There is a new wave of populism in South Asia—of giving free laptops or tablets to students. Government of Punjab in Pakistan was probably the first to launch a scheme to gift free Dell laptops to 110,000 meritorious college students in the state. The new government of Uttar Pradesh in India went a step ahead and promised a laptop to all students who graduate from high school. Now, Kendriya Vidyalayas—schools run by Government of India for kids of its employees—has announced that students will get tablets from class IXth onwards to facilitate e-learning. It seems that more states and institutions in the region will follow in the footsteps of Pakistan Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The promise fetches immediate media attention and nearly not as much criticism as other such hair-brained populist schemes do. IT companies feed this populism by initially subsidizing or even sponsoring student and teacher training, software development, and impact evaluation. The evaluation almost always shows large positive impacts and gets due media coverage. The politics and the industry are working together to take Indian students and classroom to a new era.
My choice of words clearly betrays my view of these new projects. Bridging the digital divide is desirable, but shouldn’t we focus on bridging the “digit divide” first in a region where every third student cannot subtract single-digit numbers (8 – 3), even after finishing four years of school (in Pakistan) and nearly half of them cannot subtract 112 from 640 (640 – 112) after five years of education (in India).
Proponents of free laptop schemes may argue that we should be doing both—bridging the digit and the digital divide—and that there is no trade-off. But there is a trade-off. India spends only 3.7% of its GDP on education and Pakistan only 2%. The challenge is overwhelming and resources scarce. Gifting free laptops to school and college students may not be the best use of scarce resources. We should use this money to hire teachers, build classrooms and toilets, and provide textbooks. Even if we want to leverage the power of IT and computers for better learning outcomes, there must be cheaper and better ways of doing it than giving away expensive free laptops.