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  September 22,  

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Media/Information Technology

'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 computers.

''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 system.

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 ( 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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