Surfing in India: Aakash, ASER and the Mobile Phone

07 Tanuj Kalia_largeby Tanuj Kalia

In a country as big as India, numbers can survey the landscape under study with precision while telling a powerful story on the side. Here you go:


The Moore’s Law

India’s population is nearly 1.3 billion. World’s population is estimated at 7.2 billion. This means 1 in every 6 people is an Indian. Only 16% of India’s population has access to internet. By 2016, 72% of the India’s are expected to have a mobile phone. (A large part of these mobile phones can be expected to be smart phones with internet connectivity). Many pundits argue, that internet penetration in India will skip the desktop/laptop route and move straight to mobile phones. Moore’s law, of course, supports this argument. As more and more Indians begin to take-up MOOCs, the first challenge MOOCs are going to face is that of converting their content, systems and delivery to suit the mobile phone platforms.

Aakash: Reaching for the sky!

As far as ‘real’ internet penetration is concerned, only 1.1 per every 100 residents in India have an access to a fixed broadband service. World over, the figure stands at 9.9 per 100 residents. This places India at rank 122 globally. If things are to remain this way, education in India will suffer. However, the Ministry of Human  Resource Development (MHRD) seems to have plan. The problem with the plan is that it doesn’t seem to work!

Aakash is a tablet computer promoted by the Indian Government with the goal to connect 25,000 colleges and 400 universities via an online learning platform. Datawind, a British-Canadian company is producing Aakash. While the MHRD will buy Aakash for a projected cost of Rs. 2263 ($ 36.5), Indian students will be able to buy the device for Rs. 1130 ($18.3), courtesy of the subsidy provided by the Indian Government. Aakash in Hindi means ‘sky’, an aspirational word in any language.  So far so good!

IIT Rajasthan which tested the first Aakash tablets between August-November 2011 rejected 5790 out of the 6440 devices. The 500 students who were given the Aakash tablets complained of issues like the battery not lasting for the stated 3 hours, slow operations of the device, a touch screen which was not sensitive to touch and the Aakash which got too hot, too easily!

The contract to procure 100,000 tablets was then transferred to IIT Bombay. Now the mandate rests with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) which is under the Ministry of  the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. The problems don’t end there.

It is a well established rule of justice that one cannot be a judge in his/her own case. Now, when Aakash was conceived, one Mr. Kabil Sibal was the HRD minister of India. Mr. Sibal is now the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, the same ministry under which C-DAC falls.

The first issue: the impact on the ground

‘Pratham’ in Hindi means ‘first’. It also happens to be the name of the largest NGO in India working in the field of education. It’s tagline says “Every child in school and learning well”. To track their tagline Pratham has been organising a survey called the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Aser in Hindi means ‘Impact’. These are the findings of the 2013 ASER report:

Good news! Enrollment sat in the 6-14 age group shows that 96% of children are in school.

The bad news! 

  • The percentage of useable toilets for girls is 53.3%.
  • 22.9% of schools in India do not have library.
  • Only 47% of Indian students studying in Grade V can read a Grade II text. 
  • India finds itself on a challenging ground and in a difficult time. 

While the potential of the online education to change the learning landscape in India does exist it has to be backed by a rapid overhaul of a system which lags woefully behind in terms of school infrastructure and performance.