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Web-Surfing Indian Slum Kids Ask: "What's a Computer" 430

chaoticset writes "An experiment in minimally directed self-learning has been going fairly well, from the article: To test his ideas, Sugata Mitra launched something 13 months ago he calls "the hole in the wall experiment." He took a PC connected to a high-speed data connection and imbedded it in a concrete wall next to NIIT's headquarters in the south end of New Delhi. The wall separates the company's grounds from a garbage-strewn empty lot used by the poor as a public bathroom. Mitra simply left the computer on, connected to the Internet, and allowed any passerby to play with it...he discovered was that the most avid users of the machine were ghetto kids aged 6 to 12, most of whom have only the most rudimentary education and little knowledge of English. Yet within days, the kids had taught themselves to draw on the computer and to browse the Net." Update: 04/17 22:23 GMT by M : Mitra has a website about his experiments.
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Web-Surfing Indian Slum Kids Ask: "What's a Computer"

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  • This is incredible (Score:3, Insightful)

    by qslack ( 239825 ) <qslack.pobox@com> on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:10PM (#3363100) Homepage Journal
    You know, I felt discouraged with all of the dot-com bombs. It seemed as if the promise of the Internet was over.

    It's these things that remind me what the Internet is all about: learning and communication. It's not about making money (although that might work for some people). It's just about making the world a better place, one page at a time. :)

    This is seriously cool. Nobel Internet Peace Prize anyone? :)
  • Sociology (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kargan ( 250092 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:11PM (#3363113) Homepage
    Seems to me like more of a sociology experiment than anything...

    I wonder if any prominent sociological societies or groups are aware of this project and its collected data?
  • by tcyun ( 80828 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:13PM (#3363120) Journal
    While the experiment sounds interesting, I have this weird feeling that the IRBs might have a few issues with this type of experiment if they were run in the United States (and by experiment, I mean controlled study run through a university). Now, the weird feeling stems from the fact that one would potentially have to answer a few questions about using human beings as unaware subjects.

    I am not saying that there are a not great deal of potential positives form this type of "experiment" as well. I just want to point out that there might be some ethical issues. I am sure there are some simple arguements that can point out the cost to implement the hole in the wall system vs. the cost to feed/educate/clothe a number of children. (The counter arguement states that if a single child is able to rise out of poverty due to the exposure to technology, the purely economic analysis states that the experiment was a win...)

    The groaning aside, it is again amazing that kids will figure out how to use stuff. It does not seem to matter who the kids are or what the stuff is, they seem to figure out how to use it.

  • by yerricde ( 125198 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:15PM (#3363139) Homepage Journal

    The children were sorely disappointed when the machine wouldn't acknowledge their parent-induced handicaps such as missing limbs and blindness.

    When it comes to the Internet, blindness is a handicap (now that much of the web is moving to Flash and that Flash MX's accessibility features have not come into wide use), but not having legs [] isn't nearly as much of a handicap, especially when you can prop yourself up [] and use the computer that way.

  • by papasui ( 567265 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:25PM (#3363178) Homepage
    Children have the most curiosity, and the littlest fear. They will try things that people who have experienced negative results previously may not. For example: my 2 year old son can play Halo better than I can, not because I'm bad at video games but because I cannot adapt to the controls and controller the way he can. I'm still stuck in the quake mouse + keyboard point of mind.
  • by McLuhanesque ( 176628 ) on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:37PM (#3363213) Homepage
    There are some wonderful observations for educators and those providing government funding for educational infrastructure from the Hole-In-the-Wall experiment.

    Perhaps one of the most important observations made by Dr. Mitra was, "The terminology is not as important as the metaphor."

    Metaphors, by their nature are transformational. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, "All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms."

    (By "medium," McLuhan means anything that we conceive or create - tangible or intangible, everything from tables to televisions to televangelists. The "message" of a medium is the set of effects or changes that the medium will induce in us, our society or culture.)

    In this case, the Indian children used metaphors to which they could relate to effect changes in, and transform, the way they experienced common-place life: Indian music, letters, Shiva's drum and so forth. In doing so, they will tend to view the rest of the world through changed eyes, and will undoubtedly "demand" (even tacitly through imagination) these new experiences. They will likely be dissatisfied with the conventional approach to instruction, perhaps preferring more self-guided, exploration and discovery-based education. What effects might this have on the educational system in India? What effects will this have on educators in North America and Europe who will be forced to confront massive investments in seemingly unnecessary "computer literacy" programs. How can approaches to adult education take advantage of child-like curiosity and discovery?

    In the graduate-level course I teach, the majority of the course is discovery and exploration. Where we end up at the end of each seminar is largely irrelevant. If we reach a point of being able to ask a profound question as a "conclusion," the seminar is a resounding success. As seen with these Indian children and Dr. Mitra's brilliant experiment, "The teacher's job is very simple. It's to help the children ask the right questions." To which I would add, adult learners, too.
  • by metalhed77 ( 250273 ) <andrewvc@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:50PM (#3363250) Homepage
    actually its about keeping government agencies and universities connected (DARPA Net).

    it's nice to bring your ideas to the table, but the net is all about 3 things.

    1. Commerce - self explanatory
    2. Self Glorification - Personal web page? yeah like you weren't trying to show off (unless its just a resume which is practical) (btw, i don't mind showing off).
    3. Communication - Communicating between different groups for BAD OR GOOD, whether world peace ensues is not the net's concern
  • by ender81b ( 520454 ) <<moc.aksarbeni> <ta> <dllib>> on Wednesday April 17, 2002 @11:59PM (#3363284) Homepage Journal
    I totally agree. This is remarkable and quite fascinating - the kids just invent words/metaphors for what the computer does and learn it. It is like in the old days when I learned DOS. I had no idea what stuff was called or how anything worked i just figured it out (to get games to work). This is the same type of thing only waayyyy cooler. Man is it just.. I dunno - neat. I say we give these kids an "honorary geek award" from slashdot =). THe only thing that troubled me about the article (and I mean only thing.. man is this cool) is this:

    A: There is one experiment that scares me. These children don't know what e-mail is. If I gave them e-mail, I don't know what would happen. I'll probably try it anyway. But remember the stories one used to hear about people finding lost tribes and introducing them to Coca-Cola? I'm really seriously scared about what would happen if suddenly the whole wide world had access to these kids. I don't know who would talk to them for what purpose.

    It is kindof sad in todays world that he would be afraid of what somebody would do to these kids but I understand. With all the perverts in the world... well. It just seems sad though that they are missing on a fundamental aspect of the internet because of the (literal) danger it poses to them. Plus, they would probably get spammed to death.

    The only other thing I wanted to add is just how interesting it was that they could use the web (Disney's site even!) without really knowing English. I mean, think about it. Go to some Chinese/Japanese/French/Whatever site and try using it. Almost impossible (without the fish) but here these kids have figured out how. And to think we bitch when sites use flash...

    He has my vote for some sort of award.
  • by Kintanon ( 65528 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @12:05AM (#3363302) Homepage Journal
    The key seperating characteristic of Adults and Children is simple, Fear of Breaking Shit. Children do not have this crippling learning disability, they do not Fear to Break Shit. Adults do. So Adults will not try anything that they aren't sure will not Break Shit. Since an Adult who has never used a computer does not know what will Break Shit and what won't, they prefer to do nothing with the computer. A child doesn't care whether what he does to the computer Breaks Shit or not, he just wants to know what it will do. So every time a child does something and it doesn't Break Shit, he or she adds that act to the list of actions that Don't Break Shit and moves on. The same if the action Does Break Shit. Hopefully the child will try to fix it after he Breaks Shit, and thereby learn how to UnBreak Shit. I have formulated this theory after MANY MANY hours watching customer service reps who use the computer on a daily basis panic when they click on a different icon accidentally and a new window comes up. They call support (me) to 'Fix' their computer because it's 'Broke' by which they mean they aren't sure what actions Won't Break Shit in this situation. Amazing isn't it?

  • by 1234567890zxcvbnm ( 548451 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @12:23AM (#3363358) Homepage
    4. Porn
  • by rgmoore ( 133276 ) <> on Thursday April 18, 2002 @12:40AM (#3363404) Homepage
    Please allow the irony nazi to point out that, by filing for a patent, NIIT has made deploying kiosks in third world countries even less simple.

    Not necessarily. It will only cause problems if they adopt an obnoxious licensing policy. OTOH, if they pass out royalty free licenses to anyone who asks, they make things much simpler because then nobody else can patent the things and start charging outrageous fees. Defensive patents (i.e. ones used to prevent others from attacking you with their patents) are not a bad thing.

  • by Some Dumbass... ( 192298 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @01:20AM (#3363527)
    I just want to point out that there might be some ethical issues. I am sure there are some simple arguements that can point out the cost to implement the hole in the wall system vs. the cost to feed/educate/clothe a number of children.

    You realize that by those standards, hardly any research should be done at all in the world? And on a related note, by those standards we should all sell our computers and donate the money to charity. I mean, it's amazing how much money is spent on luxuries when some people don't even have food.

    Getting back to the topic at hand, I don't think most IRBs actually care about those standards (they don't care how little we pay starving undergrads, for example...) I belive that they are more concerned about preventing physical harm or mental stress to human subjects. As long as no harm is done, and no personal information is reported (e.g. only aggregate statistical data and anonymous examples are used in papers and talks about the study), then this sort of thing should be fine.

  • Intuition... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by _bobs.pizza_ ( 452394 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @01:27AM (#3363561)
    Just another reminder that it's not the degree you have that counts (though degrees are a good thing), it's what you can figure out / how fast you can learn & adjust to an environment that determines how productive you'll be.

    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.
  • Re:This is stupid. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Alsee ( 515537 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @03:31AM (#3363903) Homepage
    Sell the computer, feed the kids. Sheesh.

    Hungry children is a horrible tradgey, but perhaps education - even minimal nontraditional education - can help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

  • Re:This is stupid. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by foniksonik ( 573572 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @03:31AM (#3363904) Homepage Journal
    Didn't someone once say "It is better to teach a poor man how to fish than to give him fish for a day" or something like that....
  • by koekepeer ( 197127 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @03:57AM (#3363970)
    one could also reason that these technologies need to be protected from some company that wants to make money with it.

    as far as i understand, patents are meant to protect the inventors, and this is IMHO a clear cut case of a good use for a patent. the people that conduct this research appear trustworthy to me. i'd rather have them hold the patent to this setup than let some big company steal it away.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 18, 2002 @05:22AM (#3364137)

    How exactly do you think schoolyard bullying is
    studied in North America?
  • Re:Sigh. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 18, 2002 @08:42AM (#3364526)
    Maybe this experiment isn't showing how well children can learn on their own, but how far we are progressing in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) field. We have been forced to design hardware and software so that idiot "western-educated employees" can intuitively check their mail when the eery AOL voice tells them to without calling helpdesk.

    I mean really, just because these kids are poor and uneducated, doesn't mean they are less intelligent than us. I think flacco is more +5 insightful than funny...
  • Re:OT: Security (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jweatherley ( 457715 ) <> on Thursday April 18, 2002 @08:44AM (#3364531) Homepage
    i doubt the people who literally wrote the book on sex and porn would spend a lot of effert punishing people who looked for it.

    Very true, go into any internet cafe in India and take a look at the browser history and there will be as much pr0n in there as your machine at home ;)
  • by maxpublic ( 450413 ) on Thursday April 18, 2002 @11:33AM (#3365404) Homepage
    Forcing a bit of odd westernization-evolution on the kids...

    Funny, I didn't see any mention of kids being held at gunpoint and commanded to use the computer.


Air is water with holes in it.