Aakash: a bitter tablet?

The low cost tablet Aakash was promised to students as a device that would significantly improve the quality of education. But the feedback from the pilot seems to suggest that it is a grand dream fast going sour

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | March 16, 2012




The entire world watched with awe as India unveiled the Aakash tablet computer, expected to cost around $35, on July 22, 2010. Union minister for human resource development and minister for IT and telecom Kapil Sibal presented the tablet to the public for the first time amid much cheering — clearly, the tablet was something that would revolutionise the way higher education was disseminated in university spaces and outside. After all, Aakash is part of the central government’s '4,612 crore national mission on education through information and communication technology (NMEICT), launched in 2009. The mission aims to increase the “enrollment in higher education” and take delivery of education to “citizens’ doorstep” through creation of a national digital knowledge repository which can be freely accessed by anyone and everyone over the internet. To meet this end, the HRD ministry has allocated 60 percent of its total budget to connect 400 universities and almost 20,000 colleges, across the country.

The low-cost tablet which the government intends to provide on a mass scale is the device to access the knowledge repository including the Sakshat portal, www.sakshat.ac.in (a repository of digital educational content on various subjects created by educationists from premier learning and research institutions in the country) and the national portal on technology enhanced learning, NPTEL (a repository of video lectures available on various streams of engineering).

While most students in the country can’t afford the likes of an Apple iPad or a Kindle book-reader, the Aakash tablets, at an estimated price of Rs1,100 (subsidised), offer those from the lower income group an affordable gadget that could help them in their education. The device is also a big leveler for students from the middle class background, who don’t possess a smartphone or a personal computer. “We get a lot of assignments in our classes. But there are not many books in the university library. It is neither possible to buy every single book nor to go to a cyber café every day. If we have something like Aakash, we could prepare our assignments at university or at home,” says Sneha Raghuvanshi, an undergraduate student at the Banaras Hindu University who aspires to own one someday.

According to professor Prem Kalra, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Rajasthan (Jodhpur) — the institution overseeing the design, testing and procurement of the tablet — Aakash will help students transcend several divides.  “If parents can’t afford to send their children to school, but the children are eager to study and learn, what are the mechanisms through which they can achieve what they want?” asks professor Kalra.
The tablet runs on the Android 2.2 operating system, powered with a 366-megahertz processor, 256-megabyte random access memory (RAM) and a battery which was touted to last up to three hours. The tablet has a Wi-Fi feature too, meant to allow students seamless download of videos lectures and e-books.

The HRD ministry first got interested in a low cost tablet in 2006 when an engineering student at the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) came up with the concept. “Incidentally, the student happens to be the son of NK Sinha, mission director NMEICT and additional secretary with the ministry,” says a senior government official not wishing to be named. Soon after the ministry expressed its interest, Texas Instruments came up with a device that was priced at $47, the official adds.

The ministry was keen that the cost of the tablet be kept low — according to the mission document, the tablet was to be offered for free to students from the economically weaker section. “To understand the specifications and design of such a tablet and the feasibility of developing a prototype, ministry officials, under NMEICT, visited Taiwan and China,” the ministry official informs.

The MHRD decided to hand over the charge of coming up with the design and specifications and the procurement of a low cost tablet to IIT Rajasthan. Professor Kalra, thus, came on board the project and has been with the mission since its inception.

Adhering to standard procurement norms, IIT Rajasthan placed an order with UK-based Datawind, the lowest bidder, in 2010 for one lakh tablets for testing purposes. Price being a function of volume, the number, according to professor Kalra, was deliberately kept high. After a few delays and the July launch, the HRD ministry put together a function on October 5, 2011 for the pilot distribution of the low-cost tablet. Sibal handed 650 tablets to as many students from different institutes in the country. Everybody — the minister, the students, the developers — beamed, confident that the digital enablement of education had taken off and that it would only soar in the future.

A few months later, something seems to have gone awry in the Aakash flightplan.

Within a few days of receiving the tablet, the students found out that the gadget performed poorly and was not up to the standards that had been promised. The touch screen was hard and resistive while the processor, slow. The actual battery life (20 to 40 minutes in the better ones) was much less than the promised two-three hours. It did not even last a single lecture, noted almost every single disappointed user Governance Now spoke to.

According to the students, the slow processor or the unresponsive touch screen do not disappoint as much as the failure of some of the basic features does. Praveen Sah, one of the 20 students at IIT Ropar, Punjab, who received the tablets, says, “Just two days after I got the tablet, I was not able to switch the device on — it simply did not work. When the students returned the 20 tablets they had received to the college administration in December 2011, almost 18 were not working,” says Sah.

Scoffing at the less than impressive debut of the tablet, a professor at one of the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIITs) said under the condition of anonymity, “Providing a device at such low cost is appreciable, but it should be usable too.”

The handling of the pilot distribution itself has been sub-par, insist some. Before Sibal distributed the device to students in October over 700 students had been invited to test the device at IIT Rajasthan and offer feedback. They were overwhelmingly critical. The most critical feedback came from the institute itself. Almost 170 of the 700 students testing the device were from there. Details of the user-feedback from 20 of them, communicated to Governance Now on phone by the students themselves, suggest that the Aakash dream could go sour if the project is not rebooted.

“We used the device for almost a month. I had almost 40 tablets whose batteries were to be tested. Out of these, just 4-5 devices had the battery attached intact with the body. The rest were loosely set. Unlike the devices where the battery fits snugly into a groove in the body, Aakash’s battery had been plastered to the body with cello tape,” says Shashank, a third-year computer science student.

Detailing his findings, Sidharth Jain, a second-year mechanical engineering student at the institute, says, “The device has a lot of applications which would definitely serve the purpose of the students. But these apps did not work in the tablets we had tested. Also, almost 80 percent of the device didn’t match the promised standards. The battery backup was said to last for three hours. It actually lasted for two, and if I played a video, it ran out in only one hour.”

“Around 40 percent of the lot that we got for testing had loose components and one could literally hear the components rattle if one shook the device. Wi-Fi connectivity was another issue. Around 40 percent of the devices could not access the internet through Wi-Fi. We somehow managed to download video lectures from NPTEL but we could not play them. The battery backup was an issue here. The battery had to be charged every 20-30 minutes. This, when a lecture typically lasts almost 55 to 60 minutes,” says Jain.

The popularity of the tablet, as Jain remarks, is because of the low cost. But if it doesn’t work, why should anyone be interested in buying it, even if it comes cheap, asks Jain.

According to Yatin Mendiratta, a first-year MTech student, the device “hanged” too much. Malfunctions would cause the operations to come to a halt and the user was left unable to use the apps. Besides, the tablet would heat up quickly. “Many apps present took up a lot of memory space but were of no use —like the phone book and camera apps,” he notes. 

As if this wasn’t enough, the government also had to contend with vendor issues. Datawind, the vendor that won the phase 1 contract for one lakh tablets, failed several deadlines. According to another official associated with Aakash, only six to seven thousand tablets were given by Datawind to IIT Rajasthan so far. From those supplied, every single lot failed the standard protocol tests and had to be returned to Datawind.

Besides, given the extreme weather variations in the country and the requirements and tech-readiness of targeted users, IIT Rajasthan had proposed humidity and drop tests for the tablets. The vendor, however, said the proposed tests were of  “military standards” and it was difficult for them to provide the tablets with this high standard at the given cost. Datawind and the government (IIT Rajasthan) are stuck in a stalemate and the procurement of the rest of the tablets doesn’t seem to be happening soon. “The government will never compromise on the quality and provide substandard devices to the students,” offers professor Kalra as a reason for  the proposed   tests.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the existing stalemate, Sibal announced that the development (of specifications) and procurement of Aakash 2 will be shifted from IIT Rajasthan to a committee headed by the secretary, department of information technology (DIT) with the directors of IITs at Mumbai, Kanpur and Kharagpur, among others, as members. Moreover, the centre for development of advanced computing (CDAC), which is the research and development organisation of DIT, has been made responsible for developing the new Aakash tablets.

While the MHRD has announced details of the Aakash 2 prototype —an upgraded version of the original with a faster processor (near to 1 GHz), capacitive touchscreen and longer battery life — the fate of more than 90,000 tablets, yet to be procured from Datawind and tested, has been left in the lurch. In addition, given the sheer size of targeted users, it’s very important that the development and procurement of proposed Aakash 2 happens in a much more cohesive fashion.

Professor Rajat Moona, director general, CDAC, is concerned about the targeted US$50 price for the base model of Aakash 2. He avers, “To maintain the price at US$50 is very ambitious given the specifications recommended.” Moreover, the actual price, according to him, can only be finalised once the tablet is in its roll-out phase which could be by April end.

The device will certainly help bridge the gap between rural and semi urban areas and metros when it comes to education, as students will now freely access quality content over internet with the help of Aakash. In addition, it will enormously help in reducing the digital divide across the country. The promise of Aakash indeed seems revolutionary. But given the state of affairs, will the revolution hold?

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