and filmmaker Rory O'Connor, producer of the FRONTLINE/World
segment "The Hole in the Wall," went to New Delhi to report
on an experiment that turned into a project that sends slum
kids into cyberspace. Read his notes, exclusive to FRONTLINE/World's
arrive in New Delhi just a few days ahead of the annual monsoon.
A thick, dark, gray mass of humidity and toxic pollutants masks
not only the sun, but the entire sky. The heat practically singes
my eyebrows whenever I go outside -- it's 48 degrees Celsius
to be precise, which translates to a nearly unbelievable 118
I've just spent several sweltering weeks shooting a film on
poverty in the northeastern state of Bihar. A third of India's
population -- 350 million people -- exist on an income of one
dollar per day per family, and tens of millions of them reside
in Bihar, the poorest of all India's states.
But here in the capital, India's economic contradictions loom
even larger. Unlike in Bihar, the abject poverty here exists
amidst the most modern plenitude -- gleaming office towers,
five-star hotels, a sizable middle class and some of the world's
most advanced high-tech firms.
One of those high-tech success stories is NIIT, a computer software
and training company with offices in dozens of countries and
annual sales of nearly $300 million. In an arrangement that
is apparently fairly common in Delhi, NIIT's corporate offices
are located next to a fetid slum, where people live in what
can only charitably be called shacks, with little access to
sanitation and health care. A high, thick boundary wall separates
the two worlds. It's the wall -- or more precisely, what's inside
it -- that has brought me to NIIT.
I'm here to see the firm's head of Research and Development,
a round, affable and highly articulate man named Sugata Mitra,
whom I first met two years ago. Although a physicist by training,
Mitra has specialized for more than a decade in the areas of
cognition and consciousness, delving into the mysteries of how
people, particularly children, learn.
Mitra has some provocative ideas on the connection between learning
and poverty. "Poverty has two different definitions," he tells
me. "Poverty of information is one kind of poverty; poverty
of materials is another kind of poverty. The same method may
not apply to solve the two problems."
Mitra observes that the developed world has spent billions of
dollars over decades trying to solve the problem of "material
poverty" with little success. He speculates that if the problem
of "information poverty" is addressed instead -- by providing
poor people with access to information they need and can use
-- then the poor "might just figure out how to solve the problem
of material poverty by themselves." Mitra, of course, doesn't
claim he has the solution to world poverty, but he's fascinated
by figuring out how he can help poor people, particularly kids,
become information-rich. And when he starts to describe his
first attempts to help slum dwellers access information, he
grabs my attention.
In 1999, with little fanfare, Mitra had launched an experiment
that soon began to make waves within the community of people
concerned with the so-called digital divide. He tells me it
started when he played a bit of a trick on his employer.
1988, I had written a very short paper to say that maybe children
are capable of learning a whole bunch of things on their own,
and specifically, perhaps computers," Mitra explains. "I got
taken with my idea. But nobody else did." He bided his time.
Eleven years later, NIIT executives expressed an interest in
researching the uses of public kiosks stocked with computers.
Street kiosks -- where passersby could access computer terminals
for a fee, along the model of public telephones -- were considered
a promising business opportunity. "It had nothing to do with
children," Mitra says, with a grin characteristic of a Cheshire
cat. "It was because kiosks were expected to become big business.
Since I was heading R&D, I got the job to see how to build a
Mitra asked if he could have some money to build a kiosk that
could stand outside in the open. When Mitra got the go-ahead
from his employer, he realized that he had an opportunity to
try the idea he had proposed more than a decade earlier: to
offer a computer out in the open to children who had never seen
Like many great ideas, Mitra's was essentially simple. He cut
a hole in the boundary wall separating NIIT from the adjacent
slum, put a high-speed computer connected to the Internet in
the hole, and turned it on.
To his amazement, the local slum children were browsing the
Internet within hours. "It was a spiral of self-instruction,
if I can put it that way," he recalls. "One child makes an accidental
discovery. Three children come and repeat that, saying, 'Oh,
that's cool.' If three children repeat the same things, they
make three other accidental discoveries. And it goes on and
on and on like that, so that within the end of two weeks, they've
got about as much instruction in their heads as they would have
got in a classroom."
Since then, Mitra has been busy installing more and more computers
in public kiosks for children to use. Sometimes they are placed
in urban settings like the original; others have been built
in small towns or rural villages. Each time the results have
been similar -- children teach themselves computer literacy.
The Hole in the Wall project has become famous in India and
abroad because it seems to confirm Mitra's original brainstorm:
Given access, kids will pick up knowledge on their own. Meanwhile,
the business model for operating computer kiosks is still far
off -- but NIIT is soaking up huge amounts of valuable real-world
information about how the kiosk computers work best and how
they're actually used.
I sit in on a fascinating meeting with Mitra and members of
his team of researchers, designers and engineers. Sanjay Gupta,
a designer, says he was told that the specifications for the
new design of the computer kiosk were that it must be able to
run anywhere. "You just drop it, be it in a desert, or a seacoast,
or a hilltop, and the damn thing should run," he says.
The team describes how remote sensors now monitor the use of
the computers, to give researchers an idea of how kids are using
them. Ravi Bisht, a senior manager, says, "We can get a screen
grab of the children, what they are doing at present at the
particular kiosk. We can get their audio, the conversation of
whatever is happening around the kiosk."
Gupta agrees. "One of our researchers has a program that transfers
what we call footprints. We have a complete log of the activity
that took place at the kiosks in terms of Internet usage. Somebody
visited a bank, somebody visited usatoday.com and so on, and
along with this, you have the date and the time. It's complete
And the team discusses other possibilities -- joysticks that
make the kiosks easier for kids to use (and that discourage
adults); touchpads that can withstand the elements; kiosks embedded
in concrete pillars; ways to make access to the Internet even
I ask the researchers if they'd be surprised if one day a kid
realizes that he can communicate with anyone in the world from
this box. Gupta pauses. "Oh, yes," he says. "Well, actually,
yes and no, because the kids have surprised us enough already.
So this won't really come as a big surprise because we expect
Mitra and his team continue to redesign the kiosks, collecting
and analyzing data from the dozens of computers they've already
installed and preparing to open more and more holes in the wall
in the coming months. Mitra, dreaming about the possibilities,
estimates that if he can make 100,000 computers accessible,
"100 million Indian young people would teach themselves computer
literacy within five years."
Mitra tells me he plans to stop by the end of 2003, however,
once he's installed a total of 108 public computers all over
India. "That's the number of faces of Vishnu," he notes with
What happens next, Mitra says, will depend on how much others
value children and education.
Relevant to this Article:
Globalvision features more useful information about the Hole
in the Wall project, including the team of scientists behind
it and the design, engineering, construction, data analysis
and collection issues involved. Find on the site three compelling
video-clips with scenes from an 82-minute film version of the
Hole in the Wall Goes a Long Way
A "daily development news channel," InfoChange India hosts articles
and debates on India's social sector. The site covered the Hole
in the Wall story.
Slum Kids Latch on to IT
Nirmal Ghosh is India Correspondent for Straits Times Interactive.
He reports on NITT's cognitive research team's Hole in the Wall