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A learning station in Madangir, India
A learning station in Madangir, India
Maria Grazia Coggiola

NEW DELHI - Mukesh is standing barefoot in front of the computer embedded in the wall, deep in concentration. He’s trying to guide the little arrow of the mouse onto the number eight because the talking machine asked him how old he was.

This is the first time that he has come to the Hole in the Wall kiosk, in a poor New Delhi neighborhood. The project was launched 13 years ago by Professor Sugata Mitra, a physicist and educational researcher specialized in self-directed learning in countries that suffer on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide.

The idea is that children can teach themselves to use a computer. According to Mitra, a computer connected to the Internet doesn’t only replace a teacher – it gives better results because it stimulates the creativity of young brains. With this revolutionary concept, Mitra was awarded the $1 million 2013 TED prize to further his research.

The Hole in the Wall in Madangir, a New Delhi neighborhood - where neither the brand new Delhi Metro nor any shiny shopping centers has yet arrived – is one of the 70 such self-learning stations created in the Indian capital. Most of the computer kiosks are in impoverished neighborhoods or slums, as well as one in a juvenile detention facility.

The kiosks have also been successful outside of India. “We have opened 100 points in Bhutan, the remote Himalayan kingdom famous for having invented the Gross National Happiness index,” says Purnendu Hota, one of the researchers from Mitra’s team.

In 1999 Mitra’s team carved a hole in a wall that separated a slum from the prestigious NIIT training school where they taught. They installed an Internet-connected PC with a hidden camera. What they discovered was that after a few hours, the kids from the slums could move the mouse and that after just a few weeks, they had learnt to use the computer without any input from a teacher, just by helping each other.

Before that, Mitra had led a series of educational experiments around the world, each proving the theory that so called “minimally invasive education” works. In 2010, a primary school class in Turin, Italy demonstrated this: with the help of a software program, the pupils successfully learned English.

Mitra has written a book about the fascinating Hole in the Wall project, and it has also been the focus of a documentary co-directed by Gill Rossellini, the adopted son of late Italian director Roberto Rossellini. It also inspired Vikas Swarup, the Indian novelist and diplomat, to write the book Q & A, which later became the film Slumdog Millionaire, about a teenager from a Mumbai slum who wins the Indian TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Virtual grannies

“My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don't want to be spare parts for a great human computer,” says the Indian professor, who has been teaching in the University of Newcastle in the UK since 2006.

Today, the easy availability of high-speed Internet has reinforced his convictions – for him, the Hole in the Wall could become a window on the world for many children. The next step will be to create a virtual laboratory, called the School in the Cloud, which will be financed by the $1 million TED prize money. Using cloud computing, Mitra intends to introduce a new educational system in India, in which the students learn and interact with a network of e-mediators.

He experimented with this a few years ago with English grandmothers. The Granny Cloud project used volunteer pensioners who dedicated a few hours each day to read stories and talk on Skype with disadvantaged kids in India.

In the meantime, a girl called Reshma comes over to help Mukesh – who really looks like the young boy in Danny Boyle’s movie. But, he doesn’t need any – the young boy has already intuitively understood how to use the keys to move the cursor.

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