Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

by David Porcaro

It’s November. That means my mailbox at home is starting to plug up with holiday shopping ads. In addition to Angry Bird pillows and other must-have gift ideas I’ve seen, conspicuous on the front of every store’s ad was some form of tablet computer-from the super simple but durable kids’ versions to the most expensive iPads.

As more and more tablets come on the market, the prices have dropped considerably. With the soon to be released Aakash tablet by the UK-based DataWind, the affordability of tablets for education development projects is now a reality. The Aakash will come out in December in India, and should sell for about $60 (and even cheaper for students). It runs on Android 2.2, and was designed for the rigors of India’s dusty deserts and damp jungles. While it’s not going to win any beauty contests or high end function races, it has everything a student in a dirt-floor classroom needs. And the functionality is much higher than the MP3 players we piloted in Malawi for about the same price:

  • The seven inch resistive touchscreen easily lets learners (even several gathered closely together) read text, view pictures, and watch video.
  • Resistive touch was used instead of capacitive touch to make the device more rugged and able to withstand students’ abuse.
  • The Android platform allows for customizable learning experiences. For instance, an app could be developed that would guide learners seamlessly between viewing videos, reading text, and taking pictures.
  • While there is no video built into the Aakash, Datawind has said a camera can be added for about $5 per unit.
  • Removable memory means getting content updates easily, and storing video (up to 32 GB) would not be a problem.
  • While GPRS and Wi-Fi are not necessary or practical in many settings, they allow for added functionality and data transfer for areas where the infrastructure is good.

Other tablets built for children show a lot of promise too. The Fable by US-based Isabella Products, is due to be released in April and has a 7 inch full-touch LCD with rugged shell and a welcome 8-10 hour battery (especially needed when charging stations are few and far between). This compares with Aakash’s 2-3 hours of battery life.  While the Fable is designed for high-end markets (with WiFi or 3G), it could be adapted for use in low-resource settings.

But before I get accused of throwing another tech gadget at educational development, let me explore briefly what these tablets make possible.

  • Seward piloted the use of small MP3-players in Malawi as support for an Open and Distance Learning program for newly-inducted teachers. The devices allowed learners to watch teachers model appropriate methods, read various texts on those methods, and then film themselves trying out those methods. The option for preloading devices in other contexts with content for agricultural, vocational, or health education is very high. Content can be updated easily by swapping out memory cards (which can even be mailed easily to areas with no connectivity).
  • Preloading tablets with textbooks or other reading materials could be very welcome in areas where students’ access to reading materials is desperately low. Worldreader has had a lot of success getting e-readers into the hands of more-or-less book-free students in Ghana, where they can’t seem to get enough of the digital books available to them. A tablet could add a lot of value to some of these e-reader programs, and often with a reduction in cost.
  • ACDI/VOCA recently used response clickers to evaluate the effectiveness of cascaded training in Rwanda. A tablet with blue-tooth or other short distance transmission capacity could easily replicate their innovative use of user response systems. In this way an evaluator can gauge participant’s anonymous responses, help shape focus group discussions, and allow evaluators to redirect feedback instantly to the participants.
  • CyberSmart Africa has had a lot of success setting up a low-cost interactive whiteboard using a projector, Wii remote, and a white vinyl sheet stretched across a PVC pipe frame. Tablets can easily be linked to projectors in classrooms, recreating a similar effect. One tablet centrally placed in a classroom could be projected for all to see, and students and teachers could interact easily on the tablet.

And the list could go on. The thing that excites me most isn’t that we can throw another cool gadget at the ill-resourced classroom. I don’t think this is just more OLPC-hype. The thing that excites me is that for a reasonable price (think of the cost of a couple poorly-written textbooks) we can engage learners in multi-media rich, interactive learning environments. High-quality instructional design and good teacher support (the most important components!) can enable these devices to help learners discover and explore, do, record and share. With the right program in place, they can bring nearly limitless resources to schools that are currently lucky if they have chalk for the chalkboards and where learners’ access to reading material is next to non-existent. The tablets are open for customization and are welcome the creation of locally developed content and apps. And the technology isn’t too difficult to learn (after all, my 3-year-old knows what to do with a well-designed touch-screen app). While we can’t fail to mention the drawback that comes from lack of accessibility features on touchscreens for vision-impaired users, tablets open up several other options for learners with disabilities.

So bring on the holiday electronics shopping. All that competition means that useful technology will become even more affordable for developing markets in the near future.

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