Pulling themselves up by their keyboards

By bringing computers into slums, an Indian physicist shows that illiterate children can educate themselves – and help their country progress.

Lex Veldhoen | Jan/Feb 2007 issue
The alleys are narrow in Madangir, a slum on the edge of New Delhi. Rickety huts crammed together house emigrants from neighbouring regions who’ve moved to the city. Countless rickshaw drivers jam the dusty main road, waiting for paying customers.
This is one of the last places on Earth you’d expect to find advanced computer technology. Yet in a small, red kiosk along the road stands a computer, a few brightly coloured buttons and a narrow slot through which children’s hands can reach to work the keyboard. As always, a few girls and boys are standing around the kiosk. A 12-year-old girl tells foreign visitors that she likes the Microsoft Paint drawing program the best and that she’s learning the English alphabet using an ABC game. A boy of 6 shows how the mouse works with a few lightning-speed clicks. The parents of these children are illiterate and the kids themselves rarely go to school.
This unsupervised kiosk, which is shut down at night, offers the neighbourhood children a unique and absolutely free opportunity to learn about the Internet, MP3 and computer games—in other words, an introduction to the information age they are scarcely a part of. The children may not know it, but they’re participating in an extensive education experiment. This little kiosk in Madangir is helping bridge the digital gap and demonstrates that young people have an innate talent for gathering knowledge themselves. The kiosk in Madangir is one of more than 100 spread throughout slums and rural villages in India, and recently in South Africa, Venezuela and Cambodia. Some are sponsored by companies, others set up with financial support from the World Bank. Various studies have now shown that information and communications technology is an important instrument for economic growth in poor countries.
The idea for a computer kiosk began with physicist Sugata Mitra. He developed an interest in software and became involved in the world’s first online university and India’s first Local Area Network newspaper publishing system. He also observed that children were being poorly prepared for a technological future. Mitra believes that classrooms, teachers and textbooks will be less important, while computers will increasingly become a prominent educational tool to help shepherd India into the 21st century.
Sitting in his office – in a green oasis within the crowded city of New Delhi – Mitra acknowledges the irony in his views: he spearheads research and development at NIIT, India’s largest commercial supplier of information technology (IT) training courses, yet he advocates that computer skills can be learned without supervision. “When a method makes economic sense, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek alternatives,” Mitra explains. “A good company offers more and more for less and less.”
Mitra calls his computer kiosk project “Hole in the Wall,” after the hole he carved in a dilapidated wall next to his office where he first placed a computer for the use of slum kids living in the area. This was 1999. He hooked the computer to the Internet and placed a webcam above it so he could watch from his office and see how illiterate children responded to the computer. They seemed to be intrigued. The screen showed the home page of MSN.com. Without any outside help, most of them would discover in a few minutes that a little arrow moved when they ran a finger over the touchpad, and that an underlined word lit up when they placed the arrow on it, and that a new screen opened when they clicked on the arrow. Within a few days, Mitra noticed, children were able to surf the Internet. Disney.com was particularly popular. They figured out how to copy text into a document and save it in a folder. They learned how to use the drawing program, which was fantastic for these kids who don’t have paper, pencils or markers at home. And they could download games to play.
Walking the streets of Madangir, I run into Ruvina, a 14-year-old girl with long braids who walks to the kiosk nearly every day. “I pushed buttons and just looked to see what happened. Sometimes another screen appeared and I learned as I went along. Now I read English texts too, which is something we hardly ever do in school.” Tarif, the same age, says he mainly looks at maps of different countries, which he memorizes.
Ruvina’s mother Nafisa thinks it’s all a great idea and supports her daughter’s wish to work with computers when she’s older. “It is important to be able to work a computer,” she says, “especially when it comes to finding a job.” Her family recently invested its savings in a second-hand computer.
Computers are increasingly recognized as an essential tool for people to use to escape poverty. The World Bank report Information and Communications for Development 2006 focuses on the power of information technology. In addition, to help poor families, gain access to new methods of education and information. This, the report concludes, ultimately strengthens democracy. Earlier last year, the World Bank had calculated in another study—E-Development: From Excitement to Effectiveness – that every computer acquired by companies in developing countries creates more jobs and raises productivity, assuming a solid infrastructure is in place.
Mitra believes that if the division between “haves” and the “have nots” changes into a division between those with knowledge and those without, then we’ll be on our way to global co-operation and peace. He says, “If you know something I don’t, I won’t get it by fighting but by making friends with you.”
Hole in the Wall has helped many children acquire basic skills that have proven very useful—even if the kids have never learned the official computer jargon. They call the websites “channels” and the cursor “sui,” Hindi for “needle.” The hourglass—an unknown object in India—is called “damru,” referring to the drums that usually depict the Hindu god Shiva.
Back at the office, Mitra shows me how the images from the webcam above every kiosk can be tracked. Here the children’s behaviour is analyzed when they first start using a computer. A lot of shouting and pushing among the kids can be expected. But the amazing part is that within hours the kids always find a way to organize themselves. An older child usually takes a leadership role and proclaims that it makes more sense to take turns using this new attraction because they simply can’t all work with it at once. And when it becomes clear that screaming disrupts the user’s concentration, the bystanders keep quiet.
Within a matter of days, the kids have established their own rules without any interference from adults – which is even more remarkable in a country where children are accustomed to strict rules and hierarchy at school and are not generally encouraged to be creative or take initiative.
But Mitra thinks the best part about Hole in the Wall is that the program substantiates his provocative opinion, that education improves when there are fewer teachers. That should be welcome news in India, where the quality of schools is poor, Mitra says, particularly in rural areas where many teachers leave for the cities seeking more pay. “Schoolchildren may know the alphabet off the top of their head and they understand a few words of English,” he points out, “but they haven’t learned to think independently or to work with computers, which have only recently started to make a slow entry.”
His computer project shows that “you don’t have to teach everything,” Mitra maintains, “Education should come from the inside, not the outside.” He believes that children are innately curious and that this curiosity drives them to seek more knowledge and skills. The computer kiosks offer young people a way to learn through play. Moreover, the children’s feelings of self worth increase because they’re learning new skills that adults haven’t mastered.
Recently, Hole in the Wall received financial support from the Indian government. A recent study conducted by Delhi’s administration department reports that 80 percent of the residents feel the kiosks in Madangir are helping the children’s school results while 85 percent believe their reading skills and self image are improving.
Shiffon Chatterjee, a researcher with the Hole in the Wall project, tests the children eight months after they start to use the kiosks, and has demonstrated that they do better. English skills increased by an average of 11 percent while math ability rose 19 percent. In villages with a computer kiosk, school results improved 4 percent.
Mitra uses these figures to promote the idea elsewhere in the world, even in wealthy countries. “People say it can only be done in India,” he declares. “In America they think the ghetto kids will destroy the computer in no time. Why do they have so little faith in their children?”

How the computer kiosks work

The computer in every Hole in the Wall kiosk is placed behind sturdy metal doors. The screen is protected by Plexiglas. The keyboard is covered with a sheet of clear plastic. A fan in the wall of the kiosk blows air inside to keep the equipment dust-free. Extra batteries are housed there (due to frequent power outages), as is a sensor that registers environmental factors such as humidity. On the roof is a satellite dish for the Internet connection. Most kiosks are equipped with a webcam and a microphone so the behaviour of users can be observed and analyzed.
More information: www.hole-in-the-wall.com

Technology for a better world

  • The Simputer is a portable hand-held computer with speech-processing technology that can be used by illiterate people in India and other developing countries. Co-creator Vinay Deshpande, who is also the CEO of Encore Software in Bangalore, says his experiences closely resemble those of Sugata Mitra. “When we gave the Simputer to illiterate fishermen, farmers and children, within two hours they were able to get it to play music via the built-in MP3 player, without help. By giving them the freedom to experiment, they got the Simputer to talk and knew how to find other functions. The good thing is that this also helps you learn where the weaknesses are and how you can make the software more user-friendly.” The Simputer is a joint non-profit initiative involving various Indian IT companies. More information: www.simputer.org
  • The XO, the latest name for what has variously been known as “the 100-dollar laptop” and the “2B1,” is designed to serve as a teaching tool for governments and aid organizations to use with poor children in remote areas. It is a playfully designed, wind-up laptop with a wireless Internet connection. The computer—which can also be used as a telephone and television—is an initiative of One Laptop per Child, through which dot com companies like Google work together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Its creator, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, has visited the computer kiosks of Sugata Mitra. But Mitra is quick to underscore a difference between the two initiatives: The XO is meant for reading or surfing the Internet alone, he says, while “at our public computers, co-operation among children is an important starting point.” More information: www.laptop.org

 

Solution News Source

Pulling themselves up by their keyboards

By bringing computers into slums, an Indian physicist shows that illiterate children can educate themselves – and help their country progress.

Lex Veldhoen | Jan/Feb 2007 issue
The alleys are narrow in Madangir, a slum on the edge of New Delhi. Rickety huts crammed together house emigrants from neighbouring regions who’ve moved to the city. Countless rickshaw drivers jam the dusty main road, waiting for paying customers.
This is one of the last places on Earth you’d expect to find advanced computer technology. Yet in a small, red kiosk along the road stands a computer, a few brightly coloured buttons and a narrow slot through which children’s hands can reach to work the keyboard. As always, a few girls and boys are standing around the kiosk. A 12-year-old girl tells foreign visitors that she likes the Microsoft Paint drawing program the best and that she’s learning the English alphabet using an ABC game. A boy of 6 shows how the mouse works with a few lightning-speed clicks. The parents of these children are illiterate and the kids themselves rarely go to school.
This unsupervised kiosk, which is shut down at night, offers the neighbourhood children a unique and absolutely free opportunity to learn about the Internet, MP3 and computer games—in other words, an introduction to the information age they are scarcely a part of. The children may not know it, but they’re participating in an extensive education experiment. This little kiosk in Madangir is helping bridge the digital gap and demonstrates that young people have an innate talent for gathering knowledge themselves. The kiosk in Madangir is one of more than 100 spread throughout slums and rural villages in India, and recently in South Africa, Venezuela and Cambodia. Some are sponsored by companies, others set up with financial support from the World Bank. Various studies have now shown that information and communications technology is an important instrument for economic growth in poor countries.
The idea for a computer kiosk began with physicist Sugata Mitra. He developed an interest in software and became involved in the world’s first online university and India’s first Local Area Network newspaper publishing system. He also observed that children were being poorly prepared for a technological future. Mitra believes that classrooms, teachers and textbooks will be less important, while computers will increasingly become a prominent educational tool to help shepherd India into the 21st century.
Sitting in his office – in a green oasis within the crowded city of New Delhi – Mitra acknowledges the irony in his views: he spearheads research and development at NIIT, India’s largest commercial supplier of information technology (IT) training courses, yet he advocates that computer skills can be learned without supervision. “When a method makes economic sense, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek alternatives,” Mitra explains. “A good company offers more and more for less and less.”
Mitra calls his computer kiosk project “Hole in the Wall,” after the hole he carved in a dilapidated wall next to his office where he first placed a computer for the use of slum kids living in the area. This was 1999. He hooked the computer to the Internet and placed a webcam above it so he could watch from his office and see how illiterate children responded to the computer. They seemed to be intrigued. The screen showed the home page of MSN.com. Without any outside help, most of them would discover in a few minutes that a little arrow moved when they ran a finger over the touchpad, and that an underlined word lit up when they placed the arrow on it, and that a new screen opened when they clicked on the arrow. Within a few days, Mitra noticed, children were able to surf the Internet. Disney.com was particularly popular. They figured out how to copy text into a document and save it in a folder. They learned how to use the drawing program, which was fantastic for these kids who don’t have paper, pencils or markers at home. And they could download games to play.
Walking the streets of Madangir, I run into Ruvina, a 14-year-old girl with long braids who walks to the kiosk nearly every day. “I pushed buttons and just looked to see what happened. Sometimes another screen appeared and I learned as I went along. Now I read English texts too, which is something we hardly ever do in school.” Tarif, the same age, says he mainly looks at maps of different countries, which he memorizes.
Ruvina’s mother Nafisa thinks it’s all a great idea and supports her daughter’s wish to work with computers when she’s older. “It is important to be able to work a computer,” she says, “especially when it comes to finding a job.” Her family recently invested its savings in a second-hand computer.
Computers are increasingly recognized as an essential tool for people to use to escape poverty. The World Bank report Information and Communications for Development 2006 focuses on the power of information technology. In addition, to help poor families, gain access to new methods of education and information. This, the report concludes, ultimately strengthens democracy. Earlier last year, the World Bank had calculated in another study—E-Development: From Excitement to Effectiveness – that every computer acquired by companies in developing countries creates more jobs and raises productivity, assuming a solid infrastructure is in place.
Mitra believes that if the division between “haves” and the “have nots” changes into a division between those with knowledge and those without, then we’ll be on our way to global co-operation and peace. He says, “If you know something I don’t, I won’t get it by fighting but by making friends with you.”
Hole in the Wall has helped many children acquire basic skills that have proven very useful—even if the kids have never learned the official computer jargon. They call the websites “channels” and the cursor “sui,” Hindi for “needle.” The hourglass—an unknown object in India—is called “damru,” referring to the drums that usually depict the Hindu god Shiva.
Back at the office, Mitra shows me how the images from the webcam above every kiosk can be tracked. Here the children’s behaviour is analyzed when they first start using a computer. A lot of shouting and pushing among the kids can be expected. But the amazing part is that within hours the kids always find a way to organize themselves. An older child usually takes a leadership role and proclaims that it makes more sense to take turns using this new attraction because they simply can’t all work with it at once. And when it becomes clear that screaming disrupts the user’s concentration, the bystanders keep quiet.
Within a matter of days, the kids have established their own rules without any interference from adults – which is even more remarkable in a country where children are accustomed to strict rules and hierarchy at school and are not generally encouraged to be creative or take initiative.
But Mitra thinks the best part about Hole in the Wall is that the program substantiates his provocative opinion, that education improves when there are fewer teachers. That should be welcome news in India, where the quality of schools is poor, Mitra says, particularly in rural areas where many teachers leave for the cities seeking more pay. “Schoolchildren may know the alphabet off the top of their head and they understand a few words of English,” he points out, “but they haven’t learned to think independently or to work with computers, which have only recently started to make a slow entry.”
His computer project shows that “you don’t have to teach everything,” Mitra maintains, “Education should come from the inside, not the outside.” He believes that children are innately curious and that this curiosity drives them to seek more knowledge and skills. The computer kiosks offer young people a way to learn through play. Moreover, the children’s feelings of self worth increase because they’re learning new skills that adults haven’t mastered.
Recently, Hole in the Wall received financial support from the Indian government. A recent study conducted by Delhi’s administration department reports that 80 percent of the residents feel the kiosks in Madangir are helping the children’s school results while 85 percent believe their reading skills and self image are improving.
Shiffon Chatterjee, a researcher with the Hole in the Wall project, tests the children eight months after they start to use the kiosks, and has demonstrated that they do better. English skills increased by an average of 11 percent while math ability rose 19 percent. In villages with a computer kiosk, school results improved 4 percent.
Mitra uses these figures to promote the idea elsewhere in the world, even in wealthy countries. “People say it can only be done in India,” he declares. “In America they think the ghetto kids will destroy the computer in no time. Why do they have so little faith in their children?”

How the computer kiosks work

The computer in every Hole in the Wall kiosk is placed behind sturdy metal doors. The screen is protected by Plexiglas. The keyboard is covered with a sheet of clear plastic. A fan in the wall of the kiosk blows air inside to keep the equipment dust-free. Extra batteries are housed there (due to frequent power outages), as is a sensor that registers environmental factors such as humidity. On the roof is a satellite dish for the Internet connection. Most kiosks are equipped with a webcam and a microphone so the behaviour of users can be observed and analyzed.
More information: www.hole-in-the-wall.com

Technology for a better world

  • The Simputer is a portable hand-held computer with speech-processing technology that can be used by illiterate people in India and other developing countries. Co-creator Vinay Deshpande, who is also the CEO of Encore Software in Bangalore, says his experiences closely resemble those of Sugata Mitra. “When we gave the Simputer to illiterate fishermen, farmers and children, within two hours they were able to get it to play music via the built-in MP3 player, without help. By giving them the freedom to experiment, they got the Simputer to talk and knew how to find other functions. The good thing is that this also helps you learn where the weaknesses are and how you can make the software more user-friendly.” The Simputer is a joint non-profit initiative involving various Indian IT companies. More information: www.simputer.org
  • The XO, the latest name for what has variously been known as “the 100-dollar laptop” and the “2B1,” is designed to serve as a teaching tool for governments and aid organizations to use with poor children in remote areas. It is a playfully designed, wind-up laptop with a wireless Internet connection. The computer—which can also be used as a telephone and television—is an initiative of One Laptop per Child, through which dot com companies like Google work together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Its creator, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, has visited the computer kiosks of Sugata Mitra. But Mitra is quick to underscore a difference between the two initiatives: The XO is meant for reading or surfing the Internet alone, he says, while “at our public computers, co-operation among children is an important starting point.” More information: www.laptop.org

 

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