I recently found myself with a free morning in Delhi, and thought I would make use of the time by searching for a certain rather famous Hole In The Wall.
Some quick background: Back in 1999 professor Sugata Mitra decided to conduct a very simple, small-scale exeriment: He put a computer behind some protective plexiglass, connected it to a joystick, and embedded the whole thing in a wall in a Delhi slum. They he stood back and watched (both literally, and via a small video camera placed nearby). It turned out that, left to their own devices, children could 'learn computers' outside of the formal education system, unsupervised. Hearing about this experience was said to be the inspiration for the story that eventually became an Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire. The Hole in the Wall had been in my thoughts for a number of reasons, including that fact that it had recently been awarded one of the Macarthur Foundation's DML prizes. (Disclaimer: A company, HiWEL, was formed by NIIT to take this work further, and it has received funding from the IFC, part of the World Bank Group. I have had no connection with this project or its principals.)
I must confess that I have been rather skeptical of many of the claims associated with the Hole in the Wall experience, especially (and mostly) those that have come from people and groups who have only a passsing familiarity with how it actually works in practice, and with the research base that has grown up around it. The Hole in the Wall experience has been a staple example in untold numbers of PowerPoint presentations that I have seen over the past decade, and the philosophy / approach / movement that has grown out of this experiment, which is known today formally as 'Minimally Invasive Education', has been since linked to and/or appropriated by many other groups and initiatives --sometimes responsibly, sometimes less so. (If you want to read what the project principals themselves have to say and conclude about this experience, you should dip directly into Mitra's copious related research output, and well as that of some of his associates, here and here.)
Despite having read and heard about Hole in the Wall for almost ten years, I had never actually seen it 'live' with my own eyes. The original Hole in the Wall site, in Kalkaji, no longer exists, and the original kiosk has since been relocated to a local school. So instead I visited two other sites, both in Delhi: one in a wall outside of a government school and one within a residental community (if you have seen a video of the project, this site in Madangir is often the one they feature).
My interest in the sites was predominantly ethnographic and mechanical, and my reactions reproduced here are largely impressionistic. One thing that seems to get lost (or, to be blunt, is often ignored) in policy-level discussions around educational technologies is a contemplation of actual usage scenarios, and how the physical settings of such use influences what is done with such technologies, and how. So my decidedly modest intention on my afternoon off was just to hang out for a few hours and see what was going on.
I must confess felt a little like a pale imitation of Jan Chipchase, fascinated by lots of the 'little things' that I found interesting about the HiWEL usage experience, snapping tons of pictures, some of which confused the people gathered around the kiosk. (Why are you just taking a picture of how they are using their fingers to move things onscreen? Why do you care so much about how far apart the children are standing, about which fingers they use to point at and touch the screen, and which they use to prod their friend into some sort of action?) The fact that the plexiglas covering over the keybard not only helped prevent theft, for example, but also make it very difficult for adults to use the computers (little hands had little trouble darting in and out under this protective guard), I found quite interesting. I filled up 20 notebook pages with notes and notations about such mundane things (possible fodder for future blog posts).
One thing that was stressed to me by the NIIT staff with whom I subsequently spoke about the lessons from the HiWEL 'experiment' was that, while the learning experience itself is meant to 'minimally invasive', this does not mean that you can just drop the computers into these communities and expect meaningful things to happen. 'Community mobilization' was cited as a key component in successful implementations over time. It has been found that having someone from the local community serve as a site coordinator, for example, and having someone dedicated to informing the community about what the computers are, and how they can be used, is a critical piece of the puzzle. "Why should we care about computers?" "Why should we allow our children -- especially our girls ! -- to go use them, especially in a public place?" Satisfactory answers to such questions can go a long way in ensuring that the colorful new devices dropped into low income communities actually get used.
In addition, it was clear that a good deal of effort had gone into developing compelling education content -- mostly in game or game-like formats. One boy I talked to said that he came to the kiosk "for the games", which he "thought were fun to play". My impression was that he didn't think at all about the fact that the content was actually drawn from the curriculum that his age group was meant to be using in schools. For him, the challenge of manipulating the computer to perform various tasks -- match objects, answer questions based on scenarios presented on-screen, make simple mathematical calculations, learn new vocabularly -- was what kept him engaged, and why he chose to return to the kiosk so often.
At both sites, the computers were seeing a lot of use on the days I visited. In both cases, there was an adult nearby monitoring what was happening, but their presence was quite unobtrusive. The HiWEL literature talks about the learning activities at such sites being 'unsupervised', and this was certainly the case during my (unnannounced) visits. Or: At least this was the case as far as adult supervision was concerned -- the children themselves were pretty animatedly 'supervising' (or at least commenting on) each other's activities!
As part of my observations at the first HiWEL site, I asked a senior teacher at a neighboring school about his impressions of the kiosk embedded in the wall just outside his building. Yes, he said, he knew that some of the pupils at his school used the nearby kiosk, and he "didn't object" to this occurring. (I found this to be an interesting formulation.) I asked if his school had any computers. Yes, he said, his school had had about a dozen computers for about 7-8 years. However, they had decided to close the lab two years previously, he confided, because they "did not have teachers who were trained and competent enough to use them". The good news (!) was that they had recently hired two new teachers who were getting some computer training, though, and so it was expected that they would reopen the computer lab soon, once these teachers had been properly certified.
The contrast here was for me pretty stark: One the one hand, you had two computers set up outside which received minimal maintenance, and which anyone could use from 9-5 each day. There was no direction on how to use this equipment, but that didn't stop kids from figuring it out via trial and error (or, more often, from other kids). On the other hand, you had a dozen computers locked up in a school just a short walk away, gathering dust for lack of 'qualified teachers' to use them, and direct their use.
I am hesitant to draw many broad conclusions and make sweeping generalizations on the basis of an afternoon of observation of activities at two Hole in the Wall sites. Doing so does not appear to me to be very responsible, as the sample size was simply too small.
The image of a locked school computer room door, and of an educator explaining why the door had to remain locked, however, and the image of a bunch of children animatedly using computers on the street less than a hundred meters away, is not one that I will soon forget.
Note: The images above were taken by me. It is unclear to me what sort of usage restrictions there are on the further use of such images. Personally, I am happy for anyone to use them, with or without attribution. According to World Bank guidelines, however, all work produced by World Bank staff members as part of our official duties are owned (and copyrighted) by the Bank. That said, images available through the World Bank Flickr account are made available through a Creative Commons license that permits wider use. I did not visit the HiWEL sites as part of my official duties, and used my own camera (and paid for my own taxi ride), but I would not have been in India on this trip were it not for the World Bank-sponsored event that I attended on the following days. So caveat utilitor!