Slums in Cyberspace

An Analysis of the use of Internet access to allow children to teach themselves within India.

Author: JF Brandon

IS 428 Supervisor: Dr. J. Harriss April 20, 2011

This paper aims to explore several questions related to the use of information and

computer technology (ICT) to give young, poor children of India a chance to teach

themselves rather than as a tool for teachers. There is strong evidence from a body

of research showing that that when a computer Akiosks of sorts is placed in a public

area (ie/ a playground or public square), illiterate children can learn basic computer

skills themselves through Aemergent learnings techniques. Without a teacher or

learned person present, children have been able to use a computer connected to the

Internet to increase their own Math, English and science skills. The question is: is

this natural or nurtured learning? Is it shallow or deep meaningful learning? Does

this displace the traditional methods of learning and education? Are there limits to

what can be learned? More importantly, what social barriers from the community

exist to the use of ICT by children?

To address these questions, I will first outline the development of what has been

called AMinimally Invasive Educations (MIE,) and go over the research from

experiments and studies carried out in Delhi slums in 1999/2000. Then I will trace

the possibilities and limits of MIE by showing research from the past 10 years,

outlining the many experiments and surveys carried out all over India. From there, I

will also go over the substantive criticisms of MIE and questions of whether or not

ICT can trigger Aemergent learnings or is merely a faddish Aquick fixs to the woes of

primary education. From this point, I will return to my central thesis that MIE can

not only increase the level of education among primary level children, but can

generate powerful political and economic change.

The Kalk)i Experiment

In February 1999, a hole in the wall was cut between a slum alleyway in Kalkaji,

Delhi and the compound of the NIIT office building (An IT training company). The

NIIT Director, Dr. Sugata Mitra, wanted to test a hypothesis of whether or not local

slum dwellers could figure out how to use a computer. Although adults where

averse to using it, children were smitten by the novel machine. Through trial and

error, many began to surf the internet, use drawing programs like MS Paint,

download and play music and play simple games U all within a week. Mitra noted

that he had to manually reboot the computer multiple times during the first few

days because users kept on shutting it down accidently (the rest of the computer,

save the screen, a keyboard and a touchpad were hidden away in a secure location).

Children had no preconceptions of what items on the screen were called, so they

invented their own terminology. A pointer became a Asuis (needle), webpages

became channels and the Abusys icon (an hourglass) was called a VDamaruW (a

reference to Shivass drum).

In spite of many requests from children, Mitra nor his colleagues provided

instruction in anyway during the Kalikaji experiment. Working in groups of 3 or 4 at

a time, children would play with the machine and if any new methods were learned

by trial and error, they were quickly shared. In essense, they were displaying

Aemergent learnings, or as defined by Williams et al.

learning which arises out of the interaction between a number of people

and resources, in which the learners organise and determine both the

process and to some extent the learning destinations, both of which are

unpredictable. The interaction is in many senses self-organised, but it

nevertheless requires some constraint and structure. It may include

virtual or physical networks, or both. (Williams et al. 2011, p.41)

Simple surveys of the Kalkaji colony confirmed that virtually none of the children

as well as their parents was educated. More experiments were carried out in rural

areas near Shivpuri, M.P. and Madantusi, U.P. with similar results. (Mitra and Rana,


What was observed in all three experiments was that children were attracted by

the novelty of these computer kiosks and through trial and error, they learned very

quickly. The difference between, say, the frustrating experience of trial and error of

programming a DVD player and this was that children worked together and taught

each other. After one child figured out how to use the Aerases tool on MS Paint, he or

she would show his or her friends, and teach them too. Kids who wanted to know

would ask for help. In other words, only in groups would children be able to learn

the basic rules. (Mitra, 2003)

! !

Photo 3: Children teaching each other.! !

Children crowd around a learning station

A Picture drawn by NstudentsO using the same kiosk above.

Source: Mitra, S. and Rana, V. (2001)Children and the Internet: Experiments with minimally invasive education in India The British Journal of Educational Technology, volume 32, issue 2, pp 221_232.

Photo 4: A picture created by the children

It is a truth universally acknowledged that humans learn from one another U

what is unusual in this case is the lack of adult involvement. For children to teach

themselves the rudiments of computer literacy where no computers (nor adult

users) exist is unique. This is fairly common in the developed world for children to

teach themselves the rudiments of computer use. (Warschauer, M. 2003d) However

useful computer literacy is in the developed world, this does not help those where it

is close to useless because simply put, no one owns a computer. It is easy to dismiss

the Kalkaji experiment at that moment without examining the whether or not

children were learning more. Were they learning more?

The Madangir Experiment

The Centre of Education Management and Development and Quantum Market

Research Ltd. carried out an independent study in 2004 to explore this question.

Over a 4_month period, surveys were taken of groups that had used or were familiar

with a set of computer kiosks built in Madangir, New Delhi. Like many poor urban

slums, its residents were self_employed (vendors, plumbers, stall or store_owners)

or low_level government employees (sweepers, peons, etc.). Their children went to

schools operated by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and other government_run

schools. Independent surveys indicated that the level of education for children 8_14

was below government standards, a typical socio_economic fact of many urban


From April 2004 to October 2004, an estimated 6,365 children accessed the

group of 5 computer kiosks set up in a public space. (Jha and Chatterje, 2005: 3) In

addition to Internet access, educational programs related to English, Math and

Science were installed. Children were observed using the kiosks at all times of the

day, but usually before and after school for an average of 1 to 1.5 hours a day. Sites

like were commonly accessed, and MS Paint was the most popular

when there was no Internet connection. All these observations were collected via

direct observation and interviews with children. A program running in the

background collected data on which programs were running, for how long, and

which icons/sites were being selected. (ibid, 4)

Evaluation groups were divided between frequent users (1.5 hours or

more/day), infrequent users (less than 1.5 hours/day) and a control group that

never used the kiosks. Tests to evaluate computer literacy were based on

recognition and usage of particular computer icons (folders, start, pointer, etc.).

Math and English skills were measured based on the National Centre for Educational

Research Training syllabus from Class I to VIII. The evidence collected indicated a

substantial increase in computer literacy skills and a significant increase in Math

and English skills. Content assimilation, or the ability for children to recognize the

meaning and usage of particular programs and icons on a computer, had the fastest


Frequent users were compared to infrequent users on 3 topics, English, Math and Content Assimilation

Source: Jha, S. and Chatterjee, S. (2005) Public-Private Partnership in a Minimally Invasive Education Approach International Education Journal Vol 6, No 5 p. 587_597

Other studies carried about by researchers on similar learning stations across

India over the past 10 years have shown similar results. In the chart below, Class 9

students in Dhapewada, Maharashtra were tested in January 2004 before computer

kiosks were installed in their neighbourhood, and then re_tested afterwards in

August. All tests were administered in Marathi and local schoolteachers carried out

the marking.

90 80 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0

s r e s U t n e u q e r


s r e s U t n e u q e r f

s r e s U t n e u q e r

t n e u q e r f n I _ h s

s r e s U F _

n I

F _

i l g

_ n o i t a l i m i s s A t h t a

_ h t

h s i l

n E

n e t n

s r e s U t n e u q e r F


g E

o C

_ n o i t a l i m i s s A t n e t n o C

s r e s U t n e u q e r f n I a




Test scores between 2 test periods

Source: Jha, S. and Chatterjee, S. (2005) Public-Private Partnership in a Minimally Invasive Education Approach International Education Journal Vol 6, No 5 p. 587_597

Those children who had dropped_out of regular classes yet regularly used the

MIE facilities saw an increase in their scores. (ibid, 8) This is particularly significant

in rural areas where children are regularly pulled out of classes by their parents to

tend the fields, do domestic work or because they cannot afford it. Often these drop_

outs have plenty of free_time doing very little. (PROBE, 1998, 41) More often than

not schools within poorer rural and urban areas are shuttered because there are no

teachers, or they are not teaching for numerous reasons U lack of pay, other

business, apathy or administrative work. For those dedicated, yet overworked

teachers, there is a general consensus that MIE has improved students












English Mathematics Science Social Science



attentiveness, attendance and knowledge. Surveys of community are

overwhelmingly positive, as indicated below.











Spreads Basic Literacy

Source: Jha, S. and Chatterjee, S. (2005) Public-Private Partnership in a Minimally Invasive Education Approach International Education Journal Vol 6, No 5 p. 587_597

If a Thousand children from the slum tap away on a thousand computers,

when will they begin to appreciate Shakespeare@

There is a body of criticism of the use of ICT in education, some specifically

mentioning MIE and its work. As Payal Arora sees it, MIE has been disseminated as

Va romance that tells of learning free from the chronic obstacles of formal schooling

and children liberated through self_learning.W (Arora, 2010, 690) She is correct in

some ways U it is a romantic notion that seems like a far from ideal solution to the

woes of primary education, but the evidence thus far is powerful. As it happens, the

Provides opportunity to learn computers

Improves Social Cohesion

Develops coniidence and pride

improves academic performance