As a follow-up for my post on Aakash ($35 tablet initiative by Government of India), I thought of re-iterating the importance of building an ecosystem, which is critical for this whole new paradigm to become large scale success with real customers. No doubt, the student market in India has significant potential, which is waiting to be tapped. Aakash is trying to address this market, which need to overcome three major barriers, which I would like to call as 3C – Connectivity, Content and Community.
Connectivity – The first and foremost barrier is about establishing ubiquitous Internet connectivity across the country. The current Aakash specification reads WiFi and GPRS as primary interfaces for accessing the Internet, which itself is a major flaw. Wireless hotspots are not famous even in cities, where tech-savvy customers also need to struggle to get the Internet using public WiFi. Setting up wireless LAN infrastructure in rural areas has other additional challenges like – configuring/installing/maintaining the modem, non availability of power supply and running wired DSL lines by laying down copper infrastructure. GPRS solves the connectivity issue but speed is a major concern. In order to run educational applications like Multimedia/Streaming videos, downloading large size course contents, doing online assignments speed becomes critical. In my opinion this offers significant entry barrier for Aakash to become successful. In the past Simputer, was launched with similar objective, but commercially failed due to lack of connectivity.
Content – Assuming that the connectivity issue is resolved somehow (me being too optimistic!), the next obvious question is — what would the student access from the Internet? There should be a strong content repository in order to create value. Here I see two major classification of the content from the student perspective. First, the mainstream academic contents (which are currently in form of book as of now) need to be augmented with – practical experiments, use-cases, live demonstration, do-it-yourself kits etc, which will enhance the academic understanding. This would also (to a larger extent) solve the issue of rote based approach taken in majority of the schools.
Second, vocational learning content needs to be added for enhancing additional skills for the student. For example, when a student wants to build a project (say on road safety systems) he should be provided with content repository and associated tools, where he can access, understand scrape and create a project using the simple online tools. Another important dimension of the content is to add support for vernacular languages. Because majority of the education is still taught in regional languages, even teachers are not trained to teach in English.
Community – Third aspect is to have a community based approach for constantly monitor and enhance the content repository. This community should consist of programmers, education experts and teachers who can think and shape a vision for education. Eventually this should lead to create an ‘Appstore’ where education based applications can be downloaded and installed depending on the need basis. Since Android is used in Aakash, it can be leveraged very easily.
Each of the above mentioned barriers has multiple phases associated with it, demanding huge investment, which Government cannot support. There are few initiatives like Spoken Tutorial (from IIT-B), which eventually will not scale beyond point. Here is where the opportunity lies for private business entrepreneurs as called out in Kookskool blog (hosted by one of my friends). The lower price point of Aakash is definitely a pull factor, which is one piece in the whole puzzle called Educational transformation. Just by launching a ‘cheap’ device doesn’t bring any change, unless we address 3C challenges mentioned above. It shouldn’t become another failure in the lines of Simputer.