March 21, 2005

FEATURES: Kids-Eye View - Looking through the hole in the wall (KIDS & COMPUTERS)

Kids-Eye View - Looking through the hole in the wall

From the slums of New Delhi to the coastal roads of Banda, hundreds of poor kids in India go online every day at free, outdoor computer kiosks installed in slums and rural villages to read news headlines, befriend cartoon figures, draw with digital paintbrushes and explore the possibilities of cyberspace. Read an interview a member of the Hole in the Wall research team, psychologist Ritu Dangwal, find out what the kids' favorite sites are, and see what terms they've come up with for computer tools and features.

- Online in the Street: Interview with Ritu Dangwal
- More Holes
ONLINE IN THE STREET - An Interview With Ritu Dangwal, Ph.D., of the Hole in the Wall Project

Psychologist Ritu Dangwal, Ph.D., is group consultant at the Centre for Research on Cognitive Systems; she has observed kids using the kiosks since the inception of the project. Who's looking through the Hole in the Wall -- and what are they really getting out of it? Read her email interview with FRONTLINE/World.
- Describe the typical child who uses the Hole in the Wall computer kiosks.

Poor, going to school but not interested. Does not attend school regularly. Is like an urchin, with torn clothes, no slippers, out of the house most of the time. Interested in playing cricket, marbles and more cricket. Totally indifferent to what is happening around him or her; lives each day as it comes.
- What are the social dynamics when groups of kids have to huddle around one computer? Do you find "alpha" Internet surfers among the kids who take the lead? Do other kids simply look on?
At the onset, the day of inauguration, you find a whole bunch of children crowding round the kiosk. It is total chaos! We strongly believe in self-organizing systems. Within a few days children organize themselves. Those not interested (drop) out and those interested stay on. They figure out the timings when they can have access to the kiosk.

- Since its inception in 1999, the Hole in the Wall project has been expanded throughout India to many different provinces. Have you observed any differences between urban and rural areas in how children interact with the Hole in the Wall kiosks?
Definitely -- there has been a marked difference in how the children and community react to a computer, depending on the geographic location and on cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some places there is no gender difference -- the community is cohesive and takes an active part in ensuring that [girl] children are using the kiosk. At the other extreme, only boys use the kiosk, and girls, though eager, do not come to the kiosk, just stop near the kiosk site and watch.
Girls below puberty are using the kiosk. They generally come when the crowd is less, early mornings or late evenings. They otherwise hang around to watch what older boys are doing and then do the same when left alone. But this phenomenon is seen in Delhi -- a metropolitan city -- and not in a village.
The caste system has led to divisions in our society, but when it comes to children using the kiosks, we do not find any discrimination except gender.
- Are there elements of the Hole in the Wall project that make it uniquely Indian? Do you see a Hole in the Wall program catching on in other countries?
I don't see the Hole in the Wall as a purely Indian phenomenon. Children are the same all across [the world]. If it can hold true in India, it can work as well anywhere in the world. Cambodia, Ethiopia and the Philippines have all shown interest in this project.
- Have you seen any differences in problem-solving behaviors and academic achievement between the kids who regularly use the Hole in the Wall computer kiosks and the kids who don't?
There was a study done by a professor teaching in Delhi University entitled "Computer Environment and Cognitive Development." She found that children using the kiosk were more persistent, more tolerant toward ambiguity -- their aspirations were more realistic than children who were (going to school) but not using the kiosk.
- Some argue that just letting kids click around the Internet will not improve their performance in educational domains like reading and science.
Clicking around the Internet may not directly lead to any kind of improvement. But yes, browsing the Internet is like a child sitting with a book in hand. There has to be something fascinating for the child to hold the book or flick through the pages. Likewise, without knowing it, children are going to sites like tours and travels, reading news, or making attempts to do so. They have seen most of the countries. They knew when Pakistan's prime minister came to India to sign a treaty, they knew when (Al Qaeda) had bombed America -- all this they had read and seen through the Internet. They use the calculator to do sums, they read Cinderella stories ... . At the end of the day, they are doing far more constructive work than they would have done in a classroom.
- How many of the kids who use a Hole in the Wall kiosk can be expected to go to college?
Presently, most of the kids who are using the kiosk at Kalkaji [New Delhi] are going to school, but the dropout rate starts to increase as they reach class Fifth Standard onwards. The thought process of a typical parent living in a slum is that children should go to school to pick up basic skills, but that the end result should be that as soon as the child reaches the age of 14 or 15 then he should start to work to add to the household income. I don't think parents coming from slum areas are really keen on sending their young boys to college.
- How do the skills that children learn through playing computer games via the Internet translate into the foundations for learning marketable skills?
I frankly would not go so far as to envisage any children learning marketable skills. The research that we are interested in nowhere talks of employment. Our interest is purely to see how groups of children ages 8 through 13 take to learning a computer. No efforts are being taken to ready them for the information technology job market.
- What has surprised you the most over these past few years as you've observed how children use the Hole in the Wall computer kiosks?
Just about everything. How intuitively these slum children have taken to computers. How well they seem to have organized themselves to pick up skills. Their quest for information is the greatest wonder. 
The first Hole in the Wall computer kiosk went online on January 26, 1999, in the slum of Kalkaji in New Delhi. Today, there are 52 such kiosks connecting kids to the Internet around the country. By the end of 2003, Dr. Mitra and his team at the Centre for Research in Cognitive Systems hope to have 108 Hole in the Wall computer kiosk clusters operating in 22 different sites across India. Funding for the Hole in the Wall experiment comes in part from the Indian government, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.
See a map of the kiosks:
Hole in the Wall Web site -


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