After spending a day experimenting with the new Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci, TechCrunch is calling it a "tablet that could connect the world."
The goal of the cheap computing device – it is anticipated that the gadget will sell for $35 – is to give every child in India, regardless of income, an affordable way to connect to the internet. But it isn't only the tablet that is raising excitement; it is the commitment behind it. With its launch, the Indian government is also making a promise for a prompt build-out of internet infrastructure that will bring access to even the most remote parts of the country.
According to Gregory Ferenstein, it will be hard to overestimate the impact expanded internet access could have on the rural schools across India. Previously, districts showed immediate gains in student achievement after their area was finally wired for access. Putting the Aakash UbiSlate in the hands of students is a preemptive attempt to provide technology that can best get kids on the internet when it finally arrives, and almost every design choice made in creating it points to that goal.
This isn't the company's first attempt to create a budget tablet, but while the previous iteration managed to hit the desired price point, it failed to impress in other key ways. It was criticized for being too slow, too big and not nearly hardy enough to handle the typical environment of rural schools. This time around, all these problems seemed to have been addressed admirably.
The initial tablet drop will go out to universities around the country, according to a source close to the project. India, our source says, has roughly 900 million mobile subscriptions and 80 percent of the country is covered by the broadband data network (GPRS). Through "a special agreement" with the network operator, the tablet manufacturer, DataWind, will offer broadband for a monthly cost of US$1.78. For areas without good electrical access, the tablet can be powered by a solar charger.
Although there's yet not much definitive research on the effectiveness of computer-based teaching, early results are very promising. According to Ferenstein, the most significant study to date shows that academic gains of students taught via computer are quite similar the what is obtained by private tutors.
When Newcastle professor Sugata Mitra scattered unsupervised standalone Internet stations throughout the slums of India, in mere months, neighborhood children significantly increased their science, reading, and math knowledge, leading one reviewer of his to conclude that the impressive results were simply "too good to be true."
However, prior attempts to bring portable technology into poor countries and communities haven't worked out as well as expected. The first high-profile effort – to distribute Nicholas Negroponte's XO Laptop to schoolkids in Peru – produced no skill gains, mainly hampered by teachers who were unfamiliar with the technology and therefore unable to effectively integrate it into their teaching.
On the other hand, a similar effort in Uruguay is having a much bigger impact, Negroponte says, explaining the Peru failure as "an execution mishap."