In 1999 Dr Sugata Mitra conducted a rather quirky educational experiment. His research institute was next to a slum district, and he cut a hole in the wall and installed a public computer terminal with an internet connection. It was unsupervised and free to use, with no instructions, just monitored through a remote desktop and observed with a hidden camera.
What happened was that curious local citizens came and experimented with it, as hoped. Children turned up in groups and tried it out together, learning what it could do, and coining their own names for the mouse and the various functions. Within a matter of days, they had learned basic IT literacy and were browsing the internet and using educational language and maths programs.
Mitra repeated the experiment elsewhere, observing how children learned in their own time, through trial and error, peer coaching and play, guided by their own curiosity. Encouraged by the results, which he called Minimally Invasive Education, Hole in the Wall IT was scaled up to a full project.
Hole in the Wall Education Limited (HiWEL) now operates learning stations across India, Cambodia, Bhutan, and a number of African countries. The stations have been weather-proofed and theft-proofed, and installed in playgrounds, street corners, children’s homes and villages.
A learning station like this is obviously a far cry from having your own computer, but it’s invaluable for children and adults who would not otherwise have any access to computing at all, and no opportunity to develop IT skills or use the web. It’s one small way of helping to bridge the ‘digital divide’ between those who are able to benefit from our interconnected world, and those who are excluded.
Incidentally, while many of us might not have heard of the Hole in the Wall computer itself, we’ve probably seen some of the popular culture it has inspired. Novelist Vikas Swarup saw the way that children from slum districts were capable of learning on their own, and it sparked the idea for his novel Q+A. It’s a book better known for its film adaptation, Slumdog Millionaire.