Kids seem to learn computers faster than their parents. They can do it on their own, and often become proficient in skills that nobody would teach them intentionally. Hacking and virus writing, for example.
Inspired by this, researchers from NIIT Limited in Delhi decided to make an experiment. They wanted to know if slum children who didn’t go to school, never used a computer, and didn’t even speak English, being given access to a computer could learn how to use it on their own.
In India, you usually don’t need to go far to find such children. In fact, the NIIT headquarters itself was bordered by a slum. So they just made a hole in their wall, put a computer there, connected it to the Internet, and left it unsupervised.
When they were installing it, children asked them questions like: “Is it a video game?”, “What is a computer?”. The researchers didn’t want to give any instructions and answered vaguely: “It’s a fun machine.” After installation, the computer was monitored from a network, and by a video camera. It’s really funny to read extracts from their diary, and it is amazing how kids learned one thing after another without any help. The researches called it a “minimally invasive” approach to learning.
Within a few days the slum children were able to browse the Internet, play games, create documents, paint pictures in MS Paint, and install their own wallpapers on the desktop. Because they didn’t know computer terms, they invented their own. They called the cursor “sui” (needle), websites — “channels”, and the hourglass (busy) symbol — “damru” (Shiva’s drum).
Amazed by kids’ progress, the researches did the same experiment in one provincial town, and got similar results. Then, one of them brought a laptop to a remote village, where there were no computers, and no one had seen one. He left his laptop (working on batteries and without an Internet connection) in the local school for an hour. When he returned he found children looking at digital images and playing music files.
These experiments were done in 1999–2000. Since then, a lot of studies have been done in a number of places in India and abroad, and such “hole-in-the-wall” learning stations were installed in remote locations (currently about 200) where children don’t have access to good education. You can find more information on this web-site: http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/ News reports and research articles are also there. A Wikipedia article is here.
Kids who had played with such Holes-in-the-Wall installed in playgrounds and loaded with educational games for learning English, maths, and science, were later tested and showed good results on the exams.
In one Tamil village, Kalikuppam (village of the dark well), 300 km south of Chennai, where the only occupation is fishing, and most people are illiterate, it was tested how 10–14 year old children could learn basic molecular biology. Initially the kids were left to learn it on their own, and later with the help of a mediator who didn’t have knowledge of this subject.
The learning outcomes were compared with those of similarly aged children at a nearby average performing state government school who were taught this subject and another group of children at a high-performing private school in New Delhi who were fluent in English and had been taught this subject by qualified teachers. It was found that the village children who only had access to computers and Internet-based resources in the Hole-in-the-Wall learning stations achieved test scores comparable with those at the local state school and, with the support of the mediator, equal to their peers in the privileged private urban school.
This last research was published in 2010, and I think it is really cool!