Thursday, February 3, 2011

Can EBook Readers be the answer to provide mass rural education/information in India?

Some years ago I was thinking how good would it be for me to be able to read books without having to carry several fat books on the plane while I travelled. These days they do not allow such a luggage anyway on the planes. Generally they allow one book. Companies around the world are doing everything to cater for this travelling public especially the business people and have developed netbook laptops, tablets and EBook Readers.

Many philanthropic organizations and Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) are doing much to provide health care, micro loans and education of all types to the poor to enable them to gain better economic benefits in life. However, unless government acts in a massive scale similar to ones adopted for eradication of small pox, polio etc. to develop better access to education and provide education, not only will this generation lose out but also future generations. A country like India or nations with in African continent can't afford this kind of continued failure to provide education.

Recently, I read that by increasing number of schools for 100,000 people from 60 to 114, the state of Bihar has achieved an unprecedented 97% school attendance among children who are 5 years and below. One might wonder what impact a child attending school at this age would have on future economy. Studies have shown that priority given to child development in the first 5 years of a child's life has a huge impact on the future of that child physically, emotionally and financially. Western countries have given priority for this age group to ensure they do not fall through the cracks in the education systems.

A key thing Bihar has done is also to provide bicycles for not just school age girls but also boys. This and other schemes such as providing meals has increased attendance to 66%. From a basket case state to developing Bihar is a monumental change. If more states achieve this it will have a huge impact on Indian economy and social stability. Hopelessness and helplessness creates social unrest and a culture of envy rather than an aspirational culture where people are confident of fair access to facilities and education thereby strive to achieve higher level of economic success. Studies have shown that prosperity reduces population not fear or cohersion.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett two most successful businessmen in the world are heading to India to request Indian 66 billionaires to pledge a portion of their wealth for mass scale social causes. Bill Gates has given away $25 billion to his foundation and has worked tirelessly to eradicate preventable diseases in Africa and countries such as India. Warren Buffett has given away $44 billion to Bill Gates foundation and has pledged 99% of his considerable wealth to the foundation. The US and Australia have one of the high rates of general public providing for charitable causes.

A major cause for which Indian rich and above middle class can give is mass education irrespective of caste creed religion gender and financial status.  However, just as India leapfrogged into communication through mobile connectivity it needs to leapfrog into education using more recent technologies which can be done cheaply and distributed effectively enmasse. The standard school system is one way to expand by adding more class rooms and more school percapita population. However, the thinking need go beyond these systems as many kids have to work to feed themselves and their families. Many children need to look after other children and elderly. Irrespective of best intentions by the government a fair proportion of kids will miss out.

A key problem in countries such as India is also rural migration to urban areas to search for labouring jobs. These people end up living mostly in slums and shanty towns and education will not become a high priority. This situation has a huge impact on rural youth participating in local agriculture sector and will end up with farmers not being able to hire youth for farming activities which has adverse impact on farm productivity and food security. However if rural areas are able to retain its youth by providing education and incentives for training and rural employment prospects then the over population plaguing the urban areas can be reduced and rural population retains its youth leading to food production security.

Purchasing land in African countries for India's food security is fraught with danger and sooner or later will come undone. Ethiopia has provided 1.18 million hectares of its land to Indian agricultural production companies so that its population can be employed and India can get extra food. However, African economy is growing too and this situation can create more demand for food and thereby much social unrest similar to that of Zimbabwe. India needs to manage its own food and bio security by addressing this issue head on and not by borrowing other peoples land wealth.

How to leapfrog access to education

More recently companies have been producing computers such as Apple IPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab etc. for using as tablet computers. These have broadband 3G access and have WiFi capacity. Companies such as Amazon, Sony, Borders etc have been marketing EBook Readers which are 3G enabled and/or WiFi enabled. One Laptop Per Child system has strived to develop access to education via internet in countries such as Uruguay, Peru Nepal etc. to enable even a child sitting in a mountain home without even access to electricity to use a laptop and learn through it. However, this system needs governmental support and agreement to set up satellite dishes etc. In India, the governments have promised that they can provide such a laptops to children using indigenous technology however no such development has come about as of today. Even countries such as Australia have less ego and have approved this system for educating aboriginal children in remote parts of northern territory with the sponsorships from banks and governments. Indian politicians egos are being stoked at the cost of education of poor children in India as they can neither get access to one laptop per child nor can they have indigenous technology of any sort.

How can NGOs and individuals help?

Copying is the best form of flattery and Chinese companies are very good flatterers as they copy anything that does not move first. Recently I purchased a EBook Reader called MiGear locally for $98.00. This is equivalent of Rs. 3000. It is a Chinese copy of a Ebook Reader. It has a back-lit screen, 16GB micro SD card expansion slot with 2GB internal memory. This means several thousand books, music, photos can be loaded and read at night so long as there is access to recharging.

I would ask any one in India with capacity to write software codes to develop a software for using it in the local language so that children and adults can read and learn to read using this technology. It could do for education what mobile phones have done for access to communication. Using such a system a teacher's entire class teaching can be recorded and loaded with books and photos and a child can learn the basics of language, maths history science etc. This may sound far fetched however when mobile technology came to India even the best companies estimated that they would be selling 10 million phones sold per year. Today, there are 725 million mobile phones with over 10 million mobile connections being provided per month. Africa is now leapfrogging into this connectivity cycle with over 500 million mobile phones. Systems such as M-Pesa are even providing peer-to-peer money transfer to people thereby providing access to banking and purchasing facilities to many unbanked people. Even in the US 15% of the population is unbanked. Point of Service banking is being used in India too for remote banking service. Financial education at an early age is the key to people managing debt and accessing credit.

EBook Readers with 3G and WiFi technology can provide capacity to access information, conduct research, access maths, science, history information all free on the internet and access several million books which are available through Project Gutenberg, Amazon, Google Books etc. Research students who want to have access to hundreds of books can do so. Children who want to learn Vedic maths to Vedas can explore and learn. However, if there is lack of internet access charities can download these books and provide these on micro SD cards which students can copy and read at a convenient time. Books are said to be a world in one's pocket. I need not say that it will open up a world of information and education to thousands of children with out having to purchase hard copy books which they can not afford to anyway. We need to think outside the box and even change the material the box is made out of. Indian children can't wait for governments to make up their mind any longer while life and potential is wasting away day by day year by year.

One key mention I need to make here is the access to light. NGOs such as Sacred Trust in Karnataka are providing LED lights which are rechargeable to children to enable them to read at night. It only costs Rs 250 per unit and this is what it takes to improve rural students access to education. It is this kind of basic initiative that will make Indian kids go forward rather than high tech inaccessible technologies and pie in the sky ideas by the governments.

I urge anyone with software coding experience with Linux based software such as Android to take up this as a challenge and write codes for local languages. I urge NGOs to look into cheap but good Chinese EBook Readers to help the kids. Indian kids should not be asked to waste their potential any longer for anyone.

If Indian middle class wants food security then they need to consider providing money and/or time to enable rural kids to get basic education and training in Agriculture so that they are part of a successful rural economy. Indians need to start to consider providing money for legitimate charities or provide these to the poor people they are acquainted with so that they can participate in changing potential of rural India. No amount of wringing of hands or pitying the poor will provide food security as more and more people leave rural areas. Time to sit still complain is over. Lack of food or reduced food production will only increase inflation which will inturn do damage to potential benefits due to economic growth.

Act now while there is still time and opportunity.

"Arise Awake and stop not till your goal is reached"- Swami Vivekananda.


Laptops for remotely located children


LED lights for children

Indian language ebooks

For other ebook sites please refer to other blog posts in this blog.


Please note that I do not have any affiliation with either MiGear or any other EBook reader manufacturers or LED light manufacturers. I a concerned Indian born person who is interested in turning existing technologies to help urban and rural poor. Education is the key to change not pity.

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