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Buying into the Aakash Dream

A Tablet’s Tale of Mass Education

Sumandro Chattapadhyay (sumandro@cis-india.org) works with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru and Delhi and Jahnavi Phalkey (jahnavi.phalkey@kcl.ac.uk) works with the India Institute at King's College London.

The low-cost Aakash tablet and its previous iterations in India have gone through several phases of technological changes and ideological experiments. Did the government prioritise familiarity and literacy about personal technological devices over the promise of quality mass education generated by low-cost devices? 

This research note is based on a project conducted as part of the Max Weber Foundation’s Transnational Research Group on "Poverty and Education in India," and draws from a paper recently published by the authors in History and Technology.

 

Introduction

The Aakash tablet, hailed as the vanguard of India's “tablet revolution,” was unveiled at the United Nations. It was to showcase India's technological prowess but was quickly lamented as a failed “dream,” and as India's “object lesson” in how not to do technological innovation. The so-called failure of the device became a metonym for the government that backed it, and for the technology establishment of the country. While our longer paper (Phalkey and Sumandro 2016) questions this notion of “failure,” in this article we wish to highlight the role played by the discourse and experiments in technologies of mass education in creating the practical context and the market conditions for low-cost tablets in India.

A 2011 report by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) claimed that although the initiation of the Aakash tablet project met with “skepticism and scorn,” over time it not only developed an affordable device aimed at students in India, but has produced an entirely new market niche of sub-US$100 tablets. This ambitious statement appears to be vindicated by a recent report by the International Data Corporation (IDC), an economic intelligence company, on the tablet market in India. The report notes that the market has grown in the previous year at an annual rate of 8.2%. More importantly, the two companies leading in market share are DataWind (20.7%) and Samsung (15.8%). Incidentally, after the first quarter of 2014, Samsung had the largest (22.5%) and DataWind the 4th largest (6.8%) share. What is noteworthy here is not the rise of DataWind as the leading seller of tablets alone, but that it is the MHRD that heralded this creation of a market niche in India for affordable tablets.

From Satellite to Internet in Education

On 30 May, 1974, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched an ATS-6 satellite that formed the central infrastructural component of the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), one of the early initiatives to harness communication technology for primary and adult education. The SITE project involved broadcasting educational and informational audiovisual content, produced by the All India Radio (AIR), across 2400 selected villages located in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha (erstwhile Orissa), and Rajasthan. Operating from 1 August 1975 to 31 July 31 1976, the experiment was led by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and was supported by UNESCO, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  

The objective of the SITE project was inspired directly by the importance given to skill-development oriented higher education and adult education in the report of the first Education Commission (1964–1966). However, Asif Siddiqi (2015) notes that the project performed a crucial task of establishing the Indian space research programme through a direct alliance with NASA, which held special geopolitical significance given the Chinese nuclear tests of 1964.

This experiment paved the way for the development of the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT,) the first Indian satellite. The entanglement of the Indian space programme with the idea of national-level technological infrastructure for education has continued since. The EDUSAT, launched in 2004, was a collaborative project between ISRO and MHRD to drive satellite-based education across disadvantaged and remote regions of the country. In an audit report in 2013, however, the Department of Space declared that the project has failed, and highlighted three lacks in particular– network connectivity, content generation, and management structure (Union Government 2013).

The earliest initiatives in India to put computers in schools, supplementing and supplanting television screens, began in the 1980s. These efforts pre-dated extensive terrestrial communication fibre networks and relied almost completely upon the success of the Indian space programme. The University Grants Commission (UGC) Countrywide Classroom, Computer Literacy and Studies in Schools, and Computer Literacy and Awareness Programme are the key examples from this time.

The revised Programme of Action of the National Policy on Education (1986) reiterated the need for increased attention to upgrading education technology infrastructure, as well as the development of electronic content for the same. This led to the initiation of the ICT@Schools scheme beginning with the 8th Five Year Plan (1993–1998). Even after 20 years of the introduction of computers in schools across India, a 2006 report on education technology by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) noted that computer-based teaching and learning in an actual classroom setting remains more of a “spectator sport.”

With the advent of the internet, the MHRD started experimenting with internet-based delivery of distance education from 2003, beginning with the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). It did so alongside satellite-based distribution of educational content. NPTEL involved five Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) (Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, and Madras) developing openly available course materials for more than 100 undergraduate courses in five engineering subjects, as well as courses in basic science. These course materials were later made part of the online learning portal called “Sakshat,” which eventually became one of the pillars of the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technologies (NMEICT), initiated during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007–2012). This portal marked the completion of a conceptual and technological shift from the satellite-based models of delivery of educational content, to an internet-based one.

Making and Unmaking of the Aakash Tablet

With NMEICT, large-scale education technology initiatives of the Indian state moved away from the earlier emphasis on primary education and school-oriented computer literacy, to that on higher education and aids for self-learning. The plan for an affordable tablet computer was announced in mid-2010 as part of this mission. This “low-cost access-cum-computing device” was aimed at bypassing the institutional, bureaucratic, and infrastructural barriers to access to quality higher education. Its main audience were students in disadvantaged regions and non-elite institutions, as well as self-learners. The actualisation of the device, however, was continuously delayed and blocked by conflicts between the governmental and non-governmental actors, strong skepticism from the media, and several changes in the state's approach to the project. 

The first approach to the project was an international company that approached the MHRD in 2006, with a proposal to sell educational laptops for school students at 100 US$ each. NK Sinha, then mission director of NMEICT, argued against the purchase. The MHRD saw this as an opportunity for developing an indigenous low-cost computer, and initiated a competition among the IITs to come up with a prototype for this device, which was won by the IIT Kanpur team led by Prem Kumar Kalra, then professor and head of the department of Electrical Engineering. The first publicly exhibited (2010) prototype of the device was the one developed in IIT Kanpur, which was priced initially at 35 US$.

The MHRD, however, soon decided to buy the device from a commercial manufacturer. The responsibility of procurement and testing went to IIT Rajasthan, under the leadership of Kalra who joined the newly established institution as its first director. After the contract with HCL Infosystems was called off in January 2011, DataWind, a Canada and UK based company specialising in internet-access devices, won the new tender to produce the first version of the device. On 5 October 2011, the first version of tablet was launched, priced at Rs 2,500, and co-branded as Aakash and Ubislate—respectively for those bought and redistributed at a subsidised rate by MHRD, and those sold commercially by DataWind.

An early controversy about the tablet, apart from its technical capabilities, was around the claim that they were produced and assembled in China. DataWind rejected the allegations and claimed that all the devices were assembled by Quad Electronics in its factory in Secunderabad, Telangana (then Andhra Pradesh). Within a year, however, DataWind got involved in serious conflict with IIT Rajasthan on one hand, and Quad Electronics on the other. The MHRD intervened again to change the approach by bringing in IIT Bombay (March 2012) as the new procuring and testing agency, thus removing IIT Rajasthan from the project. DataWind also found a new partner in VMC Systems, who started assembling the “kits” imported from China in its establishments in Amritsar and Delhi.

With M M Pallam Raju becoming the Minister of Human Resource Development in late 2012 by succeeding Kapil Sibal, one might say, the Aakash project gradually moved to what we know as its final form. At first, it was suggested that the state should entirely move out of the business of providing low-cost tablets as there is already a vibrant market. Later on, and with thought leadership from Rajat Moona, director general of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), and others, it was decided that “Aakash” would become a brand name available for commercial manufacturers of affordable tablets that satisfy a minimum set of technical specifications. The first draft of the specifications list was published in June 2013. The tendering process, however, got delayed, and eventually came to a near-permanent pause with the general elections in 2014.

As of November 2015, the MHRD has again shown interest in the idea of a state-subsidised tablet computer for education. The tablet was now called Udaan, and aimed at girl students at the higher secondary level, priced at Rs 10,000 (against Rs 2,500 of Aakash), and distributed only to 1,000 students.

Creating Device Desire

In an interview in late 2013, Kapil Sibal (then Union Minister of Communication and Information Technology, former Union Minister of Human Resource Development) shared that “[the] Aakash tablet was [his] dream but it was not fulfilled.” Sibal, undoubtedly the key political driver of the project, in his admission to failure, raises deep concerns about the present state and the future of the technological infrastructure—and the imagination—for mass education in the country.

Tracing the transition of these technologies from SITE to Aakash, we continuously find it difficult to delineate the state’s transforming and transformative agenda of mass education from that of building technological capability. At times, though, we wondered if the agenda for mass education did not become one that served the purpose of generating, for lack of a better phrase, a certain familiarity and literacy about personal technological devices among the population. The motivations and goals that informed these mammoth projects become more and more difficult to decipher when we look at the relatively poor attention given to the production of content. Careful monitoring and documentation of how such content is being received and utilised by the actual learners and their educators was not prioritised; and whenever undertaken, such exercises revealed the deep lack of pedagogic concerns at the heart of these education technology programmes.

Alongside the overwhelming narrative of failure, however, we cannot ignore the remarkable, but quiet, success of the project in normalising and framing the tablet computer as familiar, and almost essential, object for personal learning and development. Apart from presenting the tablet computer as an everyday media object, almost similar to the way television entered the households, the NMEICT and the Aakash project played a crucial role in normalising the notion of online self-learning, and thus that of the online, in the Indian public imagination. In an insightful comment, Suneet Singh Tuli, the CEO of DataWind, remarked that the Aakash tablet was not an “iPad for the poor,” it was the “the computer and Internet of the masses”—it was not selling a demo version of the real thing, it was shaping the very imagination (Kurup 2011).

These stories, together, conspire to make us wonder if all this eventually amounts to create desires for devices; and if the educational and developmental rhetoric helped frame electronic devices as everyday and household objects. The consequences, as we see, cannot exactly be called unintended.

References

[All URLs accessed on 21 April 2016]

Government of India (2011): “The Newsletter on Higher Education,” Issue 6, Department of Higher Education, http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/document-reports/Newsletter-062011.pdf.

Kurup, Saira (2011): “'We Want to Target the Billion Indians Who are Cut Off',” Times of India, 9 October, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/deep-focus/We-want-to-target-the-billion-Indians-who-are-cut-off/articleshow/10284832.cms.

Phalkey, Jahnavi and Sumandro Chattapadhyay (2016): “The Aakash Tablet and Technological Imaginaries of Mass Education in Contemporary India,” History and Technology, Vol 31, No 4, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07341512.2015.1136142?journalCode=ghat20.

Siddiqi, Asif (2015): “Making Space for the Nation: Satellite Television, Indian Scientific Elites, and the Cold War,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol 35, No 1, pp 35–49, http://cssaame.dukejournals.org/content/35/1/35.abstract.

Union Government (2013): “Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for the year ended March 2012,” Scientific and Environmental Ministries/Departments, Report No. 22 of 2013 (Compliance Audit), http://www.cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Union_Compliance_Scientific_Department_Audit_22_2013.pdf.

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