The $35 Computer

There was much excitement and conjecture this week and no shortage of hyperbole as Kapil Sibal unveiled the new device jointly designed by students of various top engineering institutes of the country. There was even talk of pushing on further to a $10 device that would revolutionise education.

BBC News Story on Launch
The Hindu – Article

There are many schools in the country that already take advantage of the use of IT, who will be only too glad to see hardware costs coming down. However, these still represent a tiny minority and there are many reasons for caution,

The BBC article above mentions the MIT, Nicholas Negreponte ‘One Laptop per Child’ Scheme. When first launched that scheme was met with massive excitement, but it really not lived up to the expectations.

The following article from Live Mint highlights some of the very legitimate reasons why caution is needed and some of the lessons that will have to be learned from the MIT project.

Live Mint Article

A few of my own observations;

a) Are all the people who work in Om Books, Landmark or Crosswords walking geniuses? They spend their every working hour surrounded by the collective knowledge and wisdom of many of the greatest minds that have ever lived (plus, of course some Mills & Boon, Chetan Bhagat etc.!) – it’s all there and they can just help themselves. Of course, that’s not how it is – and letting children loose on the vast sea of knowledge on the internet (where the volume of dross far exceeds the worthwhile material) is even less likely to have positive effects on learning without very well designed strategies and a great deal of teacher training. In the worst case scenario, learning could actually be negatively impacted.
b) Bringing ICT in to the learning domain is not inherently about hardware or software. It’s actually about hearts and minds and fundamental aspects like the belief of teachers about ‘What is teaching?’ A paradigm of teacher as deliverer of knowledge, to then be drilled repetitively until it sticks long enough to pass an exam does not need or require any computer hardware or software – the teacher is already the hardware and her voice and lecturing is the software.
ICT only really becomes useful where a teacher wants to adopt the role of facilitator and guide to the curious to ‘discover’ knowledge. Worse, the technology can become an excuse for traditional teachers not to change.
c) The Live Mint article raises the issue of how many schools currently have internet connectivity/ wireless facility. However, even where schools get equipped with wireless hubs etc., how much bandwidth would be required for a school with 1-2,000 such devices in use, and what would be the ongoing costs for that bandwidth? I fear that these costs would render the basic hardware cost almost meaningless.

Ultimately, the biggest issue will come down to teachers. I fear a scenario where, in hundreds of thousands of classrooms in the country classes would continue to be rote based and indistinguishable from what went on 100 years ago, except, 2-3 times a day, the children will be allowed some time to ‘play’ with their computing devices. The teachers could then argue that the children have no reason to ‘ get bored’, to lose their concentration or willingness to be drilled under the old teaching methodologies. Inadvertently and ironically, the modern technology could become a significant blockage to progress.

Used well, ICT can fundamentally change our classrooms and has an enormous array of uses and benefits. Just by way of a single example, ability of children with special needs to record (video or audio) lessons and watch/ listen again later can be very powerful.

I would love to be proved wrong in my caution and will follow developments with interest. However, for now I’m on the side of the skeptics.

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