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'Poor-man's computer' to educate young Indians (fwd)

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  • Frederick Noronha
    Thanks to S-Asia-IT@apnic.net mailing list for sending this through. FN ... September 22, 2001 Poor-man s computer to educate young Indians By M M Paniyil
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2001
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      Thanks to S-Asia-IT@... mailing list for sending this through. FN

      ---------- Forwarded message ----------

      September 22, 2001

      'Poor-man's computer' to educate young Indians

      By M M Paniyil

      BANGALORE, India - The first assignment of a poor man's hand-held
      computer, developed in Bangalore, is to bring basic education to
      tribal children in central India.

      At US$200 apiece, the Simputer, when first developed and launched
      late last year by four professors at the prestigious Indian Institute
      of Science (IISc), was hailed for its major price breakthrough and
      touted as the answer to the digital divide that puts technology
      beyond the access of poorer people.

      At the request of the Paris-based charity South Asia Foundation
      (SAF), the creators of the Simputer, together with digital
      broadcaster World Space radio, are giving the device its first field
      application - an interactive education program for rural children in
      the remote Bastar district of central Chattisgarh state. PicoPeta
      Simputers, a company launched by the coalition, will be funded by the
      Rainbow Partnership Organization, an SAF initiative that promotes
      cooperation among the seven members of the South Asian Association of
      Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

      SAF is the brainchild of the veteran Indian diplomat and adviser to
      the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
      (UNESCO), Madanjeet Singh. ''Our pilot project in Bastar is expected
      to benefit about 2,000 students,''' said Professor Swami Manohar, the
      acting chief executive officer PicoPeta Simputers. ''It will be
      operational in six months.''

      Already, the new company has tied up with public sector giant Bharat
      Electronics Ltd (BEL) to produce about 100 Simputers that will be
      used to receive digital data content broadcast by WorldSpace, which
      has been broadcasting digital data along with its popular voice
      broadcast of news and entertainment. At present, only commercial
      organizations download World Space broadcast using personal

      ''Personal computers tend to use up a lot of disk space to store
      voice files. But the text-to-voice capability of the Simputer makes
      the process easy,'' notes Professor Ramesh Hariharan, the youngest of
      the "IISc Fab Four", as the local media call them. ''It is
      interactive and easy to operate, thus enhancing the effectiveness of
      education programs.''

      Fending off criticism that high-technology application was being
      foisted on village schools that still lack blackboards and school
      buildings, Hariharan argues that Simputer and WorldSpace can bridge
      the digital divide in a creative way. Together, they can make
      available professionally designed lessons to the most far-flung
      villages that have the most basic services, he explains. Hundreds of
      villages in southern Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the
      capital can greatly benefit if the interactive education in Bastar
      takes off.

      Smart cards are used to personalize applications in a Simputer. These
      detachable credit-card-like devices will function as blackboards,
      notebooks and report cards in the Bastar education project. Each
      student's own smart card will enable him or her, as well as teachers
      and the course designer, to monitor the progress of lessons studied.
      This will even enable students at non-formal education programs to
      study at their own pace and according to their level of advancement.

      ''Once the Simputers are in place, the villagers can use them for
      other purposes as well, such as microcredit facilities, storing and
      accessing agricultural data and so on,'' said Professor Vijay
      Chandru, director of PicoPeta Simputers. Simputers are adaptable to a
      large range of rural applications. With a special smart card, they
      can function as an effective aid to facilitate village census,
      agricultural data collection and routine services such as railway
      ticket reservations.

      ''What we envisage is a set of software tools adaptable for a wide
      range of teaching applications,'' Chandru said. The professors will
      also help to develop the content for the education project. ''First
      and foremost we are teachers. Together we have 35 years of teaching
      experience,'' Manohar said.

      So far, a major hurdle for the Simputer, in spite of its many obvious
      advantages, has been getting enough venture capital or corporate tie-
      ups to start commercial production. Help from two "angel" funders
      took the project through the prototype phase. One of the factors that
      could discourage commercial tie-ups is the unique open-licensing
      procedure of Simputer. It works on the public-licence Linux operating

      PicoPeta Simputers has another problem. Someone else has registered
      the name Simputer in the United States and Germany. ''We have
      requested the union (federal) IT Department to help us register our
      name internationally,'' said the chief technology officer of PicoPeta
      Simputers, Professor V Vinay.

      The media coverage and the Simputer website (www.simputer.org) has
      attracted a lot of e-mail messages from across the globe, which
      Manohar finds encouraging. One message came from a US-based activist,
      who saw in the Simputer a means to get to marginalized people who
      live under the poverty line in her country. ''The educational project
      with WorldSpace has tremendous scope for South Asia, Africa, Latin
      America and the Caribbean,'' said Chandru.

      (Inter Press Service)

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