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Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2005, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
The Hole in the Wall project
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

What is the best way to teach someone about computers who has never seen one before? What about simply providing children with a PC and seeing what happens? Dan Simmons reports on just such a project taking place across India.

Two Indian girls stand in front of the hole in the wall computer
Children teach themselves to use technology, without even realising it
Something new has arrived at this slum on the outskirts of Delhi and it is exciting the locals.

Most people at Vivekananda Camp had never touched or used a computer. Then three came along at once.

It is part of a scheme called Hole in the Wall. Over the past six years more than 40 sites have been established across India - all with similar results.

The researchers behind the project gave no explanations. They just wanted to see what the children would make of them, as Manas Chakrabarti, the head of Hole in the Wall Education Ltd, explained.

"There were hundreds of children who wanted to take a look at this new toy that had come up. Our approach is that we don't really intervene at that time. We let them realise that if they take turns and organise themselves it works out very well for them."

Far from being baffled, children from all sorts of backgrounds, it appears, can work out how to use many of the applications for themselves.

Shiffon Chatterjee, a researcher for the project, says: "Nine months on, what we observe is that the initial chaos seems to have subsided, and the children now are doing a variety of things - lots of things in word processing, paint, using the internet for a variety of purposes, making their photos on the computer."

Huge positive impact

Down the road the local school offers more traditional computer classes. But this is expensive and not an option open to those in the slums or in some rural villages.

Open access to the public computers, for up to 10 hours a day, means more children get hands-on experience here than at the school.

Children are not very gentle with computers. They hammer on the keyboard, they pull the mouse. So we found the regular mouse did not work
Manas Chakrabarti
With no teachers around, the children have formed their own groups, sharing what they discover with others: how to make the window larger or smaller for instance.

And the interface does offer specially designed educational tools to help with applications like e-mailing.

The project team's own research suggests that around eight out of 10 people who live in a deprived area like this one believe the computers are having a positive impact.

But the scheme has its critics too, some of whom argue that the cost of putting in a system like this would be much better spent on providing clean water and healthcare.

Try telling that to Raj. He was born deaf and dumb. His parents proudly explain how Raj has now found something he is good at.

"He's more confident now, and even teaches some of the older children how to use the computers", they say.

Overcoming problems

Conditions in the slum are tough, both for those living here and for maintaining PCs.

A boy at the hole in the wall computer in The hole in the wall computer in the village of Varna, Rajasthan, India.
The computers have to be able to withstand a pounding from users
Temperatures can climb to 45 degrees. So the computers are self-regulating, automatically switching off if it gets too hot or humid.

And fluctuations in electricity are regulated by an uninterrupted power supply unit.

Allowing for the kids' playful behaviour, though, was a little more tricky, says Manas Chakrabarti.

"Children are not very gentle with computers. They hammer on the keyboard, they pull the mouse. So we found the regular mouse did not work. We changed it first to a touch-pad, but found that didn't work because children scratch it with a stone. We moved to a joy-stick, but that didn't work very well because it jammed up with dust.

"Now we've designed a touch mouse which has no moving parts and is virtually indestructible.

"They actually started opening up as many windows as they could, and were exploring the computer, and soon the computer would just hang and stop working. To stop that we created a little utility, called anti-hang, which stops the number of windows at five and doesn't allow a sixth window to open up, so virtually it stops the computer from hanging."

The challenging conditions and power cuts mean the PCs are operational for around 75% of the target 10 hours a day.

At a nearby lab, records are kept on what they are being used for, including which internet sites the children are visiting.

Movie and sports pages are most popular, although a few of the older children have discovered internet dating. That is being discouraged, and in extreme cases sites can be blocked.

The Hole in the Wall company does not claim this is a perfect replacement for structured learning, but believes it is a cost effective way of introducing computers to many communities in the developing world.

If you are a technophobe, you could do worse than look to these children for inspiration.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0745 . Also BBC World.

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