The humble school slate returns in a new digital avatar

20th February 2023
The humble school slate returns in a new digital avatar
School slate generations from traditional to digital. Photo credit: Main: United Nations. Inset: Zodo

By Anand Parthasarathy
February 20, 2023: If you are younger than 60 years, chances are you never carried a slate on your first day to school – unless you went to a government school. 
This essential tool of education – the black stone slate bordered with wood and later replaced by a lighter black-painted tin sheet – is part of the memory of generations of Indians. It served well from class 1 to 5   -- and millions learned the alphabet in whatever language they chose, by repeated exercises with slate and slate pencil.
Our calligraphy was so much the better for it: Educationists testify that when fancy schools abandoned the slate and straight away  put young pre-school kids to pencil and paper, it created a new generation of adults with spidery, near unreadable handwriting that is so common today.
But hope is at hand for a revival! The humble school slate is making a comeback in a new retro digital avatar as an electronic slate: The writing surface is a sheet of Liquid Crystal Display or LCD. You use a stylus – very similar to the kind that comes with touch-screen tablets and laptops.
The new generation digital slate has  two advantages:  It runs on a ( usually button type mercury) battery, so that  once you write or draw something, you can prevent erasure by pressure an erase lock button. More usefully, if you want to clean the slate, you can disable the lock and “Clear” the display with a single button press. 
Known by various names: LCD writing pad, digital slate, e-slate, the device currently comes at an entry level size of 8.5-inch diagonal and a casual search of the keyword “digital slate” at Amazon, Flipkart or any online seller, throws up multiple options.   Amazon’s own-brand  8.5 inch “Magic Slate costs Rs 289 when I checked today – though it seems not very different from the model I bought for the purposes of this article from Storio for Rs 247, before discovering that there are options for as little as Rs 100.
Illustrations for this feature can be found here
As you go for larger sizes, the asking price goes up exponentially: The 12 inch is around Rs 450-500, while the 15-16 inch which is currently the largest e-slate available is quoted at anything from Rs 1200 to Rs 2000.   Typical of this class is the Portronics Ruffpad 15 inch Writing Pad that was launched last month and is quoted at online sites at around Rs 1250.  It offers an added convenience, a phone app, using which you can snap a photo of your work on the pad and share or store it with email or Whatsapp. However claims that these are “multicolour” pads should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
While the fancier upmarket schools have suddenly rediscovered the slate, albeit in its electronic form, it has found a new and unanticipated market among tech-savvy professionals who have discovered that the digital slate is a useful adjunct to their work – serving as an easily re-usable notepad or scratchpad, on their desk, which also comes in handy to make quick sketches or drawings that they can then capture with a phone camera.
These customers have also seen the  markets innovate to add even more useful features for professionals, especially designers:   this new class  of graphics drawing tablets come with a micro-USB port and compatibility with both  phone (Android) and desktop (Windows, Mac,Linux,Ubuntu) operating systems.
This opens up the tablet to importing tools like Word, Adobe Photoshop or its OpenSource equivalent, GIMP and exporting the created work via the USB port.  Typical of this ‘smart’ digital slate category is the Huion HS64 which has an effective working space of 6 inch by 4 inch, and multiple preset buttons.  It costs around Rs 2500. For a larger 10 inch by 6.25 inch working area, the company has another model, HS610, quoted at Rs 4459 on Amazon.|
There are other makers with products similar in capability  to the Huion range – Wacom, XP-Pen, Veikk – but prices go up to Rs 6000, depending on size and features.
In 2010, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Houston’s Rice University and the Indian NGO, Villages for Development and Learning Foundation (ViDAL), joined to develop the the I-Slate solar-powered computer tablet designed to help children in developing countries have access to computer technologies.  
Thousands of Indian children were provided with prototypes to try out. The cost of making the I-Slate in quantities was around US 20 (Rs 1700 today). It was selected by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)as one of seven technologies that “will have world-changing implications on the way humans interact with machines, the world and each other.
Sadly it does not seem to have taken off the way its sponsors intended
So, maybe it is time to say: ‘The slate is dead. Long live the e-slate.’
But is the traditional slate really dead? Not quite.
Many diehard educationists still swear by the useful role it can play in the formative years of young children and advise parents: even if the school no longer mandates the slate, buy one for your child and let him or her ‘play’ with it at home, learning to write numbers and alphabets and giving a free rein to creativity.  
But can you even buy the old-type stone slate anymore?  
Even back in 2014, The Hindu in its Madurai edition, carried out a search for slates in local schools. The article “In search of slate”  found it  to be almost extinct in local schools even after it had undergone many transformations from stone to enamel, to  tin to plastic and even to cardboard.    
Millennial parents born after 1981 especially the well-heeled ones, may never have touched a slate in their school days and see no irony in gifting their kids, iPads costing anything rom Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000, when for the child, this is no more effective as a creative tool than an old fashioned slate that can still be had for Rs 15.
Today the last bastion of the traditional slate is the government school system where in most states they still see value in this sturdy and cost-effective tool at least till Class 2 or 3. 
Traditional stone slates are still manufactured and despatched all over India, by dozens of small firms in Markapur in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, which is close to  many slate quarries – even though their business is  slowly  shrinking.
Some   enterprises like the Bhavnagar, Gujarat-based  Raja Slates  have been making   slates as well as blackboards  since 1975 and have a viable  business. They switched to plastic some years ago.
So, to come back to the question: Is it time to say RIP to the slate?  That would be premature.  It will live on as long as our public-funded schools put utility above fashion and take their children up the first rung on the ladder of education with an environment-friendly, affordable and eminently practical writing tool.
And for those who crave modernity, there is now the modern, electronic version of this retro writing surface. Take your pick.

This article has appeared in Swarajya