Chennai: Until recently, S. Dhibeka, 16, who had never used a computer until she chose the computer science stream last year at the aging, leafy Kakkalur Government Higher Secondary School near Chennai, could practise programming for only an hour or two a week, often sharing a desktop computer with one or more of her classmates.
But since September, when the class XII students at the school became early recipients of free laptops from the Tamil Nadu government—in an initiative described as a first for government giveaways, and one that could inspire similar incentives in other states— Dhibeka has been honing her coding skills at home, and she can use her own machine for the once-a-week practical sessions at school, thanks to her computer science teacher, who loaded the C and C++ programming languages onto the laptops.
Early beneficiaries: Students with their laptops at a higher secondary school in Tamil Nadu. J. Jayalalithaa’s administration intends to give away 6.8 million laptops to students of government-aided higher secondary schools and colleges. By Saisen/Mint
In the school’s 12th grade vocational stream downstairs, however, it is left to the students to figure out the best use for their laptops. Their teacher, K.V. Santhanam, has enough on his plate. The lean man in his mid-30s, a non-permanent member of the staff, is the only teacher for the entire vocational group, handling business maths, accountancy, and all the other subjects in the curriculum for the 29 students of the class XII, as well as the 24 students of the class XI.
Despite the critics, students and teachers at one Chennai school are quite happy with the Tamil Nadu government’s free laptop scheme.
And this is precisely the problem many educationists have with the laptop distribution programme: that it seeks to add a superstructure of digital empowerment without laying an adequate foundation in the form of a good education system with qualified teachers.
“The issue lies in not reconceptualizing education,” said independent educational consultant Subir Shukla who has previously helped develop the curriculum for the Tamil Nadu school system.
The laptop distribution “may perhaps help students calculate better and do other operations. But the value addition is going to be less, unless classroom processes are reconceptualized. It’s the job of the teacher to get children to think. And the fact is, right now, a lot of teachers can’t teach well.”
Chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s administration, which assumed charge after the April assembly elections, intends to give away 6.8 million laptops over its five-year term to students of government-aided higher secondary schools and colleges, at a cost of Rs 10,200 crore.
Laying out a budget of Rs 912 crore for this fiscal—which the state could end up overshooting, having placed orders at about Rs 14,000 per unit for around 912,000 laptops—finance minister O. Panneerselvam said, “(The) government is to empower the students, particularly the students hailing from rural areas, especially from weaker sections, and to enhance their skills and ability in computer usage so that they take advantage of the information technology revolution.”
The government has also said that it aims to facilitate the growth of the information technology (IT) industry in the state, particularly by promoting it in tier II cities and in rural areas.
By at least one measure—Internet penetration—the digital divide in India is a vast chasm. The United Nations’ Information Economy Report of 2011 indicates that just 7.5 Indians in 100 have access to the Internet, compared with four in five (or 80 in 100) Americans.
With lingering questions about the educational content on the government laptops, maintenance infrastructure, and monitoring mechanisms, many wonder whether this divide can be bridged in any gainful way by putting laptops in the hands of higher secondary and college students with little, if any, acquaintance with computers.
Being unmoored from the school system, the laptop distribution scheme needs a follow-up mechanism, said Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a non-profit organization.
“How are you going to find out whether these laptops are in the hands of the children themselves? And (that) they are using it for educational purposes and not watching movies, or that their parents are using it?”
“We do instruct the students not to listen to songs or use the computer for purposes other than studies,” said E. Udayakumar, computer science teacher at the Kakkalur school, standing at the door of his class on a recent Friday. “But we can’t monitor everything the children do.”
He was a little red-faced after one of the boys in his class gleefully clicked on an icon on his screen—emblazoned with the picture of a gleaming, ice-blue Kawasaki motorcycle— and showed off a batch of new Tamil movies. Another boy said he had copied an animated cricket game from a friend’s compact disc onto his machine. In some ways, this liberation from the school system could be beneficial. Though many government schools have computer labs, school principals and teachers often don’t allow children to work on the machines “because any damage would show up in the next government audit of the equipment,” said A.L. Rangarajan, programme manager with the educational non-governmental organization (NGO) India Literacy Project.
The lack of a maintenance ecosystem in rural areas could be a major roadblock, many say. A previous sweeping effort to equip students around the world with laptops, by US-based non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), has had dubious results because the NGO has been unable to keep the cost of its laptop to the originally announced $100 or around Rs 5,000 (it now costs $230), but also because in countries such as Rwanda, there have been reports of the machines being relegated to corners of classrooms to gather dust because of the lack of after-sales support.
According to Tamil Nadu IT secretary Santhosh Babu, the government’s five laptop vendors for this fiscal—Lenovo India Pvt. Ltd, HCL Infosystems Ltd, Wipro Ltd, Acer Inc. and RP Infosystems Pvt. Ltd—are to set up 106 service centres, about three to a district, to handle issues that could arise during the one-year warranty. But “when the one-year warranty is over, who is going to take care of it?” asks Manzar.
RP Infosystems has thought of that. The Kolkata-based company, which is to deliver 75,000 laptops to the Tamil Nadu government this fiscal, plans to offer the students a subsidized maintenance contract after the warranty period, charging an annual fee of about 2-3% of machine cost, rather than the 7-8% that is the norm, said P.V. Vaidyanathan, vice-president, operations.
For the one-year warranty period, the company, which already has around 60 service engineers around Tamil Nadu as a result of its work with clients in the banking sector, plans to another 50 or more engineers to maintain a minimum ratio of one service engineer for 1,000 laptops, Vaidyanathan said.
Acer India will be setting up 25 service centres to add to the dozen it already operates around Tamil Nadu, said S. Rajendran, chief marketing officer. The company will also be delivering maintenance support through a contact centre in Chennai, and a call centre providing services in Tamil.
Wipro declined to comment, and the other companies supplying the laptops didn’t respond to questions.
There are those who question the very relevance of information and communication technology (ICT) in schools. “In our country, we tend to overestimate the importance of ICT in education,” said Anurag Behar of the Azim Premji Foundation, which works towards improving education.
Behar should know. For about six years from 2002, the Azim Premji Foundation worked with classes V to VIII in about 20,000 schools, deploying what Behar describes as one of largest libraries of digital learning resources. But the conditions on the ground, such as the limited uptime of computers due to power and maintenance issues, and results that were disproportionate to the investment put an end to that effort, Behar said. The foundation now focuses on teacher training as a means to achieving its education goals.
K. Rajalakshmi would take issue with Behar’s conclusions. The class XII computer science student at the Kakkalur school has not just been learning new applications—taking pictures, looking up English words in the pre-loaded dictionary—on the laptop, but has also been teaching her father, a lathe worker, and her brother, a class VIII student, how to use the machine.
The experience has whetted the would-be teacher’s appetite for learning. “Before this, we didn’t know how to use a laptop, but now we do,” she said. “And if we get connected to the Internet, we could learn a lot more. Right now, we don’t know anything about the world. Once we get the Internet, we could get to know about everything that’s going on in the world.”