Systemic ills of the tablets

Systemic ills of the tablets

In many ways, the problems with the One Tablet Per Student (OTPS) programme mirror the problems with the education system as a whole. Both OTPS and the school system supposedly exist to benefit our children.

A horrendous number of managers, often with differing views, all claim to be in charge. When flaws appear, there is no reliable authority to fix them. And over the structure there is always a malodorous whiff of corruption.

OTPS began as a popular election campaign promise by Yingluck Shinawatra. Soon after she became prime minister, the cabinet and Education Ministry put the promise into action. There were brief delays and suspicious activities in the not-so-transparent bidding to supply the devices.

Eventually, last year, Prathom 1 (Grade 1) students and teachers received the devices.

If teachers and students saw the tablets as an aid to learning, others saw them as an opportunity to gain influence, money, or both. Last year's bidding to supply the tablets had deep problems. This year, the rules and methods were changed and bent so much, and so often, that suspicions of graft were inevitable. In fact, the tablet procurement process, in just one year, has become almost a parallel set-up to arguably the greatest source of corruption in education, the supply of textbooks.

There were, inevitably, problems of quality and abuse of the devices. Tablets were stolen, cracked, broken. Some batteries malfunctioned.

The contract with Shenzhen Scope, the Chinese company that won last year's bid to supply the devices, required that repairs and replacements be available.

An upcoming report by the Office of the Auditor-General purports to show that the required maintenance facilities were never set up properly, and then deteriorated. Repairs to tablets took far longer than agreed, and the firm Advice Distribution, hired to represent Shenzhen Scope in the project, began to downsize and then disappear.

The report also details massive problems and questions about this year's procurement of tablets.

The ministry split the process geographically into several zones. This almost immediately led to suspicion, then to actual charges by various companies, of bid-fixing. Anyone who has looked into the ministry's book-procurement system will recognise how this works. Possible bidders get together and assign zones, in a way that there is only one serious bid per zone, and the taxpayers are socked with enormous fees that would not occur in an open, competitive system.

Several weeks ago, Education Vice-Minister Kitti Limskul proposed a solution.

Give every student a voucher worth the cost of a basic device such as those bought by the government. Students wanting a standard tablet would get one free. Others who might want a tablet with more features could use the voucher as part-payment for a more expensive device.

Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng shot down the plan when he wondered if this would cause some students with better tablets to lord it over poorer students. To an extent, they would, just as they already do with their phones, clothes and countless other objects.

The point is that the minister is unwilling to address the overall defects and failures in the procurement, distribution and maintenance of tablets _ just as he and other education officials have been reluctant to consider the systemic flaws and failings of the under-performing education system as a whole. The nation's students deserve better.

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