The U.S.- and Singapore-based creators of the low-cost I-slate electronic
tablet are preparing for full-scale production now that a yearlong series of
tests has shown that the device is an effective learning tool for Indian
The I-slate, an electronic version of the hand-held blackboard slates used
by millions of Indian children, will eventually be solar-powered for use in
classrooms that lack electricity. It is being developed by researchers at the
Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID), a joint program of Rice University
in Houston and Nanyang Technological University
(NTU) in Singapore.
When mass-produced, the solar-powered I-slate is expected to cost less than $50
“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 ISAID. “The first
production I-slates will be pre-loaded with lessons for mathematics, science
and social studies.”
Palem, a Nanyang Visiting Professor at NTU and Rice’s Ken and Audrey Kennedy
Professor of Computing, first conceived the power-saving educational tablet in
early 2009. Late last summer, Palem’s Rice-NTU 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 (2011), 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 said 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% 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
ISAID team members in Switzerland,
Singapore, and the U.S. 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
Palem said 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.”