Aakash finds its way into pilot projects for US schoolchildren

livemintDataWind ships 2,000 Aakash tablets in US; school project gives hopes to company for mainstream rollout

Bangalore: Aakash, the low-cost computer tablet that made a controversial debut in India promising to bridge the country’s digital divide, is finding a new home in the North Carolina state of the US and San Francisco city, where pilots aimed at helping underprivileged schoolchildren learn math and other subjects are underway.

Arlington, Virginia-headquartered not-for-profit organization Communities in Schools (CIS) completed an experiment in Wake County, the largest school system in North Carolina with 169 schools and 150,000 students, where some 100 units of Aakash 2 were used. The tablets used in the pilot were supplied at $45 each, a price point that helped UK-based DataWind Ltd, maker of Aakash, get the contract.

“The price point was a game-changing factor for us. As a non-profit, we depend upon corporate and individual donors to meet most of our expenses, and tight economic conditions put most tablet-learning ideas out of reach for us. The $50 price point of a Wi-Fi tablet (free Wi-Fi is available in many of the student’s neighbourhoods) made it an affordable pilot and something we could conceivably use on a widespread basis,” said Chris Evans, a technology entrepreneur who is leading the CIS project in North Carolina.
DataWind has shipped 2,000 Aakash tablets in the US without any public rollout. Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive officer of DataWind, said his company is betting on these smaller US experiments.

“When we commercially launch in the US, we expect the US market to reach a million units in the first year (the same quantum as what we’re placing currently in the Indian market), but we expect the market to grow exponentially,” said Tuli.

“Several parents of the students have already asked about purchasing the tablets for their children after the pilot and seemed very happy with the price. Nearly all the parents of our kids live on public assistance, and so it’s very encouraging that they would be so willing to buy the Aakash for their children,” said Evans.

Experts said DataWind’s tablets will surely not be the only products serving the market, but these experiments prove that low-cost innovations are needed everywhere.

Aneesh Paul Chopra, who served as the US’s first chief technology officer until February last year, said Aakash’s acceptance in the country is a growing sign that low-cost innovations from India can find opportunities in other developed markets.

“In the US, one-third of every family does not have broadband connect. Either you refuse online assignments or you subsidize cost of access devices for every child. The former option will make learning prolonged and the latter is expensive,” said Chopra, who is now involved with a project in San Francisco that aims to use Aakash tablets for school learning.

ubislate-505_110912012832_121812111538The North Carolina pilot used DataWind’s UbiSlate 7Ci, which is the commercial version of Aakash 2, supplied at $45 each unit. As part of the Indian government project, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, purchased 100,000 of these tablets.

“Aakash offered a magical, unsubsidized price point,” Chopra said.

The one being planned for the San Francisco project could involve high-end 3G Aakash version, Tuli of DataWind said.
Some experts, such as Prasanto K. Roy, a technology writer following Aakash since it was launched, said there are lessons to be learned from the tablet’s US adoption.

“Somewhere, the Indian government got into this made-in-India business and forgot the priority, which was education and not manufacturing,” said Roy. The reasons behind controversies faced by Aakash in India included the project’s strong association with the government.

“There’s also enormous cynicism about anything that the current government does,” Roy said. “Add to that a growing cynicism for any Indian product.”

Other experts, such as Vivek Wadhwa, vice-president, research and innovation, Singularity University; a fellow at Stanford Law School, and a director, research, Duke University, said like first versions of many products, Aakash too had flaws, but that shouldn’t have been the reason for so much controversies.

“In the West, I realized that prices would not by themselves come down because the leading companies—Apple, Samsung, Dell,
Microsoft, etc., have no incentive to bring prices below the current levels. The markets are relatively small, so they want high margins,” said Wadhwa.

“That is where India comes in. As I explained in the piece I wrote for Mint, India created the breakthrough by creating the specs for and a tender to purchase $35 tablets. The early versions of these tablets were inadequate and had severe flaws—as all Version 1 technologies have, but the vision was sound,” Wadhwa added.

The first version of Aakash tablets had many flaws, including low battery life, mostly because the government defined the specifications, experts said.

“There were some military-level tests conducted on early versions of Aakash. Even globally, none of the government-led low-cost
manufacturing projects have been successful,” said Roy, who is now a consulting editor with Cybermedia Group that publishes technology magazines.

To be sure, Aakash will have more competition in the US.

“There’s no reason to believe Aakash will be the only one because this is now also a part of the President’s inclusive agenda,” said Chopra.

“We will see all sorts of new applications—uses in restaurants, cars, supermarkets. It won’t be Aakash, but a flood of competitors that fill all these new niches. Imagine Amazon giving tablets away so you can order goods more easily,” added Wadhwa.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina pilot does provide hope for Aakash to go mainstream.

“I visited one of the sites a few weeks ago to see how the tablets were being used. I was in a room with about 30 children, each with an Aakash. They were all running different learning programmes—some teaching math, others reading, etc. After a few minutes, one five-year-old proudly announced he had achieved Level 4 in a game involving addition (I was told he’d started the day at Level 1). The administrators told me that the kids in the room were already becoming proficient in the skills they would be learning in school the coming fall,” said Evans.

School instructors in the Aakash pilot said the tablet so far it has been helpful.

“The students have really engaged learning through educational gaming apps loaded on the tablets,” said Ivy McKenzie, an instructional technology teacher in the Wake County Summer Camp earlier this year.

For now, DataWind is importing Aakash tablets from India. Tuli and others are hopeful that these tablets could even be manufactured in the US. “Manufacturing Aakash in the US is a bold ambition, but I am hopeful that the tablets can be manufactured here,” said Chopra.

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