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Monday, September 24, 2001

Teaching kiosks are creating ripple effect
Uneducated, under-privileged kids call hour-glass of the pointer a dumroo
Swapna Majumdar

LEARNING without going to school? Education without classrooms and teachers? This seemingly far-fetched approach to learning has been launched by the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) in a slum cluster in New Delhi and has also met with great success.

Once the children were exposed to the computer, curiosity did get the better of them.
Once the children were exposed to the computer, curiosity did get the better of them.

NIIT, a leading learning organisation, has developed a means of imparting education to underprivileged children without their having to go to school. Called the Minimum Invasive Education (MIE) model, this approach uses multimedia computer kiosks instead of classrooms to impart education thus allowing free access to information with minimal intervention.

The MIE approach developed by Dr Sugato Mitra and his team at NIIT does away with the traditional classroom and teacher concept. This was done keeping in mind India’s large population where waiting for schools to be constructed might mean that many children would never get to school.


So in pursuance of the belief that a school and a teacher were not a pre-requisite for knowledge, NIIT set up the first multimedia computer kiosk with its own resources on an experimental basis in a slum cluster in Kalkaji in New Delhi in January 1999.

Slum children between four to 18 years were given free access to this computer kiosk. A majority of them had never gone to school. Neither were they familiar with the English language. Yet NIIT preferred not to provide any teachers although the computer with the Microsoft Windows ’98 program was entirely in English.

According to Mitra, the purpose was not to teach the children English or any other traditional subject matter like Mathematics or Hindi. The MIE strategy was to arouse the curiosity of the children and get them to instruct themselves.

Once the children were exposed to the computer, curiosity did get the better of them. This is how it happened. One child explored randomly until an accidental discovery was made. This was done when the cursor changed to a hand shape at certain places. Several children then followed by repeating the process and making accidental discoveries.

During this journey of learning, the children created a vocabulary to describe their experience. For example, the hour-glass of the pointer was made to look like an Indian drum called the ‘dumroo’. The children carried this innovation further, made adaptations and used them to teach their friends basic computing skills and the use of the Internet as a tool for making new discoveries. They memorised entire procedures to do certain things and then taught each other easier routes to the same destination.

This way the group divided itself into ‘knows’ and ‘know-nots’ transcending the traditional economic grouping of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. A child who had knowledge shared it with those who didn’t in exchange for friendship.

This attitudinal change is a necessary step for underprivileged children to access education because very often parents prefer to employ them in the fields or other occupations that add to the family income. Children living in villages are often unable to go to school because of inadequate number of classrooms arising from a lack of state resources.

Teachers, too, are difficult to get. So it seemed a good idea to try out the MIE experiment in some rural areas in other Indian states that faced the twin problem of inadequate classrooms and teachers. Along the way, some other changes too have been made. For instance, in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, computer kiosks have been installed with subjects like mathematics, science and geography. This change was made in response to the finding that children who had some basic schooling found these subjects difficult and they were often responsible for their dropping out of school.

Says MIE team member, Dr Ritu Dangwal, "As a psychologist I discovered that these were the three subjects, which presented difficulties for the children. Since the parents did not know enough to help their children in these subjects, it was decided to provide help through the computer kiosks. The children even now tell us that they find it extremely helpful."

Reports that even children who earlier had no exposure to English were able to pick up English words after the installation of the multimedia computer kiosks have heartened NIIT.

The positive response to the programme has prompted NIIT to add to the 42 kiosks already in operation. But the real hurdle is of finances. Each kiosk costs $ 5,000. The country needs at least 1,00,000 such kiosks to benefit an estimated 150 million children who have either never been to school or have dropped out before finishing primary school, who would not be in a position to pay for the service. It would cost NIIT $ 2 billion to set up these kiosks and run them for five years.

Although NIIT has not been able to garner this entire sum, money has been trickling in from different quarters. While the mega-project is yet to take off, NIIT has been able to set up 30 more computers in another area in South Delhi, with financial support from the Delhi government. This is serving over 500 children living in slum clusters near the computer kiosks.

Moreover, financial institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also pitched in for ongoing projects in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. In a recent development, the World Bank has pledged financial support for 65 computer kiosks to be installed in different parts of the country. These will be set up for underprivileged children as soon as the NIIT team has identified the states and villages that require them the most.

The overwhelming response to the initiative makes the effort to spread the project further worthwhile. But the most satisfying outcome so far according to Dangwal has been the interest shown by girls. She says that girls not only come with their friends after school hours but also accompany those girls who are unable to attend school and also teach them — a live example of the ripple effect of education. (WFS)