Thailand pioneers tablet computers in schools nationwide

Where's my iPad?

A Thai government deal to supply 1.8m school children with tablet computers, the largest contract of its kind in the world, could tempt about 10 manufacturers to bid.

At just under $100 a tablet, the margins will be wafer-thin. But there will be considerable kudos for the winners. In a fiercely-competitive market that will do no harm.

With a budget of Bt5bn ($168m), the latest plan was for bidding to take place in April but the schedule has suffered organisational delays so tablet computers may not appear in the hands of children until around May – after the start of term.

Eight contracts will be offered, with no limit on the number any one company may win. Hopefuls include Acer, Huawei and Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development, a Chinese company which won the $76m a contract last year for a smaller scale introduction of around 900,000 units to schools nationwide.

‘One tablet per child’ is one of several flagship populist policies which helped bring Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to power in 2011. Indeed it has been popular, particularly among students and manufacturers. The International Data Corporation, a global research company, projects that paper notebook sales in Thailand will be overtaken for the first time in 2013 by tablet sales, which are expected to increase by 40 per cent on last year largely as a result of the government’s policy. At the same time, the information and communication technology industry, with revenues of around $21bn is expected grow by 10 per cent in 2013.

Digital publishers have also seen the policy as an opportunity, hoping that interactivity and lower prices for digital products will encourage tablet-owners, particularly students, to buy electronic versions of textbooks. But others are not so sure, given that e-book sales are lacklustre at best, accounting for less than 0.01 per cent of yearly book sales.

Thailand’s tablet computer experiment is not a new concept, although it is the largest proposed handout of devices to school children in the world to date. Companies such as News Corp and non-profits like One Laptop Per Child are providing low-cost computing options to schools, both in developed and developing nations.

It is too early to measure any real benefits from Thailand’s introduction of tablets in schools last year, but policymakers are hopeful. Group Captain Surapol Navamavadhana, an advisor to the ICT minister, told FutureGov that the goal is to “reduce technology phobia” in rural areas. For this year’s tablet handout, government-designed educational apps will be provided on an Android operating system and projects are underway to expand internet access so that students can download updated content.

Yet, supported by evidence from Peru, critics argue that putting computers into schools provides no guaranteed benefit. Some experts have criticised the Thai government for distracting voters from the real problems afflicting the education system.

The Thai government spends around Bt83bn ($2.8bn), or 20 per cent of its annual budget, on education – compared to 13 per cent in the US – but still performs badly. The most recent educational attainment index published by Pearson (which owns the Financial Times) placed Thailand at 37 of 40 nations. A separate ranking on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2012-2013 placed Thailand 89th for basic education standards and 84th for technological adoption out of 144 countries.

Yingluck said last year that the goal of the tablet policy was to “increase knowledge beyond textbooks” and thus raise education standards.

Critics do not deny that ‘one tablet per child’ has the potential to educate children about technology and place them in a more interactive and responsive environment, particularly in poorer rural areas.

But they say that the supporters of universal tablet giveaways would do well not to confuse popularity with success.

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