June 13, 2000 The Straits Times Interactive Analysis
By NIRMAL GHOSH
A FEW metres from the boundary wall of the head office of IT training institute
NIIT in New Delhi, there is a slum.
While NIIT has become a household word in IT circles in more than two dozen
countries, the slum is a constant reminder that in the country that is in many
ways powering the information revolution, there is a huge gap between the
virtual and the real worlds.
As an experiment, NIIT's cognitive engineering researchers last year made a hole
in the wall near the slum and installed a powerful computer connected
permanently to the Internet there.
The computer was available for anyone to use.
The result was extraordinary. The slum children, many of whom had had no primary
education, went over to check out the computer. There was no instructor on call;
they were left to themselves.
Within five hours, one of them, Rajender, eight, had managed to find a Disney
site. Within days, a group of children, aged five and 17, had figured out how to
download Hindi-film hits, Disney movie-clips and cricket trivia.
Not all used the Internet. One little girl used a graphics software to help her
father, a tailor, figure out the design and colour scheme of a skirt he was
working on. Most of the children played games.
The children also developed their own language for working on the computer
because there was nobody to explain the terminology to them.
They named the cursor nci sui, mtr or needle, because of its sharp arrow shape,
and they call websites ""channels''.
The hour glass is called a nci damru, mtr the hour-glass shaped drum that the
Hindu god Shiva plays.
When it appears, the children know the computer is working on something.
Noted Dr Sugata Mitra, head of research at NIIT: ""In most of our classes here
at NIIT, we spend time teaching people the terminology and such. With these
children, that seems irrelevant.''
NIIT engineers withdrew the keyboard after it proved unable to stand the harsh
use, and replaced it with a crude but sturdy joystick-like apparatus.
To date, the slum children have created more than 1,000 folders.
THE POWER OF TECHNOLOGY
IN THE hot summer afternoons, the sun falls on the screen and the computer is
kept covered and locked; in the long evenings, it is opened and the children
flock to it.
Sanjay, 13, told The Straits Times that most of them played games or checked
Kithang, eight, peering into the screen and jiggling the joystick, remarked that
the second layer of glass in front of the computer was very strong.
""If they give us a keyboard, we will be here all the time,'' said Sanjay. Both
children were attending a nearby government school which does not have a
Where is the lesson in this? Said NIIT vice-president Suren Singh Rasaili: ''The
power of technology can fail against only one thing, the government.''
Dr Mitra called the experiment ""minimally-invasive education''.
In the process, he realised that computer literacy could be achieved with
minimal or no formal instruction; the result was a sort of functional literacy.
The implications for a country like India are significant. Wherever governments
have had the political will to farm out schemes to private operators, they have
usually worked, Mr Rasaili noted in a conversation with The Straits Times.
Dreams of applying IT to India's huge educational needs are still in the
formative stage. Strategists at training institutes like the NIIT and in state
governments across the country are struggling to find ways to bridge India's
education gap using the new technology.
The challenge is a formidable one.
NIIT is in many ways the engine of India's IT sector. It is the largest IT
training institution in the world and among the projects it is involved in is
Malaysia's Smart Schools programme.
Thus far, NIIT has been feeding the voracious needs of IT professionals in an
environment in which one must upgrade skills or perish. NIIT has also started
NetVarsity.com, a virtual university.
These services could go beyond the universe of IT professionals and students and
out to India's middle class of 200 - 300 million.
But what about the bulk of the population, about half of whom -- especially
women -- are illiterate?
Significantly, the women in the slum outside the NIIT wall asked rhetorically
whether having the computer available would bring them any food, and said they
themselves did not have the ""brains'' to use the computer.
But they were against the idea of pulling out the computer because the children
were having so much fun.
The answer could lie in the state of Tamil Nadu, which has been making strides
in IT quietly while its neighbour Andhra Pradesh generates the hype and creates
the crucial role-model in its cyber-savvy, notebook-toting chief minister N.
MORE ACCESS TO COMPUTERS
UNDER a scheme farmed out to the private sector, the Tamil Nadu government gave
371 bare, 6m by 6m ""classrooms'' to, among others, the NIIT.
The institute renovated them, installed electrical and network cabling,
air-conditioners, uninterrupted power supply units, computers and printers, and
deployed 742 teachers in the classrooms, which were spread all over the state,
from big towns to small villages.
Each classroom was equipped with 10 computers and one server.
Under this scheme, a total of 3,710 computers were installed in schools in 30
days. There is no Internet connectivity, but ""that's just a step away'', said
Clearly, he added, the technology has the power to transform the face of
society. But the challenge of education, especially at the primary level where
it is needed most, is enormous enough to warrant cautious optimism rather than
The much-bandied about potential of distance learning has been slow to take off,
not only in India, but worldwide. The academic world has had problems in the
areas of authentication and certification.
The romanticised remote learning potential of the Internet ignores the reality
that some contact with mentors is essential.
The role of the teacher and the classroom is not yet a thing of the past and may
never be, considering the crucial importance of the element of motivation and
inspiration that enliven the learning experience and make it necessary to attend
a school rather than simply study an encyclopaedia.
""A degree online is not truly a reality,'' says Mr Sanjiv Kataria of NIIT,
using the term ""brick and portal'' to underscore the point that the classroom
will not be replaced.
""In learning, community is important,'' he noted.
NetVarsity.com tries to create that community with mentoring services available.
So does egurucool.com.
But according to users, the latter serves best as a benchmarking site.
Students from a school in Bihar who aspire to be in one of the best schools in
New Delhi, for example, can access the homework assignments and tutorials of a
Delhi school and benchmark themselves.
Obtaining higher degrees through the Internet is currently something far from
the minds of the children in the slum outside the NIIT wall. But with every
click, the dawn of that idea comes closer.