by January 6, 2012 0 comments

In the 21st century, which I believe will be the ‘Century of the Mind,’ education will undergo a paradigm shift. Nowhere will this change be more marked or visible than in India, a country with a deep and enduring heritage of learning, which goes many centuries, to universities such as Nalanda and Takshila.
In this ancient country, steeped in history and culture, technology almost appears as an aberration. Yet, it is our technological prowess that has placed India on the global map. Our IT industry, barely 40-years-old, which is now renowned for its expertise and technical talent, has become the country’s spearhead in the international markets, enabling it to play catch up with the industrialized world. The IT sector, the employer of skilled manpower, has played a major role in spurring technology-centric, and technology-assisted learning. Today, technology, implying computers and communications, cutting-edge tools, and delivery methodologies such as cloud computing, are being used to equip students and professionals with relevant IT knowledge and skills that are critical to the growth of this burgeoning sector.

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One of the biggest issues confronting education is its limited footprint and coverage, where millions, especially at the bottom of the pyramid, continue to remain beyond the magic circle of learning. Relevant education that focuses on the early development of employability skills must reach the masses, so that eventually, social and economic growth is inclusive, and brings into the mainstream the underprivileged. For this to happen, technology needs to assume an even wider, more holistic role, where it touches people on the other side of the digital divide.

This is an issue we grappled with at NIIT in the early 90s, as the digital divide seemed to grow before our very eyes. Even as we were building the manpower that would fuel the evolution and expansion of the IT industry, we were acutely aware of the millions on the dark side of the moon, who had no exposure to new-age IT, the key tool of the emerging knowledge society. Could we innovate a system of learning that would reach the unreached, and draw in children who did not have access to a formal classroom? Could we harness technology in revolutionary ways, to supplement and leverage a critical, yet scarce resource-the teacher?

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We did indeed find an answer to this conundrum, and it appeared in the form of a path-breaking learning methodology called ‘minimally-invasive education (MIE)’ that was created by our research wing, the Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems, located within the IIT Delhi campus.

It was on a chilly Republic Day morning, in 1999, when MIE was first rolled out and tested in New Delhi’s Kalkaji slum, where children were given free, unsupervised access to a touch-screen and the Internet, through a ‘hole’ in NIIT’s boundary wall. While it took just a few hours to draw curious slum kids to touch and feel the exposed part of the computer, a day was all they needed to start surfing the Internet!

The experiment which got labeled as the ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ by the media, and earned many hundreds of square inches of newspaper space and television bytes, proved beyond doubt that children could be taught computers very easily without any formal training, and prior experience of technology.

It was in 2001, with the setting up of Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd. (Hiwel) by NIIT and the International Finance Corporation, that the experiment crossed another major milestone. A national research program was also initiated, through Learning Stations in 23 diverse settings across rural India.

The research, which was both qualitative and quantitative, threw up extremely interesting findings including the fact that the Learning Stations were beneficial for children and improved their academic performance. It showed that children accessed content, learnt from it and retained this learning. Communities with lower levels of educational facilities were found to gain as much, and often more, as communities with higher levels of educational facilities. The performance of children using these learning stations was also comparable with others attending formal computer classes, in common science tests. In several instances, these children outperformed their peers in computer skills! The Hole-in-the-Wall proved conclusively that ‘out-of-school’ children could benefit from such learning.

With the Hole-in-the-wall capturing the imagination of India’s policy makers, it was not long before the initiative found its way beyond the country’s boundaries. It was in 2004, that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on a visit to Cambodia, ‘presented’ it to the children of that country. What had begun as a modest experiment, with a tiny hole in the wall, became India’s gift to the world!

Currently, there are around 600 Learning Stations around the world, with several of these kiosks dotting the hinterland in Cambodia, Botswana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Swaziland, Nigeria, Namibia, Central Republic of Africa (CAR), Monrovia and most recently, in Bhutan.

Today, the Hole-in-the-Wall has come to mean many things to many people. For Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, and the founder of the One laptop per Child (OLPC) Association, Hole-in-the-Wall is a ‘Shared Blackboard,’ which children in underprivileged communities can collectively own and access to express themselves, to learn, to explore together, and at some stage even brainstorm and come up with exciting ideas.

For children, it is an extension of their playground where they can enjoy together, teach each other new things, and more importantly, just be themselves.

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