be soon.

Since a large population of our country communicate verbally, and cannot read and write with ease, their preferred medium of content consumption and content production is audio-visual... But to make use of good multimedia content, you need powerful machines, not cheap and underperforming ones.

I disagree with that. I grew up with "multimedia content" on BBC Micros: simple games, moving blocks around a screen, simple word processors and spreadsheets and databases and graphics. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a simple, clear diagram can be worth far more than a complex, confusing one. Advanced graphics are no substitute for a visual designer's ingenuity and skill. Wikipedia is "multimedia content" that is perfectly suited to a $35 tablet.

If the $35 tablet can do anything good to education in India, the only way is by handing them to each and every teacher and school management staff to monitor the workings and functioning of the school and its teachers...

Monitoring is an interesting application, and a double-edged sword. Robert Chambers, the inventor of participatory rural appraisal, told us a story at the recent ICT4D Finale event in Cambridge of a hospital in India where the nurses were given mobile phones "to collect data at the source." But the director of the hospital used it to monitor what they were doing, effectively spying on them. The nurses went on strike and eventually the director was fired. I think that for monitoring to have a positive benefit, it must be done with consent and a shared vision to use the data to improve performance, not to criticise and control.

rather than assuming that each student will buy Aakash and India will become digitally literate overnight.

I have to agree with that sentiment, although I'm not sure who raised it. Kapil Sibal, who takes the credit for inventing the $35 tablet, merely said:

This low cost device is part of our national mission on education through information and communication technology (NME-ICT) which will connect over 1,000 institutions across the country, enabling tonnes of web-based course content for free.

Now that doesn't sound so far-fetched, does it?