Solar tablets coming to schools in India

RICE (US) — The I-slate, a low-cost electronic version of the hand-held blackboard slates used by millions of Indian children, has proven to be an effective learning tool, according to a yearlong study.

Now I-slate’s developers are preparing for full-scale production of the tablet, which will eventually be solar-powered for use in classrooms that lack electricity. When mass-produced, the solar-powered I-slate is expected to cost less than $50 (64 Singapore dollars).

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“Our study clearly shows the I-slate is an effective learning tool for all students, regardless of their learning ability,” says computer scientist and I-slate creator Krishna Palem, director of the Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID), a joint program of Rice University and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

“The first production I-slates will be pre-loaded with lessons for mathematics, science, and social studies.”

Palem first conceived the power-saving educational tablet in early 2009. Late last summer, Palem’s team began working with the Indian nonprofit Villages for Development and Learning Foundation (ViDAL) to test I-slate prototypes in a class of 10- to 13-year-olds at Mohd Hussainpalli village, about 70 miles southwest of Hyderabad.

In March, the researchers examined whether the I-slate helped students’ improve in mathematics. Students use a stylus to tap and write out mathematics problems on the I-slate. They get immediate feedback about correct and incorrect answers. When answers are incorrect, the machine gives hints and tips about how to correct mistakes.

Using a series of sophisticated measures, the ISAID team analyzed each student’s performance and improvement. Students were also surveyed about the features of the I-slate that were most and least useful.

Palem says the tests and surveys confirmed the I-slate was effective and provided the ISAID team with valuable information needed to finalize the I-slate’s design.

“We know more than 90 percent of what we need to know at this point,” Palem says. “We’ve settled the hardware questions, and that is central to the manner in which the lessons are taught and the manner in which the students interact with the I-slate.”

The hardware and graphic content for the I-slate must be developed in tandem because they will ultimately use a revolutionary new low-power computer chip—another of Palem’s inventions. The new chip will cut the power requirements for the I-slate in half and allow the device to run on solar power from small panels similar to those found on handheld calculators.

The current I-slate hardware, which uses conventional chips, was designed by ISAID’s Vincent Mooney, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

ISAID team members in Switzerland, Singapore, and the US are developing the first production version of the low-power computer chip. Solar-powered I-slates containing the new chips are due for production in mid-2012.

Palem says a Los Angeles-based consortium of media and content developers headed by Marc Mertens is putting the finishing touches on the math, science, and social studies curriculum. Both the content and the finalized I-slate design will be rolled out with traditional chips this fall. About 50 students in Mohd Hussainpalli and other nearby villages will receive battery-powered versions of these slates for a six-month trial.

“Working with Marc, we’re planning to bundle a social-networking element into the software that will allow the students to work collaboratively on writing assignments,” Palem says.

“We are at an exciting stage and based on rigorous testing, we have achieved quite a few firsts in this early phase of adoption,” says Rajeswari Pingali, ViDAL founding chairperson. “Soon students will be able to take the slates home for use and improving their learning outcomes.

“We spoke to all parents of the children; they too are equally excited about the I-slate. We are particularly happy about the potential benefits for young girls, who otherwise might be married away at a very early age.”

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