How did you first learn to use computers? If you’re under 40, chances are that you did it on your own, learning through trial and experiment on everything from a Commodore Vic 20 at the library to an Atari 2600 at your neighbor’s house to the Apple IIe in your middle school’s lab. The little bit of organized training I got in the Logo language was not nearly so helpful as just having a Commodore 64 on my desk, and it was not the earnest typing programs my parents bought me but the engrossing role-playing game Exodus: Ultima III and its successors that taught me to type. It seems that children have an innate ability to grasp complex computer technology with almost no instruction.
A new charity called Hole in the Wall is taking advantage of this idea by making Internet-enabled computers available to the poorest of poor children in India. According to a BBC News article, an Indian IT professional, Sugata Mitra, was struck by the disparity between his tech-savvy coworkers and the urchins sleeping in shanties just beyond the perimiter of his fancy IT campus. And he decided to do something about it, building kiosks that would give these street children access to computers (the kiosks are designed to keep out adults).
The results are astounding. Illiterate children quickly pick up not just computer skills, but also rudimentary English. As Sugata puts it, “Groups of children given adequate digital resources can meet the objectives of primary education on their own.” The implication of all this is that computer kiosks may be more cost effective — indeed, more effective, period — than human teachers.
So far, there isn’t nearly enough evidence to prove such a radical notion. But if Hole in the Wall merely brings literacy and education to a few hundred of India’s poorest children, who would otherwise go without, that strikes me as a good start.