Computers have become an essential part of a child’s education, yet there are currently over 100 million Indian children who attend rural schools that don’t have electricity – no electricity means no computers. Recently, however, a group of organizations from several different countries put their heads together to create the I-slate, a low-cost, low-energy tablet PC designed for use in these schools that runs on solar power. In trials conducted so far, it appears to be a hit with the kids.

The I-slate – not to be confused with the early iPad prototype of the same name – was the result of a collaboration between Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Houston's Rice University and an Indian nonprofit, Villages for Development and Learning Foundation (ViDAL). The project is being led by Rice’s Prof. Krishna Palem, who is also supervising development of the I-slate at NTU’s Institute of Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID).

Palem stated that this is the first of a series of electronic notepads which will utilize a new type of ultra-energy-efficient microchip, that uses a fraction of the electricity consumed by conventional chips. The new chip, which is being developed by ISAID and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, makes it possible for the I-slate to run on solar power from panels similar to those used in hand-held calculators.

Prototypes of the computer were produced this summer, and tested with a class of 10 to 13 year-olds at a rural school near Hyderabad in August. They reportedly picked up on the technology instantly, and while they didn’t like the placement of the buttons, they enjoyed other features such as the scratch pad app. A second session of tests is scheduled for later this month.

The I-slate team is now planning to further develop the device’s hardware and teaching content, and to perform long-term academic tracking of students who use the computer.

“The research will not just help in the sustainability of our planet but the development of such sustainable, low-cost technologies will also help the poorer communities in the world to close the digital divide,” said NTU President Su Guaning. “It will be life-changing and it will help to improve lives.”