From fishing villages on the coast of the Arabian Sea to New Delhi slums teeming with people and poverty, children are learning the basics of computing–all by themselves. It’s an experiment in what Sugata Mitra calls Minimally Invasive Education. “We often make the incorrect assumption that a teacher is required everywhere,” says Mitra. If he’s right, it could be a boon in India, where more than 40 percent of 6- to 14-year-olds (some 79 million kids) are unable to attend school.

Mitra, chief scientist at NIIT Limited, a software and education company in New Delhi, first tested the idea in 1999. He installed a computer with a high-speed Internet connection in the wall outside NIIT’s offices. Within hours, local children, mostly from nearby slums, figured out how to drag and drop icons and open files. Soon they were downloading their favorite Hindi music and learning how to use Microsoft Paint. The kids made up their own computer terminology, calling the cursor a sui (Hindi for needle) and the hourglass a damru (after the Hindu god Shiva’s hourglass-shaped drum). Some have even amassed a small vocabulary of English words such as “open,” “save,” and “file,” though they may mispronounce them and understand the words only in the context of computing.

All the while, Mitra and his colleagues have stayed away, monitoring the kids’ progress with a video camera. They have constructed 40 similar computer kiosks across India and are seeing similar results in 8- to 13-year-olds. Each computer is built into a brick wall. A monitor sits behind a glass plate, and a keyboard rests on a concrete shelf. Mitra and his team devised a durable six-button mouse to withstand outdoor conditions. (In the coastal village of Devbagh, he says, “it took them only an hour to figure out the mouse, which I thought was brilliant.”) A continuous stream of air blows over the equipment to keep it free from dust while thermal, humidity, and pressure sensors in the computer relay information to New Delhi about the machine’s condition.

With government and private funds, Mitra plans to assemble and study 68 more computers over the next three years.
–Priya Giri