The Tamil Nadu Government is making good on Chief Minister Jayalilatha's poll promise of giving away free laptops to all students of government-aided higher secondary schools (classes XI and XII), arts and science colleges, engineering colleges and polytechnic colleges in Tamil Nadu.
912,000 laptops are to be given away this year in the first phase of the scheme with a total of 6.8 million laptops to be given away over the next five years. Over 10% of Tamil Nadu's population will be toting laptops in five years time. The families of students getting a laptop will also have access to a laptop, especially the younger siblings in these families. The total five year budget for the scheme is estimated to be Rs. 10,200 crores (about 100 billion rupees or US$2 billion). More information on the scheme is available in the detailed tender document.
A few observations and implications of this scheme:
- This is probably one of the the largest unconventional ICT interventions in schooling in India or possibly even the whole world.
- The traditional approach would have been to give the laptops to schools and let the children use the laptops while in school. In the Indian context, with tightly controlled access to anything in school, that would have probably limited the use of the laptops by the students to a computer period under the watchful eye of a teacher or a computer operator. The Tamil Nadu Government's scheme takes a diametrically opposite approach and puts the laptops directly in the hands of the end users, with no role for the school or the teacher.
- This scheme has political rather than educational origins. Jayalalitha probably got this idea from one of her political advisers and not from an educationist or anyone with an educational background who believes that laptops will make difference to learning. The Government has gone ahead without worrying about how the students ought to, or will, use the laptops. They have left it to the children to figure it out. But going by Sugata Mitra's experiments in Kalikuppam (Puducherry) and elsewhere, it is quite likely that give the laptops, the students will figure out ways of using them in various ways.
- The scheme has been pitched by the politicians as a great leveller for those children who could not have afforded to buy laptops themselves.
- It would have been ideal if educational video content in Tamil (for. e.g. the entire set of Khan Academy videos dubbed in Tamil) had been bundled on the hard disks of each free laptop being given away to all the students.
- Although laptops are being provided free to the students, Internet access is not being provided free. Students will need to figure out ways of accessing the Internet themselves. But with the spread of Internet browsing centres across Tamil Nadu, the easy availability of dongles like Tata Photon or Reliance NetConnect and Internet services being provided even in rural areas by BSNL and other ISPs, I am sure the students will figure out ways of getting on to the Internet. This is also a huge opportunity for the ISPs to make a huge Internet push across Tamil Nadu, since the availability of devices is no more a constraint.
- The suppliers of the laptops are required to provide a 12 month warranty. They are required to establish service centres in over 100 towns across Tamil Nadu and a call centre facility to take service calls. The service network will probably remain in place beyond the 12 month warranty period, with more laptops being sold to the public in these small towns given the availability of the service network locally.
- The original spec for the laptops to be given away free was an Intel Pentium Dual Core P6200 equivalent with 2.1 GHz clock speed, 2GB RAM, 320GB hard disk and a 14" screen, an inbuilt camera, 2 hour battery backup, along with a customised backpack. The Government had expected to be able to source these laptops for not more than Rs. 10,000 per piece, but the lowest bid for the laptops was not less than Rs. 18,000 per piece. So the spec was then downgraded to a 160GB hard disk and a one year warranty, leaving the processor and RAM unchanged.
- The laptops will come with Windows Starter Edition and anti-virus software pre-installed. Apart from that the only additional software to be pre-loaded is Open Office, Tamil unicode fonts, Tamil glossary, Tirukkural software, and the State Board's syllabi of class XI and XII. Initially, the Government had stated that Linux would not be installed, but later on, the Tamil Nadu IT Minister announced that the BOSS version of Linux wouls also be installed to offer a dual boot option.
- Educationists around the world may have their own views on the effectiveness, or not, of the use of ICT in schools, but this scheme provides an excellent opportunity for a long-term study on the impact of such an intervention. It would be worthwhile to embed researchers in a few schools to observe how students use the laptops by themselves, whether the laptops become tools in the classroom environment and/or outside the classroom. The schools could be split into a control group and a test group with the researchers in the test group actively helping students make the most of the laptops and look at the results. The Azim Premji Foundation or NCERT or some other educational research organisation could initiate a project to study this. I hope they take this up.
- One important aspect that has not been given much attention is the fact that teachers are not going to be given free laptops. Most school teachers are not computer-literate, not having had the opportunity to learn to use computers during their education. This tends to lead to a general fear and diffidence amongst teachers about using computers. When each of their students has a computer and begins to use it without requiring any help from the teacher, this could lead to teachers either becoming anti-computer and decrying the use of laptops as distracting from learning or teachers simply going into a shell, or teachers forbidding students from bringing or using laptops in school or
even teachers commandeering laptops from their students for their own use.
College teachers are more likely to have used computers or have access to computers in their colleges and may be less fearful or diffident about laptops in the hands of their students.
There are around 130,000 teachers employed in high schools and higher secondary schools in Tamil Nadu. It would have been a good move on the part of the Government to give a free laptop to every school teacher too as part of the scheme. It may not be too late yet to include the teachers. Adding another 1.3 lakh laptops to 68 lakh laptops will not cost that much more and could help teachers begin to benefit from the use of IT too.
- Once the laptops are in the hands of the students, what will they do with it? Putting laptops in the hands of students addresses the demand side challenge of making computers available amongst a large number of students. The challenges are now on the supply side
- What kind of educational content can be made available to the students?
- How do we make the content available in particular in Tamil which is the medium of instruction for a large majority of children in Government schools in Tamil Nadu?
- How do we get the content across to the students if they don't have an Internet connection?
- Since most parents and teachers are not conversant or comfortable with the use of computers, they are not going to be in a position to help students when they begin to explore with their laptops. Fears have been expressed of a generation divide which could lead to students "misusing" computers or being exposed to inappropriate content or being taken for a ride by others on social networking sites. As with any scheme, there is bound to be misuse by some people. How the misuse is perceived and dealt with by parents, teachers and society at large remains to be seen.
It may take a few years for the dust to settle and the impact of the scheme to become apparent, but all other states in India and countries around the world too will be keenly watching the outcome of this experiment in Tamil Nadu.
Update: (Source: Business Standard May 16, 2012)
For students, Rs 1,500 crore has been allocated for procuring and distributing 784,000 laptops in 2012-13. The free laptop scheme was part of the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s promise to distribute 680,000 (sic) laptops to students in government-aided higher secondary school and colleges. The total amount to be spent on purchase of laptops will be Rs 10,200 crore over the next five years.
Last year, the state government spent Rs 912 crore on the purchase of 907,790 laptops.