The writer is the co-founder and managing director of Cambodia-based Edemy, which aims to provide English to all by lowering barriers of affordability and resource constraints using a model of offline learning with technology combined with instruction by local teachers. Kagnarith graduated with a Master’s Degree in English in 2010 from Arizona State University. He [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Free tabs for schools: Thoughts of a social entrepreneur


The writer is the co-founder and managing director of Cambodia-based Edemy, which aims to provide English to all by lowering barriers of affordability and resource constraints using a model of offline learning with technology combined with instruction by local teachers. Kagnarith graduated with a Master’s Degree in English in 2010 from Arizona State University. He has been teaching and managing English language programmes for more than 12 years. Recently, LIRNEasia brought together ICT for education entrepreneurs including Kagnarith for several meet-ups with local ICT entrepreneurs and ICT faculty and students at the University of Moratwua to share ideas and comment on LIRNEasia’s research findings research on ICT in education. These are Kagnarith’s thoughts on the Sri Lanka government’s initiative).

 Clear objectives

Schoolchildren like these would benefit from tablets.

Have a clear objective in terms of how the tablets are to be used. The ministry seems to treat the tablet as an end in itself. That is where things tend to go wrong. When there is no framework in terms of how the tablets are going to be incorporated into the existing curriculum, tablets will become a distraction in a classroom such as for chatting, social media, Youtube, Internet searching (i.e. fashion, movie stars).

Thus, a more important question is ‘what content will be available on the tablets’? If there is content, what is the content? Can students understand such content since most of them are in English? If they can understand them, will the content be useful when they are not well-integrated with the existing curriculum? If students can understand the content and they are well-integrated, is there a budget for such content?

So content is more important than the tablets itself and need to be comprehensible and well-integrated. For comprehension, the content should be available in Sinhala and Tamil. In the bigger picture, the starting point should be ‘what are the problems with education in Sri Lanka and how can tablets be used to tackle these’? Or at least by the end of the day, ‘what can students improve with these tablets in terms of specific metric measurements’?

My guess is that like in any developing country, Sri Lanka is facing a shortage of qualified/well-trained teachers in rural areas and access to quality contents for students. My suggestion is to create content (both online and offline that sync together) that students can explore by themselves in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and English. So students can study with their regular teachers in public schools as usual, but if they can’t catch up with a certain concept then they can explore it with technology on their own. Or if students want to be outstanding and feel like existing instruction is too easy, they can explore more challenging content using technology. So we are dealing with two ends: first, helping poor performing students catch up and second, helping well-performing students become outstanding.

In a scenario where there are not enough teachers in a school, half of the teaching time could be replaced by technology. In my current model, which I call a bi-modal curriculum, students study M/W/F using technology, and T/Th/Sat with their local teachers. We have moved all this content that needs explanation to the technological mode. This content is taught by the highest qualified teachers in the country and delivered using digital learning material. Local teachers are not as qualified because their role is more as facilitators helping the students go through the lessons and exercises.

All these means that tablets are just a means to an end, rather an end in itself.

In my context, US$50,000 is enough to create a self-learning content in my local language (Khmer) for one academic year for four subjects: mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. I don’t think it is going to be very different for Sri Lanka. Even if the cost is doubled, covering the whole curriculum of grade 12-13 should just cost $1.3 million.

So to me the biggest question is ‘what content would be on the tablets’? We can’t just give everyone a tablet and let them do stuff on their own. They can just play game till 2 am every day. Our good intention might bring harm to these innocent kids. What is the difference in giving a kid a $10 toy car and teaching them to make a toy car from rubbish cans? In the former, we are telling the kid that fun needs money. In the latter, we are teaching kids fun needs creativity and solution doesn’t really need money. In developing countries, we need to talk about necessity than luxury. Necessity is ‘what is the fundamental objective of our action and we need to see how we could achieve it with the minimal resources’.


A cost of $33 million for 175,000 students means each tablet costs about $188 per set. Why do we need such an expensive and high performance tablets? My current tablets in my classrooms (Amazon Fire, 7″) are good enough to serve the learning purpose and it only costs $50 per set. If I have a bigger order (i.e. 100,000 tablets), I can negotiate with the manufacturer to reduce unnecessary functions (i.e. camera, loud speaker, HD, microphone), I am sure the cost should go down to $30 per tablet. So for the same number of students and the same purpose/outcome, I could manage to spend roughly $4.5-10 million instead of $33 million with maybe an additionally 20 per cent in shipping cost and tax.


With the $33 million, there needs to be a clear measurement in terms of what students should be able to improve. In my proposed scenario, the metrics could be for a period of a year and below could be a good metric to see the impact.

a. The passing rate is improved by 10 per cent.

b.             The number of students graduating with an A (whatever the highest grade is in Sri Lanka) increases by 20 per cent.

c. Overall national score average is improved by 10 per cent.

d.             Students spend on average 20 hours a week exploring the contents.

e. Students outperform those who do not have access to the tablets by 20 per cent.

All of these will provide an assessment against the investment. All could be easily tracked by the technology at little or no cost at all.

Number of users

I don’t see any point in giving each student a tablet. If the tablet may be borrowed or installed in a lab, each unit can be used by up to five students per day assuming each student spends about two hours per day. So we only need to have at a maximum 60,000 tablets to cover 175,000 students. Unless students watch movies or play games, they won’t be able to stay focused on the screen for more than two hours. Also, too much screen time is not good for their eyes.

Teacher development

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teacher” writes Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary-General. These tablets could also be used to provide an online/offline professional development for teachers. To cover 175,000 students (with 30 students per teacher), 6,000 teachers are needed. If these teachers could just have access to a professional development for just 10 hours a month and get paid for $3 per hour if they could get more than 80 per cent of the assessment for each one hour session, then it only costs about $2 million to upgrade the quality of the teachers. No matter how advanced technology is, our teachers remain the most important assets. So technology should complement and never seek to replace this asset. Students will never learn emotional skills such as empathy or team work from technology.

Offline option

The problem should not be framed around an Internet connection but on whether the Internet connection is reliable and sufficient. In Cambodia, to allow up to 30 students to stream contents (i.e. video) at the same time, one has to pay about $200 per month. This option is only available in urban areas. Also research shows that having access to Internet without proper supervision leads to degradation of learning. The best solution is to have both online and offline contents that can sync seamlessly.

Raspberry Pi is a device that can be adapted easily to serve as local web server for which local content can be uploaded. To use Raspberry Pi technology (the one I am using currently) costs about $60 per set, which allows up to 30 students to access the content (even videos) at the same time. If a school runs classes at three different time slots, it could allow more than 90 students to learn from a single Raspberry Pi. Thus it costs approximately $117,000 to have an offline content version to cover 175,000 students. More importantly, though the technology does not employ an Internet connection, it can function like an online platform, where students can receive instant feedback, engage interactively and enable tracking of performance (i.e. test score, attendance, and video viewing time).

Total costs and the long-term

A cost of $33 million will be gone within three to five years due to the life span of the tablets. But if online/offline content is developed at the same time, that content could be improved and recycled. So from a start-up approach, I could cover the same number of students (175,000) with roughly $16 million and yet provide a better and longer impact with a clear accountability.

Piloting first

But seriously, with any big project one should go through a pilot to foresee the glitches and feasibility. If we know we are doing the right thing, it is easy to scale it up. But if we don’t, it will cost a lot of fix our mistakes. So the pilot is the key to know if we are doing the right thing.

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