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NIIT’s "Hole-In-The-Wall" Experiment

NIIT

NIIT’s Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems

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I visited India in August, after an absence of nearly six years. I was amazed to see the proliferation of Internet cafés with high-speed connections, even in the smallest, dustiest towns. Communication and commerce were as instant and easy as anywhere else in the world where technology has become an accepted part of life. For those of us in India with the means to access that technology, we could almost forget that right outside the doors of the cafés loomed a glorious and chaotic mishmash of sights, smells, and sounds—byproducts of India’s ongoing dance that has one foot in the First World and one in the Developing World.

That constant intertwining of the modern with the undeveloped surprises most visitors to India. I remember the juxtaposition in symbolic images such as a Mumbai traffic jam where business people talked on cell phones in gleaming late-model sedans right next to medieval ox-carts driven by shoeless men hauling mud to build a wall; or office buildings that house some of the most highly educated and innovative engineers in the world abutting sprawling slums where thousands of people eke out existences with little opportunity for money or education, much less exposure to technology. 

Dr. Sugata Mitra is one of those highly educated scientists whose office neighbors a slum. But he is experimenting with some novel ways to bring technology to the masses, cost effectively. He’s had some very interesting results. As head of the Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems (CRCS), part of NIIT, a New Delhi-based software and education company, he designed what he calls the "Hole-In-The-Wall" experiment that tested a concept he calls “minimally invasive education.” In 1999, he drilled a hole in a concrete wall separating NIIT’s headquarters from a trash-filled empty lot used by the poor as a public bathroom. He imbedded a PC with a high-speed data connection into the wall, and with no instruction or explanation whatsoever, left the computer on, connected to the Internet, allowing people passing by to play with it. Using a video camera mounted in a tree and a remote computer, Mitra monitored activity on the PC.

Mitra discovered that the children who lived in the slum were immediately drawn to the machine. And though most of them had little to no education or knowledge of English, without any instructional intervention, the kids quickly achieved basic computer literacy: the ability to use the mouse, to point, to drag, to drop, to copy, and to browse the Internet. The physicist has since installed computers in rural neighborhoods with similar results.

Within three months the children could browse the Internet, download songs, go to cartoon sites, and work on MS Paint to draw pictures, a very popular activity since most of them could not afford paper and pens to draw their own pictures. Though they never heard or knew what the word “computer” meant, the children invented their own terminology for what they were doing. The computer became the thing, and the pointer of the mouse became sui, Hindi for needle. The hourglass “busy” symbol became the damru, which is Hindi for the hourglass-shaped drum that the Hindu god Shiva holds. The experiment quickly pointed out that the terminology around education is not as important as the metaphor. It’s irrelevant whether the children knew that a mouse is called a mouse, or a screen called a screen, since they had the idea of how the mouse works, and that the computer screen is like a wall they could paint on. (It’s worth noting that most computer education curriculums devote the first few lessons to introducing terminology!)

Mitra realized there were great misconceptions about what these children knew and don't know. At the beginning, he made a Hindi interface for the children, which offered links to websites in the Hindi language. He was surprised when the children shut off the Hindi interface and returned to Internet Explorer. The children had an operational understanding of the English words they needed, an understanding of what the words do, though they may not have understood the dictionary meaning of the words. As Mitra relates, “They don't know how to pronounce F-I-L-E, but they know that within it are options of saving and opening up files…the fact that the Internet is in English will not stop them from accessing it.”

Many of the children’s discoveries astonished Mitra. For example, one day he saw a document on the desktop called “untitled.doc,” which said in big colorful letters, "I Love India." Because the computer had only a touch screen and no keyboard, Mitra could not figure out how it had been done. An eight-year-old boy demonstrated how he had gotten into the character map inside Microsoft Word, dragged and dropped the letters onto the screen, increased the point size, and then painted the letters. Mitra relates that even with his Ph.D, he had no idea the character map existed. He found that by the fourth month the children were able to create folders, cut and paste, create shortcuts, move/resize windows, and use Microsoft Word to create short messages, again in the absence of a keyboard.

What are the implications of these results? Mitra contends that the experiments support his concept of minimally invasive education, or the concept that if groups of curious children are given the rough tools and free rein, their natural curiosity takes over and they teach themselves. This concept assumes that children know how to put two and two together on their own, and teachers largely stand back and let the children go, intervening only if they get stuck in blind alleys. Teachers essentially become experts at composing questions. If kids view things as worth learning, formal infrastructure is not needed to teach them. This obviously has large implications for computer literacy, because basic computer literacy can be achieved without formal instruction. Therefore time and money could be used to have teachers teach something else that children cannot learn on their own. Mitra contends that in some locations, such as poverty-ridden slums, where the resources to intervene frequently just aren’t there, the effectiveness of 10 teachers could be multiplied by 100, or even 1,000, if children are given access to the Internet.

The implications for adult education aren’t as sunny. During the experiment, adults simply didn’t use the machines, and instead reacted by saying, "What on earth is this for? Why is there no one here to teach us something? How are we ever going to use this?" But there was very strong adult support for the children to continue using the computers, and recognition that it was good for their future. Mitra is content to wait for the experiment to play itself out, saying, “…All we have to do is wait one generation. Not even that. In five years, a 13-year-old is going to be 18 and be an adult.” Think of the possibilities.

Beth Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine. One of her greatest learning opportunities was living and working in Asia during the 1990’s. Share your thoughts with her at beth@linezine.com.

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