On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala takes time off to talk to us about the low-cost Aakash 3 tablet project he is at the helm of. Prof. Jhunjhunwala, of the EE department at IITM, is well known for his extraordinary work both as a professor and an entrepreneur. He leads the Telecommunications and Networks Group (TeNeT) at IITM, which has been working for years to bridge the gap between rural and urban India and has incubated several products that seek to propel the development of rural areas. This particular project aims to revolutionize the role of technology in education in India.
Can you tell us more about the project?
The new version of the Aakash tablet is specified as a 7-inch, extremely low-cost device priced at about Rs. 2500. We intend to, in the initial stages, make it available for every college student in the country so that handling technology does not remain only a dream. We shall provide a lot of accompanying features, but the major goal of the project is to emphasise its ability to improve educational standards.
It is not a stand-alone device in the sense that it requires broadband wi-fi. So, we are also working on accessibility and network coverage in locations like schools, colleges and hostels. It is also essential to provide multiple public access points like say, a playground, so that on any day, a student has internet access within his/her reach.
But we realize that providing these in itself will not remarkably impact education. We need to gradually make the process of driving education home appealing – instilling a sense of comfort to the user, what you would term user-friendly. It is a fact that a lot of these resources(academic content) are already available but our aim is to develop content that is different in that it makes the user comfortable. We would like to introduce the concept of an interactive e-book. That is, instead of users conforming to the rigid structure of the material, we intend to provide plenty of choice so that they choose their mode of learning. For example, instead of having lectures that last an hour or so, we would like to plug in shorter-duration video lectures (15 minutes or so) pertaining to a section right next to it. Accompanying it, would be animation videos or applications and related facts or even a powerpoint presentation to help in quick review. These visual and audio aids would majorly impact understanding and are more inviting than a rigid one-dimensional approach. Tools for evaluation are also included in the form of quizzes. We are trying to incorporate descriptive questions too wherein submitted answers go through peer review. Additional accessories like a dictionary and a language-translator are also being considered. I would say, the bottomline is that we are looking to provide pedagogy to students who do not have access to it.
Coming to the monetary part of it, the costs are shared. Content cost is largely one-time and can even be overlooked when seen from the perspective of one student. Connectivity cost is also shared by the community and is not a major factor. What matters most is the device cost and we are working to reduce this as much as possible.
On a personal note, what does it mean to you to be helming this project?
When I joined IIT Madras, there were about 25000 engineering admits in the whole of our country per year. A large portion of them, in fact, most of them fell in the middle-class or upper-middle class category and also were largely from urban areas. Those in the lower-economic strata or in rural areas were deprived of these opportunities. But now, the scenario is quite different with huge numbers of engineering (or even college) graduates every year. So, I think we have almost achieved our goal pertaining to quantity. Then, equity is another area in which we have taken huge strides forward. You will agree that it is not uncommon to see one’s maid sending her ward to an engineering institute. The fact that more and more people are getting opportunities is certainly laudable. But we also have to recognize that an area where we have failed majorly is quality. You see, the graphs of quantity and equity peaked so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to revolutionize teaching and equip teachers better. IPT (instructional and performance technology) has been conceptualized to serve as an aid in cases of incompetent or inadequate faculty. In many cases, it also helps the teachers improve. I believe in 5-10 years we should be able to match the levels of quantity and equity in quality as well and that is what I want.
What kind of services is our institute providing for the project?
Conceptualization is by far the most important of our services. Coming up with the design , that is, defining the architecture and functionality and then determining the specifications is our major area of work . For example, energy efficiency in the tablet is a key feature we are working towards. Apart from that, of course, we are working on content generation and a lot of effort is in this direction.
What was/is your biggest challenge during the course of the project?
Since we are trying to create a unique device, too many people are interested in it and there is too much talk about it. The intention to build and launch such a product has been interpreted as a guarantee to be able to deliver it. As a result, there is too much denunciation even when there are minor flaws. I feel the efforts being put in are clouded by the hype created and handling this kind of unnecessary curiosity has been a major challenge. Two, one must acknowledge that having all the elements and putting them together as a whole are different things and the latter is a lot more difficult in implementation.
That was on a rather general note. What else do you think was a technical challenge pertaining to this device?
Well, I think it would be the task of balancing performance with cost. It is relatively much easier to develop a device if we are willing for a trade-off on one of the two but placing both of them at the same level of priority makes the problem non-trivial.
What are your thoughts about the current state of academic research in our country and its relevance to industry?
If we look at it historically, in the last 10-20 years we have been climbing up the ladder steadily. From that perspective, we have improved tremendously. On an absolute scale, however, we definitely have a long way to go. The kind of improvement we are looking for is gradual and takes decades to come about. We need to give time for results to show. But personally, I feel we are making great progress.
What advice would you give to students?
When I look at youngsters today, I observe that they are certainly capable of doing really good and high-quality work. But what concerns me is that they are under-performing and worse, are complacent about it. They should be worried about delivering outputs that are indicative of lower potential. If they are determined to put in their best efforts, they have the potential to transform an entire society and by extension, our nation. I want them to constantly remind themselves about the need to perform and push themselves to deliver to their abilities.