Computer In a Wall

Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a concrete wall, facing an alley that local children used as a bathroom. In short time, these mostly illiterate children became computer-literate — downloading MP3s, drawing with MS Paint, and playing games on disney.com.

The children create their own metaphors to do this. To give you an idea of what I mean, a journalist came up to one of these kids and asked him, “How do you know so much about computers?” The answer seemed very strange to her because the kid said, “What’s a computer?” The terminology is not as important as the metaphor. If they’ve got the idea of how a mouse works and that the Internet is [like a wall they can paint on], who cares if they know that a computer is called a computer and a mouse is called a mouse? In most of our classes here at NIIT, we spend time teaching people the terminology and such. That seems irrelevant to me with these children.

Q: But most of the information on the Internet is in English and the people you’re talking about don’t speak English.

A: We had some very surprising results there. We all have great misconceptions about what these children know and don’t know. At first, I made a Hindi interface for the kids, which gave them links for hooking up with Web sites in their own language. I thought it would be a great hit. Guess what they did with it? They shut it down and went back to Internet Explorer. I realized that they may not understand the dictionary meaning of [English] words, but they have an operational understanding. They know what that word does. They don’t know how to pronounce F-I-L-E, but they know that within it are options of saving and opening up files …

The fact that the Internet is in English will not stop them from accessing it.

They invent their own terminology for what’s going on. For example, they call the pointer of the mouse sui, which is Hindi for needle. More interesting is the hourglass that appears when something is happening. Most Indians have never heard of an hourglass. I asked them, “What does that mean?” They said, “It’s a damru,” which is Hindi for Shiva’s drum. [The God] Shiva holds an hourglass – shaped drum in his hand that you can shake from side to side. So they said the sui became a damru when the “thing” [the computer] was doing something.

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: There is one experiment that scares me. These children don’t know what e-mail is. If I gave them e-mail, I don’t know what would happen. I’ll probably try it anyway. But remember the stories one used to hear about people finding lost tribes and introducing them to Coca-Cola? I’m really seriously scared about what would happen if suddenly the whole wide world had access to these kids. I don’t know who would talk to them for what purpose.