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Monday, 27 August, 2001, 07:33 GMT 08:33 UK
Delhi children make play of the net
The slum children figured out how to use the computer
The slum children figured out how to use the computer
In the slums of Delhi, an experiment has shown how illiterate street children can quickly teach themselves the rudiments of computers and the internet.

The aim of the experiment, funded by the Indian Government, local institutions and the World Bank was to see what role computers might play in educating India's illiterate millions.

The results were startling, showing how much children with little or no English and no computer training at all could achieve.

Simple idea

The project was the brainchild of Sugata Mitra, who spearheads research and development at NIIT, a training and software company in Delhi.

Children were surfing within minutes
Children were surfing within minutes
His idea was simple. He installed a computer on the wall of his south Delhi office that was facing a slum and watched what happened.

Children in the slum were intrigued by the icons on the computer, and completely without any help, gradually figured out how to use the computers and access the internet.

"What they would see is the opening screen of They started fiddling around with the touchpad and quickly noticed that finger movements on the touchpad moved something on the screen," Mr Mitra told the BBC World Service's Go Digital.

"That caused a lot of consternation and they called all their friends to see this new television where you can actually move something with your finger."

"Very quickly, they discovered that the cursor changes to a hand shape when you bring it close to an underlined word and then accidentally discovered that you can change pages.

All this happened within minutes and so that by about the eighth minute they were actually surfing."

Painting and downloading music

Mr Mitra found that within days the children were able to browse the internet, cut and paste copy, drag and drop items and create folders.

Children using computer
Interacted with computers through joysticks and touchpads
One of the things they particularly liked was drawing, discovering how to use the MSpaint programme to create paintings.

The children then moved on to downloading games and playing them. They did not stop there.

By the second month they had discovered MP3 music files and they were downloading songs.

"All this happened as far as I can tell from incidental learning and peer to peer learning," said Mr Mitra.

The 'hole-in-the-wall' experiment has been repeated several times in places like Madantusi near Lucknow and the results have been mostly identical.

"Computers are really hard to use, they're not intuitive. they're not obvious, they complicated and clunky and tend to do the wrong things at the wrong time," said new media consultant Bill Thompson.

"But with children, if you give them free access to a computer, they will learn very quickly. They will adapt and will really exploit the system to get the most out of it."

Go Digital is webcast on the BBC World Service site and BBC News Online every Monday at 1500 GMT.

It is broadcast on BBC World Service radio on:

  • Tuesday at 1905 GMT
  • Wednesday at 0105 and 1405 GMT
  • Thursday at 0905 GMT
Computers in the wall
Watch the Delhi children explore the internet
See also:

24 Jul 00 | South Asia
Indian net users set to soar
30 May 00 | South Asia
Fast track for Indian internet
17 Aug 01 | Business
India software industry fears rivals
15 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
Internet links:

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