NEW DELHI — Free computers placed where children play could help bring basic education to India's 200 million boys and girls under age 15. That's the hope of the man behind an Internet learning experiment called Hole-in-the-Wall.
Sugata Mitra, physicist and chief scientist with India's international software giant NIIT Ltd., launched the experiment in 1999 by embedding a kiosk housing a high-speed touch-screen computer into the wall that separates the company's headquarters from New Delhi's biggest slum. Dr. Mitra was surprised to see how quickly the children had mastered navigating the Internet - within hours.
Since then, Mitra has installed more than 150 computers - with keyboards, touch pads, and Web cameras - in some 50 locations from New Delhi slums to points in rural India. In each location, with no supervision or instruction, the children "download and play audio and video, send and receive e-mail, chat, and so on," he says. They quickly move on to learn some English from English-language websites, read Indian newspapers, and even "look for jobs for their fathers," Mitra says.
Widespread implementation of his experiment could help bridge the gap between India's 600,000 primary schools and the 1 million it needs, observers say.
"In India, this has not been achieved and is not expected to be achieved in the near future," Mitra says. "There are not enough schools and not enough teachers."
Hole-in-the-Wall has already helped thousands of previously nonliterate boys and girls teach themselves not only about computers but also "several pieces of primary education," Mitra says. Within nine months, the boys and girls achieve, "the proficiency level equivalent to the skills of most modern office workers."
During a recent visit to the slum's cyber wall, a group of boys took turns, two and three at a time, at each of the wall's four computer kiosks. A group of girls nearby quickly volunteered their reasons for coming here. Rubina, a tall teenager with a heavy braid and no head scarf, explains that, from the day the first computer was installed, she wanted to know what it did. Once she reached the age when Muslim girls are supposed to stay cloistered and well covered, she says, her mother bought her a computer to use at home. "But I still come here with the other girls," she admits.
Mitra is unfazed by western skeptics who suggest that his computers will expose young children to pornography. In five years, across all locations, he says, Hole-in-the-Wall computers have experienced "less than 0.5 percent pornographic access," adding that the computers "are clearly visible to passing adults." The fact that both boys and girls have access "completely eliminates pornographic or other undesirable access," he says.
To western parents he advises: "Don't lock up your child with a computer in a study. Keep the computer in a public place, like where the TV is, and most of the evils associated with isolation, addiction, and pornography will disappear."
As for the possibility of vandalism, Hole-in-the-Wall's design is such that one "would need a sledge hammer to get at the computers or the keyboards," Mitra says. He cites just one case of vandalism at its 23 rural sites.
Despite this unconventional, unstructured setting, Mitra claims that, in the past five years, participants have been tested in controlled studies "many times," and passed the government board examination with no other assistance, with the results documented in scholarly journals like the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.
Another positive note: These children seem to take sharing for granted, which cuts down on competition for the keyboard as it becomes, in Mitra's words, "very apparent to them that the ones who are the quickest to learn are the ones that should get time and be teachers to others." Thus, "teachers and leaders eventually emerge."
Hole-in-the-Wall has awakened new aspirations in some participants, who have gone on to take courses in preparation for high-tech careers, Mitra says. Many have changed their goals from say, rickshaw driver to engineer, and most now want to go to college.
Another fan of the experiment is Robert Hetzel, a Milwaukee, Wisc., native who directs the American Embassy School here. Like Mitra's company, the school shares a wall with New Delhi's biggest slum.
"What is being learned with Hole-in-the-Wall is how much kids can just figure out without adult assistance. The question remains as to whether the rate of learning could be accelerated with the aid of a teacher," Mr. Hetzel says. "At the same time, I am in awe of how much these poor kids have taught themselves about computers."
But for quality education, some experts insist the focus should be in having trained teachers for every class, not high-tech tools. "All the gadgetry in the world cannot equal the impact that a skilled and dedicated teacher has on a child, even in the most rural or slum of settings," contends Abraham George, a native of India and founder of The George Foundation, a not-for-profit organization in Bangalore that seeks to eradicate poverty in India. "Is this computer on the concrete wall near a slum area going to do something for the kids that the teachers have failed to do in conventional schools in India?"
Such remarks, whether in praise or condemnation of Mitra, are all just business as usual, suggests Ritu Dangwal, a young psychologist who serves as Hole-in-the-Wall's head of research. "People either think he's crazy, or become fanatic fans," she says.
Mitra holds numerous awards for such Internet innovations as NIITNetVarsity, the first virtual university, which went online in 1996.
The World Bank gave $1.6 million for Mitra's initial experiments in 23 rural locations around India, with various Indian government agencies, an Indian Bank, and one international agency offering additional assistance. Mitra estimates that Hole-in-the-Wall could go nationwide in less than five years at a cost of $1.2 billion for computers, miscellaneous expenses of $120 million, and recurring annual costs of another $120 million - or, as he puts it, less than 2 cents per child per day.
While the World Bank showed "some interest" in helping meet those costs, Mitra says he doesn't believe that the money, "if it ever comes, will be from the United States," as "primary education is not a priority in the US at the moment."
Equally scathing about the Indian government, Mitra speculates that, "in its slow and ponderous way, it may one day think about it."
Meantime, as a result of his success here, the innovator has been asked to bring Hole-in-the-Wall to Cambodia and South Africa, which means that, altogether, it has "been verified by 40,000 of the world's poorest children."