In the past two weeks, I came across two exciting and interesting news headlines, both dealing with technology and research developments in India. The two headlines:
Now, the real excitement is how fast these two developments can be combined! Let me explain.
This article discusses 10 years of research performed by Professor Sugata Mitra. Mitra first introduced children in a Delhi slum to computers in 1999 by embedding a computer in a wall facing the slum. The computer was left there with no adult monitoring the computer or providing training on how to use the computer. It was left there for anyone to access. Here’s a passage from the article on what happened next when children started to use the computer on their own.
“The children barely went to school, they didn’t know any English, they had never seen a computer before and they didn’t know what the internet was.”
To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the computers and access the internet.
“I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.”
The experiment has been repeated in many more places with very similar results
He saw children teaching each other how to use the computer and picking up new skills.
One group in Rajasthan, he said, learnt how to record and play music on the computer within four hours of it arriving in their village.
“At the end of it we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers on their own irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.
His experiments then become more ambitious and more global.
In Cambodia, for example, he left a simple maths game for children to play with.
“No child would play with it inside the classroom. If you leave it on the pavement and all the adults go away then they will show off to one another about what they can do,” said Prof Mitra.
While this is certainly not ideal as the goal should always be to have all children in the poorest of areas in school instructed by teachers, the reality is that is not the case. If there aren’t teachers or even schools available in certain areas, leaving computers with a power source and ongoing internet connectivity for children to begin to teach themselves and each other may be a great first step. Now on to the second headline.
The Indian government has had as a goal for quite some time to develop cheap computers to allow for widespread access and consumption. Of course, the government’s earlier attempts have turned out not really to be a laptop (one attempt was in reality, more of a USB storage device). But if this turns out to truly work, this could be a real breakthrough! India’s Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal showed a prototype of the Linux based touch screen device at a recent press conference and indicated there are discussions with manufacturers in Taiwan to build the device. And while the cost was stated to be $35 today, he expects the cost to get to $10-$20 over time…a true commodity touch screen device.
So, back to the first headline. If $10-$35 laptops with browsing, communication, and basic educational capabilities can be made available, why can’t governmental agencies around the world provide them in slum-like areas for children to explore and develop on their own. Of course, just a starting point, those children will need to get some formal education and provisions for internet connectivity and power access would be required, but as mentioned, this is a start….could be a really powerful start!