Natural Forces

Doc muses on the curiosity of kids and the power of Linux as a building material.

It was almost three years ago that Dr. Sugara Mitra, head of NIIT's Centre for Research on Cognitive Systems, began quietly to put internet kiosks where kids hang out in the poorest parts of New Delhi. The effort, titled “Hole in the Wall”, was an experiment in “minimally invasive education”, a concept that offers this affront to the base assumptions of formal education: “that in the absence of any directed input, any learning environment that provides an adequate level of curiosity can cause learning.”

Here is what happened, the Hole in the Wall web site (www.niitholeinthewall.com) reports:

The objective of this experiment was to check if people would be interested in using an unmanned internet-based kiosk out in the open, without any instructions. It also aimed at ascertaining if an unmanned kiosk can be operational without any supervision in an outdoor location.

The boundary wall of the NIIT office where the computer was placed is adjacent to a slum, which has a lot of children from 0-18 years of age. Some of these children do not go to school, and a few who do, go to government schools that lack resources, good teachers and student motivation. These children are not particularly familiar with the English language.

The results of the experiment have been quite exciting. Within three months of opening up of the internet kiosk, it was found that the children, mostly from the slum, had achieved a certain level of computer skills without any planned instructional intervention. They were able to browse the Internet, download songs, go to cartoon sites and work on MS Paint. They even invented their own vocabulary to define terms on the computer, for example, sui (needle) for the cursor, “channels” for web sites and damru (Shiva's drum) for the hourglass (busy) symbol. By the fourth month, the children were able to discover and accomplish tasks like creating folders, cutting and pasting, creating shortcuts, moving/resizing windows and using MS Word to create short messages in the absence of keyboard. When the issue of whether the kiosk should be removed from the boundary wall arose, the children strongly opposed the idea. The parents also felt that the computer was good for their children. The kiosk continues to be operational today with approximately 80 children using it per day.

Over the next two and a half years, Dr. Mitra and his team mounted internet-connected PCs in 29 different walls in four different Indian cities. The experiment continues, but at this point a number of additional findings are clear:

  1. On the whole, users do not damage or abuse the equipment.

  2. Learning is social. Children learn faster in groups because members are eager to share what they know and learn.

  3. Shy children are not left out. Girls especially assume organizing roles, throwing screen hogs off the computer to let quieter children have a turn. Kids even organize classes for each other.

  4. Adults don't participate, although they believe the kiosks are good things. Kids are the users.

  5. Users figure out how to improve the computers. One found a way to improve the quality of the music files that played on the systems' little speakers.

Perhaps the most telling discovery was that Dr. Mitra's subjects do not like being subjects. One of the messages he received from one group said in Hindi, “We have found and closed the thing you watch us with.” He was gratified: “It made me so happy! I don't think [as a teacher] you can have a greater reward than to have a child beat you at your own game.”

Now let's pause to raise the obvious irony. These kiosks ran (and run) various forms of Microsoft Windows OSes, which cost money. The hands-down winner OS for the self-teaching crowd is Linux, which is free. The only OS with a legitimate claim to all-world relevance is Linux. You can recite the rest of the virtues list. But rather than do that, let's visit one quote from another corner of the world:

We believe LINUX can play a very important role in Latin American and Caribbean modernisation, constructing networks to permit a great number of universities, colleges, schools and educational centers to connect to the Internet in order to use this fabulous tool to improve their scientific and cultural levels. In a few words, LINUX is the tool that permits reducing the “technological gap” between the countries. LINUX permits access to “the most advanced informatics” implemented according to the reduced economic capacities in our region. LINUX is a new way to make informatics, where the most important thing is “the technical quality and personal solidarity”.

That one comes from the United Nations by way of ctrlaltesc.org. In that same region, our own Phil Hughes (Linux Journal's founder and publisher) has been working on Linux adoption in Costa Rica.

So why not do more here? Since NIIT has taken the lead on this altruistic venture, how about working with that company to get some Linux boxes out there on the streets? I see that NIIT has a Linux training partnership with Red Hat. Let's get a hardware company to step up and take it to the next stage.

The only impediments to progress here are conceptual. In the same way it's hard for the educational establishment to admit the transcendent power of kids' natural curiosity, it's hard for the business establishment to admit the raw usefulness of Linux and other free and open-source software.

Education-as-usual assumes that kids are empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content. Dr. Mitra's experiments prove that wrong. Software-as-usual assumes that its business is only about selling bits in manufactured packages. Linux proves that wrong, simply because it is being put to use everywhere. People are making money. Commercial software remains unharmed and contributes plenty of good on its own. It's a big world and a big business with room enough for everybody. But it won't include the world's untapped billions of curious souls if all we try to do is sell them packaged bits. We have to think bigger than that, and more practically.

Almost two years ago I observed that the software business eventually would turn into something much more like the construction business: concerned fundamentally with architecture, design and building—even using much of the same vocabulary. Prefab products like Microsoft OSes wouldn't go away but would thrive in a much larger context where countless professionals and amateurs simply chose the best tools and materials for the work that needed to be done. Some of those materials would grow, as it were, on trees. (I explained this once to a Microsoft guy, and he immediately got it: “You mean, Linux is trees. Endless lumber for anything.” Yes indeedy.)

The world needs to deploy a lot more technology if it's going to find a way to clothe, feed, house, employ and involve everybody in the prosperity enjoyed today by a relative few. There's plenty of business to be had in making that happen. It's a matter of exploiting natural materials that renew themselves and only improve the more you exploit them. And, there isn't a naturally abundant building material that fills that description better than Linux—unless, of course, we're talking about the natural curiosity of kids.

email: doc@searls.com

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column is Linux for Suits. He is also a coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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