The next big thing

India unveils tablet education initiative. Will the US follow suit?

While the US has been focused on the relatively pricey iPad Mini, India has turned its attention to the launch of the cheap, yet powerful, Aakash 2 tablet computer. Millions of students across India will soon have access to what’s been hailed as “the world’s cheapest tablet”, manufactured by the UK-based company Datawind. The Indian government will purchase the tablet from Datawind at a cost of around $40 and sell it to students through their schools for $21. In addition to subsidizing the device, the government will also provide teachers with the relevant e-learning training. The initial rollout will be deployed to 100,000 university students and professors, but the Indian government’s plan for tablet learning goes far beyond the university level. Suneet Tuli, the chief executive of Datawind, told Quartz’s Christopher Mims that the government would ultimately like to distribute an Aakash 2 to each of India’s 220 million students.

The potential of the Aakash 2 to transform Indian education is enormous. In rural communities, for instance, tablets might virtually connect students with more highly-qualified teachers thousands of miles away. What’s more, in India, only 8 percent of households in urban areas own a computer with internet, and the percentage falls to just 1 percent in rural areas. Equipping students with tablets doesn’t merely provide them with better in-school education, it also puts the internet at their fingertips. If this government tablet push succeeds, it has the potential to go far beyond the classroom, ultimately connecting a whole generation with a larger global community and instant access to unending information.

In the US, on the other hand, there has yet to be a large governmental push toward e-learning. Part of this is likely due to the federal government’s relatively minimal role in the US education system. The federal contribution to school budgets is a little less than 11 percent and control mainly rests at the state and local level, making sweeping reforms difficult to implement. A top-down tablet education revolution is unlikely to happen in the US.  

This is not to say that tablet education programs aren’t cropping up across the country. The San Diego Unified School District is installing 26,000 tablets in 340 of its classrooms. Louisiana’s Ascension Parish gave out 1,800 iPads to its middle school students. US private schools, which generally have more resources and freedom than public schools, are also implementing tablet-based learning initiatives. My alma mater in Atlanta now gives each elementary school student an iPad, a fact I look at with slight disdain and a tinge of jealousy. All told, the advertising agency MDG estimates that American students are currently using 1.5 million iPads.

Of course, merely giving students tablets isn’t going to cause a sea change in American education. Devices are useless without the proper support, training and software. That’s why companies–from startups to Fortune 500s–are venturing into the curriculum development and teacher training space. Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor, is leading Amplify, a division of News Corp that creates tablet-based learning curricula and products. The start-up Kno is transforming textbooks into engaging e-books that let you make flashcards, see other students’ notes and take interactive quizzes. These tablet education ventures also serve a corporate interest. A recent study from McKinsey and GSMA estimates that mLearning (which includes smartphones and tablets) will generate $20 billion by 2020 in North America alone.

As these tablet-learning programs roll out in India, the US and beyond, other questions will certainly arise. How effective is tablet learning? How can teachers make sure students are using tablets to do classwork, not look at photos on Facebook? Are tablets merely a trend, or are they really the next big thing in education? If you’re a teacher or student using a tablet in the classroom, please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.  

Photo of the Aakash tablet from the Datawind website; Infographic from MDG