The Straits Times Interactive Analysis

         

India's slum kids latch onto IT

 

June 13, 2000 The Straits Times Interactive Analysis

 

          By NIRMAL GHOSH

          INDIA CORRESPONDENT

         

          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

          newspapers online.

         

          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

          computer.

         

          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.

          Chandrababu Naidu.

         

          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

          Mr Rasaili.

         

          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

          blind euphoria.

         

          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.