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Hole in The Wall Initiative

Tresor Ngassa (st105190) ICT 10/30/2007

E-learning in the context of developing countries has brought a lot attention lately. Under the generally admitted assumption that a better and wider education will translate eventually in sustainable economic development, many initiatives have seen the light across the world. Acknowledging the importance of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), some of those projects focus on bridging the widening digital gap that exists between developed countries and developing countries. The most popular one is the OLPC initiative. Lead by several partners including big multinational companies and with a worldwide ambition, this initiative is the biggest, most visible part of the iceberg. But there are several other initiatives with a smaller scope both in terms of objectives as well as in terms of geographical coverage. This article will present one of the most innovative initiatives in that field, named “Hole in the Wall”. The project is lead by a company named Hiwel which stands for Hole-InThe-Wall Education Limited.

The Idea
The idea is radically new and somehow counter-intuitive. It’s about installing a computer (the digital hole) in a wall and seeing what happens. That’s it. There is no access controlling and the hole is generally put in an open playground (a middle of a street for example). The computer is loaded with additional education-related software but nothing is imposed and the children can use the computer to do whatever they want to do, be it drawing paint, surfing on the net or playing games. A mere, non intrusive remote monitoring is performed to manage the necessary administrator tasks but nothing more. As we stated before, the idea is quite counter-intuitive and at the first look seems not to be effective in the context of 2

learning as one would assumed (as we did when we first heard about it) that children are unlikely to dive into learning activities but rather spend most of the time into playing games. But, as the founder says himself: “Hole-in-the-wall Learning Stations seek to create a new paradigm in the learning process by providing unrestricted computer access to groups of children in an open playground setting. We believe that such an open setting will use child’s natural curiosity to stimulate learning.” The following parts will present the implementation of the project and how successful (or not) it has been up to now.

The Installation
The “Hole” is actually a kiosk. Kiosks were constructed so that a monitor was visible through a glass plate built into a wall. The PCs driving the monitor were usually placed on the other side of the wall in a brick enclosure. Instead of using a keyboard, computers can be accessed through a specially designed joystick mouse, which allows users to control the movement and press keys on a screenbased keyboard. This has helped alleviate concerns about vandalism, wear and tear of keyboard keys and the susceptibility of computers to dust and abrasion. Internet Connectivity was provided using leased lines, ISDN lines and Dial-up connections. In the locations where there was inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, cached web content was provided to simulate web access. Computers are placed in a brick enclosure with thicker-than-normal walls to minimize the impact of high daily fluctuation in temperatures and dust. Ventilating fans were used to maintain ambient temperature, particularly in summer.

The Target and the Educational Challenges
The main objective of the project has been to provide underprivileged children, with little or no formal education and living in poverty, with access to computers and the Internet. To understand the project we need to present the origin of the project. The founder is Sugata Mitra, a physicist who is working in India. He observed that children were being poorly prepared for a technological future. Mitra believes that classrooms, teachers and textbooks will be less important, while computers will increasingly become a prominent educational tool to help shepherd India into the 21st century. Mr. Mitra spearheads research and development at NIIT, India’s largest commercial supplier of information technology (IT) training courses yet, in one of the ironic twist in 3

life, he advocates that computer skills can be learned without supervision. On the other side, India is facing some serious educational challenges. With a population of over 1 billion, India has a challenging task in ensuring universal elementary education. The Government has done well in increasing the number of educational institutes in the country over the last few years. The growth in number of schools, however, has not solved the problem of literacy in India, especially in rural areas and among the female population. Here are some numbers that depict the situation. • About 3.5 core children have not enrolled in school •About 39% of primary and 54.6% of upper primary students drop out of school • Quality of education is poor because of high student-teacher ratio – national average of 46.1 with some states as high as 68 (Rajasthan) • Gender Parity Index, at 0.77, is low for upper primary education (grades 6-8), while it is marginally better, at 0.83, for primary education (grades 1-5) • A large digital divide exists, and is growing, between students in affluent private schools and other students Mr. Mitra was looking for a way to provide a solution that addresses the challenges outlined above without substantially increasing the cost of elementary education per child. “The schooling system needs to be complemented in some innovative ways to help achieve the Government target of complete literacy by 2010” he said.

The New Learning Approach
The project is based on the concept of ‘minimally invasive education’, Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher. The underlying approach is that an adequate level of curiosity can cause learning amongst groups of children. As the children explore their environment, they relate their new experience with their previous experience and thereby new learning takes place. The founder set a theoretical framework of this approach and highlights the main features that make this minimally invasive education approach relevant in the context of Elearning.

Outdoor Playground Setting
An outdoor playground setting gives the children the possibility to access the learning unit (the “hole”) at any time. This presents several advantages: ♦ It ensures that girls, who would generally not be sent to close room housing a computer (generally in a school), can now easily access the Learning Station in an open setting. This addresses the gender parity issue (see Educational challenges above) ♦ Unconditional access to Learning Stations ensures that both children in4

school and out-of-school can use them. This is very important since many of these children are not going at school or are force to drop school at one point. ♦ The approach is learner-centric. The absence of supervision means that the entire learning process is driven by children’s natural curiosity and that children learn only what they are interesting by. The learning process is, as a logical result, more likely to be more effective than the traditional learning process at school.

Collaborative Learning
The learning station fosters collaborative learning among groups of children instead of following the usual school model of rote based learning (unidirectional). This allows children to explore, learn, share and learn even more as a result of this exchange of knowledge. Indeed, given the limited number of learning stations, each station is very likely to be surrounded by many children. Therefore, though only one child can actually use the computer at any time, he/she will take the inputs of the other children. A process of cross-fertilization and knowledge exchange will lead to a faster learning speed.

Optimum utilization of learning station
In a traditional computer lab setting, pedagogy is ‘instruction based’ where focus is on dissemination of information. Moreover the access to computer is restricted by average usage time available per user. This is indeed an inherent limitation of the classic approach that requires a supervisor on the site. On the contrary, HiWEL approach thanks to the unrestricted, unsupervised model leads to a more optimal use of the computer. HiWEL Learning Stations rely more on exploratory learning where children can freely experiment on the Learning Station. Additionally, groups of children access the Learning Station lead to twin advantages of collaborative learning and multiple children using the Learning Stations at the same time. This translates into much greater impact on children than a traditional lab-based setting. This is a key feature since the number of computers is limited. Making the best use of each of them and maximizing its impact on the population is crucial.

Learning to learn
Apart from addressing the issue of education skills, HiWEL Learning Stations 5

address a more fundamental skill set –the Process of Learning itself. By encouraging children to explore the Learning Station, it seeks to impart them with problem solving skills and an ability to think critically. So, while a child learns how to use educational software, she also develops an ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate information which in turn builds her long term ability to learn. I think that this feature is one of the most important since it targets the very core part of the learning process. Children who learn how to learn acquire an asset which is invaluable.

Integration with the school system
A big advantage of the HiWEL learning station is that it fits in nicely with traditional schooling and seeks to reinforce structured learning through peer discussions, increased curiosity and better retention. HiWEL Learning Stations seek to enhance the effectiveness of overall learning experience by integrating with the schooling system. One illustration is in the case of project be it school projects or even real life projects. The children can then use the Learning Stations for pulling out information, compiling data and preparing reports. This will help develop their personalities while engaging them in tasks which could often be of use to local community. The combination of these various features is supposed to ensure the success of this initiative. While the list of those features might be long, the diagram below presents the flow in a synthetic way:

The Results


The HiWEL initiative, contrary to some other initiatives, start modestly by a very practical experiment. Let have a look at the beginning of the project.

The First experiment
In 1999 (on the 26th January 1999 to be precise), he carved a hole in a dilapidated wall next to his office where he first placed a computer for the use of slum kids living in the area (giving the name “Hole in the Wall to the initiative). He hooked the computer to the Internet and placed a webcam above it so he could watch from his office and see how illiterate children responded to the computer. At first, they seemed to be intrigued. The screen showed the home page of Without any outside help, most of them would discover in a few minutes that a little arrow moved when they ran a finger over the touchpad, and that an underlined word lit up when they placed the arrow on it, and that a new screen opened when they clicked on the arrow. Within a few days, Mr. Mitra noticed, children were able to surf the Internet. They figured out how to copy text into a document and save it in a folder. They learned how to use the drawing program, which was fantastic for these kids who don’t have paper, pencils or markers at home. And they could download games to play. Through the project children have learnt to do perform a number of key tasks within approximately three months, including: • Windows operation • Play music and video • View photos • Browse and chat on the Internet • Set up e-mail accounts • Run educational and other programs • Download and play games • Simple trouble shooting Additionally, the project has encouraged the development of English language skills. For example, in Madantusi (an Indian city), where English is not taught, children learnt and were using around fifty English words. They have understood the meaning of these words (such as 'file' and 'view') and have learnt how to pronounce them correctly from the PC.

Expanding the project
Those results were encouraging and Mr. Mitra decided to scale-up his project. The first adopter of the idea was the Government of NCT of Delhi. In 2000, the Government of Delhi set up 30 Learning Stations in a resettlement colony. In 2001 the project was placed under the leadership of Hole in the Wall Education Limited (HiWEL). The company is a joint venture company between NIIT Limited and the International Corporation, the industrial financing arm of the World Bank. The same year a national research program was started, in which Learning Stations were 7

set up in 23 locations across rural India. In November 2002 a joint initiative of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology the hole in the wall concept was tested in South Africa. A “digital doorway kiosk” was installed in Cwili, a rural township in the Eastern Cape where there was little awareness of computers. By September 2003 there were 80 kiosks connecting approximately 7,500 children around India. Nowadays, there are HiWEL stations in Cambodia and in Venezuela. And the project keeps growing around the world. Funding comes from a variety of sources including the Indian Government, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.

Qualitative and Quantitative Results
One of the most interesting points (if not the most) with the HiWEL initiative is that rigorous research studies have been carried during a long period to evaluate how successful the MIE approach is successful. Probably thanks to the professional background of the founder in R&D activities, many research studies were conducted following a rigorous methodology. Over the 4 years research phase (2000-2004), HiWEL has extensively studied the impact of Learning Stations on children. Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations were installed in diverse settings, the impact of interventions was monitored and data was continually gathered, analyzed and interpreted. Rigorous assessments were conducted to measure academic achievement, behavior, personality profile, computer literacy and correlations with socio-economic indicators. While describing the research methodology is slightly beyond the scope of this essay, more information can be found on the website of this initiative We will present in the following paragraph what we think are the key results of these various studies. Objective as well as subjective (perceived) characteristics have been evaluated and the results are commented. Additionally, the key methodology pieces of information are included below the graphs. All the results presented below have been obtained via the official website of the initiative . Since the project is (partly) under the leadership of the World Bank, they are assumed to be reliable.


Community Perception - Delhi Government Report

• • •

Evaluation was done by Delhi Government at Madangir, Delhi. The Learning Station was set up in November 2000 and the evaluation done in July 2004. The study was done on 248 respondents from the members of local community.

Those results show that the community perceives the learning stations as being useful and as having a positive impact on the skills of the children and more generally on the community life. An interesting finding is that the learning stations are thought to improve the social cohesion.

Academic Performance
While the first result was about the community perception and therefore a little bit subjective, the second set of studies focus on the actual academic performance. This is a way to evaluate how the HiWEL learning stations fit with traditional schooling. Or, in other words, how valid is the framework depicts by the diagram in the previous part.


In the city of Dhapewada, Maharashtra

· Research was conducted in Dhapewada (Maharashtra) on a site with Internet connectivity. · Class 9 children were assessed on CBSE Class 10th sample exam paper. · The test was administered in Marathi. · Children were assessed on four subjects at two time points- pre test [Jan 2004] and post test [Aug 2004]. · Internal evaluation was done by the local School Teachers at Dhapewada which was then independently verified by a research body.

As we can see, the overall academic performance of the students in Dhapewada has tremendously increased. The impact is undeniable. This tends to prove that first the HiWEL does help the children to acquire new skills and knowledge and secondly that this knowledge is useful at school. A second study was carried across the whole India country, to assess the improvement over a larger statistical sample. The results are presented below:

Overall - National Summary


· The study was conducted at a national level across 17 locations in 8 states. · The duration of the study was 9 months. · Control Group comprised of children who did not have access to the Learning Station. · While the performance of experimental group improved, that of control group actually declined over the period.

This graph confirms the result of the previous study. Children with access to learning stations do experience better performance at school. This is even more impressive since the control group (the students without access to the learning stations) meanwhile saw its schools scores decrease. The final set of studies we want to present is made of comparisons between three groups of children: • The group A with children randomly chose from a village that has no computers in school or Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Station. • The group B is made of students who had received formal computer education in Shirgaon High School • And finally the experimental group is the group formed by children who have access to the learning stations. The graphs show the relative results obtained on various academic tests.


The MIE group has a comparable performance during the overall science test compared to the group B of students who have attend formal computer classes.

These results show that without formal teaching, the MIE group knowledge about how computers work is almost on par with the one of the group B who had formal computers classes.


This last graph shows that MIE group performs better than the group B when it comes to practical computer skills. This validates the relevance of giving unrestricted access to computers as well as proving the superior efficiency of the hand-on approach when it comes to acquire computer skills. The overall conclusion of this set of results is that the MIE approach shows some steady impact. The giant leap between the group A and the other groups do prove that having a way to acquire knowledge via computers clearly translates into better results. The second result is that the MIE approach to be as effective as the formal traditional closed-lab one. And that are very good news since, unlike the latter one, the MIE approach doesn’t need to dedicate one staff or faculty to supervise the lab. It’s therefore a cost-effective alternative. Even better, when it comes to practical computer skills, HiWEL initiative leads to better results. Not all the research findings where presented in this essay which doesn’t intend to be exhaustive. Additional findings can be found on the website When we sum up the analysis of the results we showed, it appears clearly that the Holein-the-Wall initiative does lead to some spectacular results. This is particularly impressive since, as we’ve stated before, the approach is counter-intuitive and, at the first look, seems to be doomed to fail. The findings of the research studies topple all the doubt and hesitations that one can have, regarding this initiative and its underlying approach.


Last words: Social Impact
We want to conclude this essay by presenting a point that we have almost overlooked previously; the social impact of the HiW initiative. Several points are of interests. The first one is how the children organize themselves to answer the crucial question “Who use the computer” at any point of time. Here is the amazing finding the founder has made in his early experiment: “At first, a lot of shouting and pushing among the kids happened. But the amazing part is that within hours the kids always find a way to organize themselves. An older child usually takes a leadership role and proclaims that it makes more sense to take turns using this new attraction because they simply can’t all work with it at once. And when it becomes clear that screaming disrupts the user’s concentration, the bystanders keep quiet. Within a matter of days, the kids have established their own rules without any interference from adults” This pattern consistently repeats itself everywhere a learning station is installed. So the HiWEL carried a sociologic study on how the process takes place exactly. Here are the key points of what they found: • Self-organizing groups of children organize themselves into Leaders (experts), Connectors and Novice groups. • Leaders and Connectors identified seem to display an ability to connect with and teach other users. • Key leaders on receiving targeted intervention, play a key role in bringing about a “multiplier effect in learning” within the community. • Often girls are seen to take on the role of Connector, who initiates younger children and siblings (usually novices with little or no exposure to computers) and connects them to the leaders in the group. This shows to the community and to the children themselves that they can self-organize themselves. Ultimately this leads to the development of better group dynamics. Additionally, since children quickly find that the best way to acquire new knowledge is to share it with other, this creates a new paradigm in their relations each with other. The second thing is related to the projects that are carried thanks to the use of the learning stations (see “New learning approach” section). Some projects are directly linked to the daily life of the community. Therefore, by enabling the successful accomplishment of those projects that are useful to the community, the learning stations do have a positive social impact


The third point is that the learning points act as meeting points where children gathered to play and learn at the same time. Just as dwells in village, they become the “hot spots” where people (children) meet and engage social interactions. Providing in the same move, the possibility to acquire new knowledge and new skills that they can leverage afterwards (in school for example) is clearly an outstanding achievement. Finally there is this not measurable “halo effect” triggered by the existence of the HiW learning station. The following testimony of a little girl illustrates this factor. Ruvina is a 14-year-old girl with long braids who walks to the kiosk nearly every day. "I pushed buttons and just looked to see what happened. Sometimes another screen appeared and I learned as I went along. Now I read English texts too, which is something we hardly ever do in school.” Ruvina’s mother Nafisa thinks it’s all a great idea and supports her daughter’s wish to work with computers when she’s older. “It is important to be able to work a computer,” she says, “especially when it comes to finding a job.” Her family recently invested its savings in a second-hand computer. This shows that the presence of the learning stations creates an awareness of the importance of computer in the education of children and in the way out of poverty. And from a more macroscopic point of view, the World Bank had calculated in another study—E-Development: From Excitement to Effectiveness - that every computer acquired by companies in developing countries creates more jobs and raises productivity, assuming a solid infrastructure is in place. Moreover, The World Bank report Information and Communications for Development 2006 shows that information technology help poor families to gain access to new methods of education and information and ultimately strengthen democracy. So, it appears that computers are increasingly recognized as an essential tool for people to use to escape poverty. The Hole-in-the-Wall is definitely flowing with that trend and it’s doing so in an effective manner. However, the initiative while having the backup of international organizations like the World Bank is drawing little attention outside India. Given the proven results of this approach, it clearly deserves a better recognition.
Author’s Note: This essay intends to present the Hole-in-the-Wall initiative to a general audience. While trying to be as comprehensive as possible, this essay is by no mean exhaustive. Some aspects where voluntarily excluded. Others were just quickly presented. The author has limited himself to the points, he thought, were the most interesting. Given the originality of the MIE approach, an emphasis has been on the theoretical framework as well as the expected features (although the author thinks that some of these features and maybe even the framework were elaborated a posteriori). A comprehensive set of research findings have also been provided with the objective of establishing the relevance of the MIE approach in the context of E-learning in developing countries. Additional information can be found on the very complete website of HiWEL which has been a major source of information.


All the information were acquired via Internet on various websites and double-checked.