Monday, April 01, 2013


Akshat Rathi has a great article: Aakash is no silver bullet (it appeared -- without hyperlinks -- as an op-ed in The Hindu). Citing the failure of the OLPC project to live up to all the hype about how it would revolutionize education, he pours a lot of cold water on the idea that Aakash, somehow, is the magic gadget Indian kids have been waiting for.

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. [...]

He also has a follow-up post where he responds to comments.

* * *

While I have nothing against the R&D project on Aakash (especially when it is coupled with small-scale experiments on technology-enabled learning), I do have a problem with the vast, massive social experiment that the government plans to build around it -- all in the name of education. This obsession with treating gadgets as magic wands just doesn't make sense -- especially when studies have shown that laptops for school children are not such a great idea even in rich countries (and if you want links to studies on OLPC in other countries, go to Rathi's post). Why then are Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh spending huge sums of money to give a laptop to their students?

I shared some of these and other similar thoughts with Samanth Subramanian who has a report on the turbulent ride the Aakash project has had in recent days.

* * *

Interestingly, Satish Jha, an official OLPC cheerleader in India, has an article trashing the Aakash project. It's a bit rich, isn't it, that a man working for a hi-tech huckster admonishes his fellow citizens for not learning from the masters about how to develop low cost gadget. What is he going to do next -- sell snake oil? Oh, wait!


  1. Unknown said...

    Thanks for sharing links to my posts. I read Satish Jha's editorial in LiveMint after my article was published. Quietly chuckled.

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    There are studies that computer use by groups of children can help without teachers. What do you think of Sugata Mitra's Hole- in -the-Wall studies?

  3. Santosh Sali said...

    What about HOle-in-Wall Experiment,

    Though one can't deny the importance of good teachers, schools and play-rounds ...

  4. M said...

    Its true that laptops in schools may not be helpful for kids in rich countries, who have access to technology in home via smart phones, tablets etc., access to good libraries and other educational resources, it may have a different impact in developing countries like India. I think scientist in India should watch carefully and analyze scientifically laptop distribution by Tamilnadu govt. before rejecting it outright.

  5. Abi said...

    @Swarup, @Santosh: Sugata Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiment is so old (1999!) -- the fact that it has not been replicated on a large scale must mean something. Clearly, the experiment has been good to Mitra; but I'm afraid it will always remain the "next game changer."

    @M: I'm all for serious studies of the effectiveness of strategies like the Tamil Nadu scheme to distribute laptops to school kids for free. But where are such studies, and why isn't our government funding them?

  6. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Both for and against points make sense. What will actually happen is perhaps best to be judged based on experiments. Let's see what the TN experiment throws up.

  7. Unknown said...

    Actually I reached out to Mitra to ask about the failure of OLPC vs success of "hole-in-the-wall". Here's his response:

    "I am not sure the hole in the wall has 'succeeded'. It demonstrates a pedagogical principle, but is difficult to sustain on the ground for any length of time. Communities don't look after these computers because they don't understand their purpose. The children suffer.

    I don't know what pedagogical principles the OLPC operates on. But they have sold more to more countries than I can even dream of...."

    I don't think he is admitting to all the limitations in the hole-in-the-wall studies, but at least he is not denying that it has been successful.

  8. Unknown said...

    I meant "at least he is not denying that it hasn't been successful".

  9. gaddeswarup said...

    Going through their site I find this 2010 paper on their studies in Tamilnadu and from the recent report in Scientific American , it seems to be an ongoing project
    A bit worrying is the support from privatization of education advocates.
    But you are closer to the scene and may have a better idea of what is going on.

  10. gaddeswarup said...

    According to this Wikipedia article
    "The methodology arose from an experiment done by Sugata Mitra while at NIIT in 1999, often called The Hole in the Wall,[1][2] which has since gone on to become a significant project with the formation of Hole in the Wall Education Limited (HiWEL), a cooperative effort between NIIT and the International Finance Corporation, employed in some 300 'learning stations', covering some 300,000 children in India and several African countries."
    { think that 13 years is a short time to study the effectiveness of a new method. My hope is that it may supplement ordinary education where there is lack of teachers, but it may still need some sort of monitors.
    My worry is that the first big sponsor of Sugata Mitra was James Tooley and now Ted, both seem keen about privatization of education. It seems that an interesting experiment which may supplement standard education has the possibility of being hijacked by private interests. But it may be an interesting experiment worth pursuing.

  11. Nanos said...

    Can anything beat the good old fashioned blackboard, pencil and paper in primary learning? I do not think so. What many fail to realize is good education comes from good teachers and schools with good facilities. Throwing in cheap tablets/laptops to cover up badly functioning primary education system will not help. The cure is worse than the disease.