A billion people live in India — one of every six on the planet. Half of them are illiterate. Only one in four has access to adequate sanitation. Some 350 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day. Yet India is also home to some of the world’s most advanced high-technology firms, and New Delhi is Silicon Valley East.
Several years ago, a computer scientist, Dr. Sugata Mitra, had an idea. What would happen if he could provide poor children with free, unlimited access to computers and the Internet? Mitra launched what came to be known as the hole in the wall experiment. FRONTLINE/World producer Rory O’Connor first encountered Dr. Mitra and his experiment while directing a film on global poverty.
Dr. Mitra heads research and development at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Just outside his office is a wall that separates his air-conditioned 21st-century office from a slum. Mitra decided to place a high-speed computer in the wall, connect it to the Internet, and watch who, if anyone, might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately attracted to the strange new machine. “When they said, ‘Can we touch it?'” Mitra recalls, “I said, ‘It’s on your side of the wall.’ The rules say whatever is on their side, they can touch, so they touched it.”
Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click. By the end of the day they were browsing. “Given access and opportunity,” observes O’Connor, “the children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of computer literacy.”
One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz and a celebrity in India. “Mainly I go to the Disney site,” Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: “He has become quite bold and expressive. I’ve got great hopes for this child.”
When Dr. Mitra asks Rajinder to define the Internet, the doe-eyed boy replies immediately, “That with which you can do anything.”
After the success of the first hole in the wall, Mitra replicated his unique experiment in other settings, each time with the same result. Within hours and without instruction, children began browsing the Web.
When O’Connor returned to India this year, he documented Mitra’s campaign to set up more computer kiosks in poor communities. This time, Mitra and his colleagues made a special effort to recruit girls — a revolutionary concept in a society in which only one in three females can read.
Again, Mitra was delighted with the results. Given permission, girls rushed to the computers. “I feel great!” exclaims Anjana, an enthusiastic girl who lives in Madangir, a low-income district of New Delhi. At home, her family is a bit mystified. Anjana’s sister-in-law is a stay-at-home housewife who has never seen a computer. But she is thrilled that Anjana has the opportunity to master a technology that seems to offer so much promise. “It increases her knowledge,” she says, “and it will be a big help when she looks for a job.”
Dr. Mitra likes the way in which Indian children reinvent computer terms and icons in their own language. “They don’t call a cursor a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle. And they don’t call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because they’ve never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru, which is Shiva’s drum, and it does look a bit like that.”
In his personal crusade to overcome the digital divide in India — the gap between information “haves” and “have-nots” — Mitra takes his hole in the wall experiment to a fishing village in the rural state of Maharashtra. Once more, schoolchildren flock to his computer kiosks. Mitra is convinced that computers can bring prosperity to poor, rural areas and provide local jobs.
“If cyberspace is considered a place,” Mitra tells FRONTLINE/World, “then there are people who are already in it, and people who are not in it … I think the hole in the wall gives us a method to create a door, if you like, through which large numbers of children can rush into this new arena. When that happens, it will have changed our society forever.” Frontline / World