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Will $20 laptop solve India's education woes?

Posted: 04 Feb 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:$20 laptop? India education? low-cost laptop?

The $20 laptop unveiled by India's Tata is symbolic at so many levels of both the opportunity and the problem with "designing for India," that it's hard to know where to begin in weighing its chances for success. At face value, however, it would seem to have the met the main criterialow costwell in hand. Or does it?

An updated version of the much-ballyhooed, yet flailing, One-Laptop Per Child initiative championed by Nicholas Negroponte and MIT, the $20 laptop was introduced with little fanfare by Tata, the company which debuted the $2,000 Tata Nano automobile in January 2008. That the Nano has yet to make the leap from prototype to commercially available models does not bode well for the new laptop, despite the low cost and the fact that it targets the country's No. 1 social issue (aside from abject poverty): education.

India's constitution guarantees education for all to age 14, this for a country of 1.8 billion inhabitants, only 80,000 schools and 189 million students enrolled. That's under 1 percent of the population, according to Ramenda S. Baoni, managing director of Bsquare. Baoni was a speaker at a special session on "Made for India" at last month's VLSI Conference in New Delhi.

Baoni has put much thought into the subject of what opportunities exist for innovative designers willing to take a chance on India. With a large portion of its huge population below the poverty line, 23 different languages, many different scripts, poor infrastructure and little broadband access, the challenges run deep.

Part of the solution
So, designing a low-cost laptop may be a part of the solution, but the lack of infrastructure to make use of that laptop remains a major hurdle. Also, as Baoni pointed out, 99 percent of Internet content is in English, and even if users could read it, the Internet is really only good for directed research.

"Even the brightest student doesn't know what they need to know," said Baoni. The students still need qualified teachers to guide their education, and to facilitate the more natural interactive learning process, especially with complex concepts.

Clearly, the new laptop's efficacy depends on either solving many of the above problems or finding workarounds. Baoni suggested one: broadcast. Using India's EduSat satellite link, Baoni proposed a low-cost STB with built-in DVR that can be paused and stopped, unlike traditional educational TV broadcasts, while also enabling flash video and delivering text and other services for the visually impaired. Printouts, if needed, can be provided locally.

Baoni's proposal overcomes the broadband infrastructure, language, script and, to a certain extent, teaching issues associated with the $20 laptop's more Internet-dependent and localized model. However, power and the lack thereof remains an issue; hardly a day goes by where there are not power outages in any given region, and for rural areas there's the problem of no power at all.

How are these laptops and STBs to be powered? Solar is clearly an alternative, but that adds to cost and decreases the systems' penetration. Also, no matter how low the cost may fall, for someone with absolutely no moneyand that's a large part of the populationit's beside the point.

That being said, each dollar off the cost of implementation makes any solution more available to a wider portion of the population. So clearly, every bit helps. However, it may still only be a drop in the bucket.

And that's the eternal paradox with India: Any improvement can have such a profound impact at the personal level for those who can take advantage, and can be a boon to any designer offering a solution that gains traction. But all that can seem to be so futile at the macro level where the scale of the problems dwarfs the potential impact of any single solution.

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times





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