Hear the term “Hole in the Wall” and we think of some little sleazy place of ill repute but google it and you find bold statements about Dr. Sugata Mitra’s wish to“build a School in the Cloud, where children can explore and learn from one another.”Dr. Mitra recently won the million US dollar TED prize for his “Hole-in-the-Wall” (HiWEL) project.

 In 1999, Sugata and his team literally carved a hole in the wall that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own. Encouraged by the success of the Kalkaji experiment, freely accessible computers were set up in Shivpuri (a town in Madhya Pradesh) and in Madantusi (a village in Uttar Pradesh). These experiments came to be known as “Hole-in-the-Wall” (HiWEL)experiments.” Since its inception, HiWEL has grown from a single computer at Kalkaji, New Delhi to more than a hundred computers at various locations across India and other countries.

Dr. Sugata Mitra is a Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, England. He is also the Chief Scientist, Emeritus, at NIIT an Indian company which offers learning and knowledge solutions globally. 

His amazing experiment with children inspired career diplomat Vikas Swarup’s first novel, “Q and A”, which led to the Hollywood movie success “Slumdog Millionaire”. Vikas is quoted in Express India as saying“That got me fascinated and I realised that there’s an innate ability in everyone to do something extraordinary, provided they are given an opportunity”. The real impact of HiWEL has not been assessed because it is an evolving project which is impacting the minds of people and changing their circumstances. The project has expanded beyond children to illiterate adults and displaced persons. Outside of India, it has even been embraced that the Hon. Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y Thinley, who inaugurated the first HiWEL computer in the presence of his cabinet colleagues in December of 2011. In addition to building computer literacy among Bhutan’s children it is hoped that the HiWEL project will positively impact the Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is the most prominent metric used by the Government of Bhutan to measure Bhutan’s development.

Additionally, the project is part of a larger Indo-Bhutan project formally known as the Chiphen Rigpel (broadly translated to mean ‘Enabling a society, Empowering a nation’). Chiphen Rigpel is an ambitious project designed to empower Bhutan to become a Knowledge-based society.

The Republic of Central Africa has also recently signed on to establish its own HiWEL projects and this is enjoying phenomenal success.

What is important to me about Dr. Sugata Mitra is the bold steps he took over many years to explore the concept of unsupervised learning and computers. What he and his team did in India and Africa excites my imagination about what can be done in the “Laventilles” of our own country. This project clearly shows how young people can become engaged and focus only on the world they are creating to the total exclusion of everything else. HiWEL has the potential to redirect energy in ways that are thought changing and eventually life changing. Could it possibly help to stem the tide of senseless violence that stalks our country. It is a clear example of the impact the technology is having on people.

If our egos prevent us from buying into the HiWEL implementation model then Dr. Mitra’s TED wish gives us an opportunity to Bring Self-Organized Learning Environments to our Communities.

Ironically, while some countries are thankful for HiWEL reaching the unreachable, there are companies comfortably trying to assess how “Data Analytics Will Revolutionize Decision-Making” or predicting how “The Social Network Will Drive Value”. The digital divide is real. It is not simply that younger persons are using technology and older persons are not. Nor is it about geography. It is about access and this ultimately is tied to income or lack of income. Who can or cannot afford access to technology is an overarching issue? Something big has to happen to bridge the digital divide. Something big has to happen to level the playing field and assure global access to the world of technology. Just think of the possibilities if the internet and technology can be used to reach out to the “at risk” in the slums and ghettoes of the world.

Technology is often discussed in an elitist manner with an underlying assumption that literacy is a pre-requisite. Sugata’s “Hole in the Wall” project demonstrates that, even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge. The evidence exists amongst young people and there is no reason why the same behaviour would not be repeated among other cohorts given the same opportunities. We are in the digital age and those who are not organized to participate will find themselves wondering in some kind of no-man’s land not understanding that there is a different game being played.

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