Global Observer

Indian schools adopt tablets. Will they improve education?

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DELHI -- Individual schools and the government are pushing students to buy tablets for school. But critics say enhancing education is an afterthought.

Richard Mahapatra, a 42-year-old journalist, recently attended a parent-teacher meeting at his daughter’s private school in Delhi. During the meeting, he said, teachers encouraged him to buy a tablet. The school was selling several tablets made by HCL, a leading Indian technology company, for about 6,000 rupees, or $120.

Some parents, Mahapatra said, bought the tablets. But the journalist found the whole situation uncomfortable: First, he didn’t like the idea of schools promoting a private company’s tablet, and second, he wasn’t sure how it would benefit his daughter.

“For a father like me, it’s not a cultural change but almost like a genetic jump,” he said, recalling that he began his education with chalk and slate at a small tribal school in the state of Orissa on the eastern coast of India. “I don’t discount that we are living in a different age. But first I want to know how helpful is it as an educational tool.”

Over the last 15 years, a growing number of Indian schools have been upgrading their technology to include state-of the-art computers accessible to all students. The Elementary Education in India 2011-12 report finds that now 48 percent of India's 1.4 million schools have computers. Industry sources also estimate that the market for information and communication technologies in education in India was estimated at 285,000 crore rupees or $50 billion in June 2012 and is expected to grow to 570,000 crore or $100 billion by 2014.

But school-owned technology available to all the students is one thing -- asking students to buy their own tablets is another.

The Indian government envisions all the country’s children, rich and poor, studying from tablets. It plans to make the Aakash tablet, the world’s cheapest, available to 220 million students nationwide at a hugely subsidized price of $20, starting with college students. So far, Datawind, the manufacturers of the tablet, have reportedly delivered 100,000 of the devices to the government.

But critics say that adoption of tablets has been unfolding in a largely haphazard manner -- that there hasn’t been much thinking, for instance, on the age children should be exposed to this technology or to what extent should it replace more traditional ways of learning.

Prasanto K. Roy, a technology expert in India, says that presently no studies in India indicate that the use of tablets or other multimedia devices improve education.

Roy pointed out that India’s education system continues to be mostly rote based on right or wrong answers. So effectively integrating education and technology is a challenge that possibly requires some rethinking of the curriculum as well as training teachers to effectively use these devices to enhance learning.

The first step, the expert suggested, is for the government to make the curriculum available on e-books, which can be hyper-linked to external sources. “We have jumped onto the hardware bit, which should be secondary or should run parallel to the content and teacher training,” he said.

However, Ripan Sippy, a child psychologist in Delhi, said that using tablets and PCs is proving to have several advantages as educational tools. The expert says that these are far more “interactive and innovative” mediums than textbooks, which stimulate several senses like sight, hearing and touch. “Ultimately, it is the way to the future,” he said. “The child doesn’t get bored. There is better concentration and retention.”

Presently, each school decides its own technology-policy. Two years ago, the Podar International School, a private school in Mumbai reportedly asked its middle school students to purchase the IPAD 2 for about 40,000 rupees or $800.

Podar, regarded as one of the elite schools of the city, said that parents could buy the tablet on their own or from the school, or avail of a finance scheme. The purchase, however, was not mandatory. And at the time, some parents described its use as “problematic,” “weird” and “difficult.”

In contrast, at Springdales School, a private school in Delhi, director Jyoti Bose said that while the school had introduced the smart class, an e-library with Amazon Kindles that can be used by everyone, it had not decided yet whether it was a good idea to ask students to buy individual tablets.

Bose explained that before introducing the technology the school had several practical issues such as how  assignments would be completed and what the role of the teacher is. Presently even if students do their assignments on computers, they submit printouts to their teachers for evaluation.

“So does the teacher take home all these tablets or receive all homework assignments by email. Or will students now start self-evaluation? The importance of the teacher or the human element should not be negated. At least, I hope not,” she said.

The technological requirements also come with the concerns of creating disparities in private schools, which are now required by law to enroll poor children, who will constitute 25 percent of their schools.

Bose said that unlike South Korea, which will replace all paper in schools with tablets by 2015, India was far too diverse to roll out a blanket policy. “So we have to operate within the larger social context. While children are in school they are all equal,” she said.

While Mahapatra didn’t buy the tablet for his daughter, he did a few weeks after the parent-teacher meeting buy one for himself. His idea was to explore what benefits came from the tablet.

Mahapatra now allows his daughter to play games on the tablet on some days, and admits that it’s become easy to access books that are difficult to find in print. He still isn’t convinced about how it improves learning but is keeping an open mind.

“I went to school looking at live birds. My daughter is looking at Angry Birds," he said, laughing.

Photos: David Ulfers/Flickr, top; miniyo73/Flickr, bottom.

Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure