February 2004

Insight:The hole-in-the-wall

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The experiments were initiated at Kalkaji, New Delhi, by NIIT Limited, Indian software and training multinational, through its Center for Research in Cognitive Systems (CRCS). They were later continued by CRCS and through a company, Hole-in-the-Wall Education Limited (HIWEL), set up in 2001 for this purpose. HIWEL is a joint venture company between NIIT Limited and the International Finance Corporation, the industrial financing arm of the World Bank.

Several projects have been initiated since then and include the following:

  • The Shivpuri (1999) experiment- one computer in the state of Madhya Pradesh, funded by NIIT Limited
  • The Madantusi experiment (2000)- one computer in the state of Uttar Pradesh, funded by Dr. Urvashi Sahni and NIIT Limited.
  • The Madangir project (2000)- 30 computers in six locations in Delhi funded by the Government of Delhi and NIIT Limited.
  • The Sindhudurg project (2001- 10 computers in five locations in the state of Maharashtra, funded by the ICICI bank and NIIT Limited.
  • The IFC project (2002)- a plan for 66 computers in 22 locations spread throughout India, of which 33 computers in 11 locations are currently functional, funded by the IFC and NIIT Limited.
  • The Alexandria project (2003)- a plan for 90 computers in 30 locations spread throughout Alexandria, Egypt. The first kiosk is scheduled to be opened on October 12, 2003. The project is funded by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
  • The Cambodia project (2003)- a plan for 10 computers in 5 locations in Cambodia. A gift from the Prime Minister of India to the Cambodian government. The project is funded by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Government of India.

Kalkaji, New Delhi. The hole-in-the-wall, 1999

All projects, except in Shivpuri, are continuing (September, 2003). The 75 computers installed in India so far are used by an estimated 7,500 children.

Groups of 6 to 13 year old children do not need to be “taught” how to use computers. In experiments conducted in India since 1999, as listed above, it has been shown that children can self-instruct themselves to operate computers. Their ability to do so seems to be independent of their:

  • Educational background
  • Literacy levels in the English language or any other language
  • Social or economic level
  • Ethnicity and place of origin, i.e., city, town or village
  • Gender
  • Genetic background
  • Geographic location
  • Intelligence

What do they learn?
An estimated 100 children can learn to do most or all of the following tasks in approximately three months, using the “hole-in-wall” arrangement with a single PC:

  • All windows operational functions, such as click, drag, open, close, resize, minimize, menus, navigation etc.
  • Draw and paint pictures on the computer
  • Load and save files
  • Play games
  • Run educational and other programs
  • Play music and video, view photos and pictures
  • Browse and surf the Internet, if a connection is available
  • Set up e-mail accounts
  • Send and receive e-mail
  • Chat on the Internet
  • Do simple troubleshooting, for example, if the speakers are not working
  • Download and play streaming media
  • Download games

In addition to the above task achievement, local teachers and field observers often note that the children demonstrate improvements in:

  • School examinations, particularly in subjects that deal with computing skills
  • English vocabulary and usage
  • Concentration, attention span and problem solving
  • Working together and self-regulation

However, it is not known yet, if these latter effects are universal and evident in all children.

A frequently voiced concern
It is important to mention here that no instances of pornographic material access among these target groups, ie, children aged 13 and below was observed. However, adults, if allowed to use the facility are likely to access such material.

Madangir, New Delhi, 2000

Village Kalse, Sindhudurg, Maharashtra 2001

Village Kalludevanahalli, Karnataka, 2002

How does it work?

Learning process in a Minimally Invasive Environment (MIE)
Certain common observations from the experiments reported above, suggest the following learning process when children self-instruct each other in computer usage:

  • One child explores randomly in the user interface, others watch until an accidental discovery is made. For example, when they find that the cursor changes to a hand shape at certain places on the screen.
  • Several children repeat the discovery for themselves by requesting the first child to let them do so.
  • While in step 2, one or more children make more accidental or incidental discoveries.
  • All the children repeat all the discoveries made and, in the process, make more discoveries and start to create a vocabulary to describe their experience.
  • The vocabulary encourages them to perceive generalisations (“when you right click on a hand shaped cursor, it changes to the hourglass shape for a while and a new page comes up”).
  • They memorise entire procedures for doing something, for example, how to open a painting program and retrieve a saved picture. They teach each other shorter procedures for doing the same thing, whenever one of them finds a new, shorter, procedure.
  • The group divides itself into the “knows” and the “know nots”, much as they did into “haves” and “have nots” in the past. However, they realise that a child that knows will part with that knowledge in return for friendship and exchange as opposed to ownership of physical things where they could use force to get what they did not have.
  • A stage is reached when no further discoveries are made and the children occupy themselves with practising what they have already learned. At this point intervention is required to introduce a new “seed” discovery (“did you know that computers can play music? Here let me play a song for you”). Usually, a spiral of discoveries follow and another self-instructional cycle begins.

In order for the above instructional objectives to be met, it is important that:

  • The computer should be in an outdoor, public, and safe location. Children, and often their parents, are apprehensive of enclosed spaces such as closed rooms or “clubs”. Locating computers indoors, even inside a school, is associated with regimentation, control, “studying” and other negatives associated with formal schooling. Locating a computer in a school playground, on the other hand, is ideal.
  • Children should use the computer in heterogeneous groups. Since the MIE process depends on exploration and discovery, working in groups is essential. Collaborative constructivism is the main paradigm of MIE. Children teach each other very effectively and are also effective at self-regulating the process. That is how over 100 children are able to use one computer.
  • There should be no adult intervention or supervision. Adults should not use the kiosk. All activity should be monitored remotely to ensure that the kiosk is being used for the right purpose.
  • PC functioning and Internet connectivity should be reliable.

Based on the above observations, a set of guidelines have been developed that enables educators to set up their own MIE kiosk facilities. These include:

  • General instructions
  • Site selection
  • Architectural plans
  • Purchases required including proprietary pointing and remote sensing hardware and software
  • Electrical installation
  • A portal to help children navigate to sites and applications
  • Downloadable utilities
  • Downloadable games
  • Educational tests and remote sensing data analysis tools
  • Legal and safety related issues

Based on the experience and data gathered over the last four years, it can be argued that such “playground” access points should be a part of every primary school. Where primary schools are not available, such facilities could provide even more vital “emergency” educational inputs.

MIE for children through public Internet kiosks should form an integral part of primary education in the 21st century. It has the potential to not only close the “digital divide” rapidly, but also to unlock the creative potential for self-development of children that eminent educationists have sought to do for over a century.

Village Gadharwan, Jammu and Kashmir, 2003


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