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'Hole in the Wall' experiment transforms education

Hole in the Wall computer kiosks are giving Indian slum children access to the digital world. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

A child's hand on the touch pad pointing device of a 'Hole In The Wall' computer in Madangir, New Delhi.
A child's hand on the touch pad pointing device of a 'Hole In The Wall' computer in Madangir, New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // 10-9-8-7 ...

The spaceman on the computer screen shows 9-year-old Dolly Rajora four rows each containing eight mangoes. A blinking rocket nearby is ready to take off with the fruit and end the game.

4-3-2 ... Dolly gives up counting on her fingers and begins reciting multiplication tables.

"32! It's 32," she shouts to her brother, Sohan, 8, who looks on proudly as Dolly triumphs to play again, amid the clamour of other children keen to take her place.

The computer on which Dolly played is one of six contained in bright yellow boxes built into a brick wall in an alley near her home in north-east Delhi's Madangir district.

They were installed by Hole in the Wall, a private Indian company contracted by the federal government and some state governments to provide computer access to Indian children in low-income neighbourhoods.

With an annual budget of nearly 50 million rupees (Dh3.3m), Hole in the Wall operates more than 300 computer kiosks across India, including 23 in rural areas of the country.

The computer kiosks in Madangir, which are more than a decade old, are swarmed in the mornings and evenings as children play on them before and after school. Tareef, 21, who goes by one name only, remembered when the computer kiosk first appeared in the alleyway leading to his house.

"I had no idea what this machine was," Tareef said. "I knew the word computer but I did not know what one looked like. I had never touched one before."

At first, Tareef and his friends thought it was a video game machine that required coins to operate, so they tried to insert them through the mouse.

Then an unexpected start-up menu appeared. "When I found out these were educational games, I thought, 'Fine, at least I'm having fun," Tareef said.

Now a student of computer science at a private college in Delhi he learnt English and improved his maths skills, "just so I could stay close to these computers," he said.

Standing near Dolly and her brother, Purnendu Hota, the senior manager for Hole in Wall's India operations, describes the transformation that occurs to children who are given access to the digital world.

"Their entire self-confidence changes. At first small kids are afraid to touch the computers, that something will go wrong. Once they start doing it, they gain immense respect among their peers," said Mr Hota, as children on their bicycles stopped at the kiosk and queued up to wait their turn.

Originally called "Minimally Invasive Education", the Hole in the Wall programme was the inspiration of Sugata Mitra, head of research and technology at the National Institution of Information Technology (NIIT), a private computer training company.

Mr Mitra was awarded the TED Prize in February, which is given annually to "an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change", according to the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website.

The prize is administered by the private Sapling Foundation, which organises conferences worldwide devoted to "ideas worth spreading".

It came with a grant of US$1 million (Dh3.6m), which Mr Mitra said he would use to build "the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online".

Mr Mitra's interest in computer education dates back to 1999, when he observed children of well-heeled parents teach themselves new skills on the computers with very little assistance from teachers.

"It was obvious that the same learning techniques could be applied to the poor. I thought since I can't make the poor rich, but I can at least give them a computer," he said.

So that year Mr Mitra built his first computer kiosk, set in a wall of the NIIT campus in New Delhi. The wires for the computers ran from the wall and into the building's basement.

"I didn't know if I was making a big mistake. I constantly had doubts," he said.

Many of Mr Mitra's friends and colleagues warned him that the most likely result of his bold experiment would be that the computers would be cannibalised and their parts sold off.

Instead, they watched as children from nearby slums curiously approached the computer then stood by, believing it was a television screen. One child became impatient, stepped forward and tried to start it up.

"Somebody clicked using the mouse and music started. Then the fellow understood that if he pressed a button, then something will happen and this continued," Mr Hota recalled.

"And we watched these children, many of whom had no grasp of English, figure out a computer."

The idea of computer kiosks in low-income neighbourhoods has been deemed so successful that it has been exported to other countries, including Cambodia, Botswana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Swaziland, Uganda and Zambia.

When asked about the future of the programme, Mr Mitra, now chief scientist at NIIT, said that it was "at its peaking moment".

"The next three years, we hope to crack the problem of reading comprehension," he said.

Mr Mitra believes that children who use computers regularly also learn the English alphabet. The next step is to see if they can learn to read and write the internet's lingua franca language with help of computers.

"A lot of children I work with cannot read even basic level of comprehension. Children from backgrounds of economic disadvantage are not reading at the level they should by age 8, compared to Spanish or Arabic-speaking children and English," Mr Mitra said.

"Our next step is to see if their reading comprehension also be improved through computers. Or do we go back to needing a good school and a good teacher?"