INDIA: $35 laptop a revolution in university learning?

First-generation university student Shanti Chura had never used a computer until she went to college. The tribal girl who came top of the first ever intake for the commerce degree at Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, is among the millions of students India's education ministry wants to reach with its '$35 laptop'.

"This is part of the national initiative to take forward inclusive education. The solutions for tomorrow will emerge from India," said Education Minister Kapil Sibal unveiling the prototype of the low-cost laptop in July.

The government has decided to procure the $35 laptops before January 2011, to be rolled out initially to university students from the second half of 2011 - possibly with the help of government subsidies - and later expanded to secondary pupils.

The low-cost computer has been developed by students and scientists from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, Chennai, Mumbai, Kharagpur and Jodhpur (Rajasthan), and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, in collaboration with the National Mission for Education through ICT.

The 23 centimetre (nine-inch) wide touch-screen device, weighing 1.5 kilograms, is packed with open source software including internet browsers, a PDF reader, video conferencing platform, open office, media player, remote device management capability, multimedia input-output interface option, and multiple content viewer based on the open source Linus operating system.

The device will also be able to run on solar power besides the usual battery-operated system.

"A tablet PC at this price will enable affordability. But what kind of content the PC can host is still to be seen. At this price most of the software used has to be open source," said Joseph Tryble, zonal sales manager in India at Pearson Education, the world's largest educational publisher.

Implications for higher education

But many university teachers welcomed the development. "A laptop or even a computing device at Rs1,500 (US$35) is a revolution," said AK Bakshi, director of the Institute of Lifelong Learning at the University of Delhi. "It will benefit students and teachers across India, especially in villages and smaller towns."

Bakshi is heading a project to digitise textbooks and create new content online, including e-books for undergraduate students in the university.

"If every student has a laptop with internet connection they can access the free content from anywhere in the country. Imagine the possibilities if every student has access to content created by the best teachers from across India," said Bakshi.

Sonakshi Pandit, studying for a doctorate in education at the University of Pune, hopes the laptop will force teachers and students to update their teaching and learning styles.

"We study from boring textbooks and the mode of instruction is mostly through lectures. While many of us have laptops, we don't use them in the classroom because not everyone has access. If every student has a laptop then classroom learning has the potential to evolve and become student-friendly," said Pandit.

The ministry has allocated Rs30 million (US$660,000) for field tests. IIT-Rajasthan will test the device across the country under different weather conditions, and to gauge the efficiency of the computers, a senior ministry official said.

If the computers pass the field tests the government will procure one million units in the first phase, making them available to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

While the device will provide internet access, Pearson's Tryble said the issue of hosting content was the same as that of the $100 laptop developed by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology for use in developing countries.

"We still do not know what platform the $100 laptop will use and what kind of content it will provide to students," Tryble said. "If the laptop cannot support educational content then it will be just another computing device that will help improve basic ICT skills."

Tryble added: "The IITs need to evolve a platform that will accommodate all content [for the $35 laptop]. They also have to integrate regional languages."

However the roll-out is part of a broader government plan. "The government has invested heavily in the National Mission on Education through ICT. It is building a National Knowledge Network that will connect more than 1,500 universities and research institutions in India. The laptop will complement this progress," an official said.

A limited version of the network has been running since January 2009 and has so far connected 76 institutions and helped set up 48 virtual classrooms. It is expected to be completed by December 2011.

Meanwhile, the IITs and IIS-Bangalore are working on setting up a virtual university along with virtual labs. They have already designed 240 courses and will develop 1,000 more courses to be made available online.

"We want to make quality education accessible to many more students using modern tools instead of setting up brick-and-mortar campuses," the official said.

However, a lack of information from the ministry about the hardware and components of the laptop has raised questions and sceptics cite past failures including the Rs10,000 personal computer, the Simputer, MIT's $100 laptop, Net PCs from a host of companies and India's previous attempt at a $10 laptop.

"Development efforts are still on, and various refinements and enhancements are being tested. We hope multiple variants of the device will be created to cater to varying budgets and needs at the school and university levels," an official said, refusing to go into detail.

Some technology experts are doubtful about the price, even though it is based on economies of scale.

"Nobody has till date achieved a price of $35 per unit. The government is talking about one million units, which might bring the price down," said Amith Srinivas, senior business development manager at the technology company AllGo in Bangalore, which has also been developing cheap laptops.

"For us it is impossible. Even after procuring all the components from China, we have to pay heavy duties and taxes to be able to sell in the Indian market," said Srinivas.

Nonetheless, even he believes the 'simplified netbook' will enable students to perform low-power applications such as browsing, downloading lectures and playing local audio and video. And that could be the beginnings of a revolution in learning.