When Sumedha Mutika, a Ph D chemical engineering student from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, decided to buy a new laptop she was looking for speed, ease of use, large storage space, long battery life, lightweight and compact, and low price. “My eight-year-old branded laptop was slow from the beginning as my brother used it to play video games before I could get possession of it. Back then I was only reading PDF files. But the processor was slow and frequently gave trouble. At IIT, I was using the system allotted to me,” she recalls.
She needed a device on which she could access data from her computer in her department. “I wanted a laptop that would play short videos and download data from a website quickly,” she says. Around the same time Kannan Moudgalya, principal investigator of Low-Cost Devices (LCD) Project at IIT Bombay, was assessing the market for a device developed by his team.
His experience with the Aakash tablet had convinced him that those who had never owned a laptop would need LCDs. “Students from small towns have no access to the Internet, let alone laptops. They are overwhelmed by technology and the cost of the device,” he points out, adding, “Students may suddenly find solutions to a problem they have been working on the entire semester. With a laptop they could simply log in from their room and work any time they want.”
He offered the LCDs to 100 students in the Institute and based on their feedback, improvements were made. The devices came with 25 GB storage space but audio quality was poor and videos did not stream seamlessly. According to him, the low-cost Aakash tablet failed owing to difficulty in accessing technical support. “We decided to provide the gadget only in bulk and also train a few people either on the campus or nearby to tackle such issues,” he says.
On her father’s advice, Ms. Mutika bought three of the LCDs. “One was for me and two were for my family. I had to check all the three for all issues. That became cumbersome. I had to make sure that my family could use it when I give the laptop,” she says.
By October-end, 1,800 LCDs were distributed across the country to several universities and colleges. Anil Sahasrabudhe, AICTE Chairman: “This will be a game changer. Every student can have an affordable laptop, having features comparable to the best in the market. Several software pre-loaded, what an empowerment it would be, there can be learning for anyone anywhere,..innovation will start at grass roots.”
Project co-ordinator Mohamed Kasim Khan organises training sessions. “Several rounds of training programmes were organised in the institutions that bought the laptops. They were asked to identify a person to be trained on resolving issues. The gadget includes a training video on using the LCD besides the Spoken Tutorial programmes,” he says. The Pro-Vice Chancellor Joseph Nellantt of Don Bosco University in Assam, an early convert, ordered 442 laptops, majority of which was for students.
In Don Bosco School in Sashipur in Baksa district of Assam 25 teachers and 85 students from classes VIII to X bought the LCDs. The built in tutorials for students of classes X, XI, and XII propelled the Principal M.C. George to buy them. “We are based in the poorest district of Assam but we offer computer classes from class II. We gave the students the option of paying in instalments.
The software bundle was designed to address students’ long term career prospects, says Mr. Kasim. “An IIT B professor customised the operating system. A laptop heats up when other applications are simultaneously running. We have eliminated that problem,” he says.
In Tamil Nadu, four institutions have together bought around 700 laptops. The Gandhi Gram Rural Institute of Virudunagar; Lady Doak College and Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai and Thassim Beevi Abdul Khader College for Women, Kizhakkarai, have procured the LCDs.
In Thiagarajar College the 100 LCDs are for faculty training. Thassim Beevi has installsed them in its computer lab. Gandhi Gram Institute’s Vice Chancellor S. Natarajan gave a subsidy of ₹1,000 for each LCD and 124 students bought them.
Thassim Beevi College Principal Sumayya Dawood says: “We have bought 100 LCDs and created a laboratory for MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) to facilitate student self-learning concept. More than 122 software are available in the laptop and students use it during their free time. Many students who don’t have internet access come to us for learning through online. The aim is to take the laptops to students in neighbouring government schools. Almost all the spoken tutorials that we are offering is available on the laptop”.
Easy to use
Deepak Gupta, a Ph D student in chemical engineering at IIT-Bombay, bats for the device: “Its booting time is very less making the machine fast. The RAM 4 GB allows for speed and smoothness while running multiple applications. It works flawless with Word file, PDF, PPT, excel, photos, videos, browser, and basic drawing,” he says.
He recommends using an external mouse as the touch pad function is not smooth. As for Linux, he says: “One can get used to it within a week.
According to him “it is just a change of interface like switching from Windows to Mac. Initially you need to search for the dedicated buttons but you will get used to it once to practice it regularly, and it becomes handy within a week.”
S. Lakshmanan and his brother S Thulasi Manikandan, both students of Computer Science at the Gandhi Gram Rural Institute got their first device under State government’s free laptop scheme in 2012. Now in 3rd year Ph D, Mr. Lakshmanan wanted to replace his old laptop as the hard disk was giving trouble. When the Institute offered the LCD at a subsidised cost of ₹ 8,999, the brothers bought them.
“My laptop’s hard disk was giving trouble. I have used the new device for over a month now. Earlier, I had to purchase the software. When I could not afford it, I used the facility in the Institute. On the new laptop I am using the open source Octave. I am comfortable with Linux but my brother has installed Windows,” he says.
“Recently I had to make a presentation in an international conference during my internship in Noida. I used Skype on this LCD and the quality of audio and drive were super,” he adds.
A Chennai-based reporter who cut her teeth covering health for the city and has now moved to covering education. People, and their myriad emotions, fascinate her. A reason why reporting remains interesting.