Friday, April 19, 2002

India and the Hole-in-the-Wall Experiment

Successful New Delhi physicist and businessman Sugata Mitra is passionate about the education of his nation's youth and has some very unorthodox ideas about how to bring them into the wired future. Upon noticing that anytime his friends bought a computer, within weeks they were bragging that their small children were "computer geniuses", Mitra asked himself if this trait wouldn't be found in all children.

To put this to the test, he came up with "the hole in the wall experiment". Mitra took a high-powered Pentium computer with broadband access and simply placed it in a wall in an indian slum, with no explanation whatsoever, allowing anyone to come along and play with it as they wished, while he monitored it, using a remote computer and a nearby camera. He found that children ages 6-12, with only the most rudimentary education and little knowledge of english, were the biggest users of the machine and within days had taught themselves to surf and draw on it. In fact, at times, he was completely taken aback by their savvy:

Q: Of all the things the children did and learned, what did you find the most surprising?

A: One day there was a document file on the desktop of the computer. It was called "untitled.doc" and it said in big colorful letters, "I Love India." I couldn't believe it for the simple reason that there was no keyboard on the computer [only a touch screen]. I asked my main assistant -- a young boy, eight years old, the son of a local betel-nut seller -- and I asked him, "How on earth did you do this?" He showed me the character map inside [Microsoft] Word. So he had gotten into the character map inside Word, and dragged and dropped the letters onto the screen, then increased the point size and painted the letters. I was stunned because I didn't know that the character map existed -- and I have a PhD.

Incidentally, the adults in the community had little interest in the computer and instead relied on the children to find them things, such as horoscopes - as one woman claimed, "I don't have the brains to understand all this.". Also noteworthy, when Mitra added a Hindi interface to the computer, which he expected to be a huge hit, the children just went back to Internet Explorer.

MP3s, of course, were eventually a favorite with the children, that much is universal.

It's a very interesting article that challenges you to rethink the ways children might be educated in the the future.

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