‘Hole in a Wall’: Important Facts of a Fascinating New World

By Maria Aguirre

Are you a technology fan? Are you fascinated with the rapid spread of communication around the world with social networks like Twitter? Well, have you ever wondered whether these technologies can be used to learn and generate knowledge in poor and rural areas around the world? In rural places where teachers might not want to go –because it is too far away from amenities or can be too dangerous- do you think technology can play a leading role? If user-friendly computers are located in these areas, will children be able to benifit? Could that stimulate their curiosity or capacity to learn? If this topic is of interest to you, I invite you to continue reading this post. You might get surprised by some results from India!


Where it All Started

New recently installed HiWEL Learning Stations in Bangui, the capital of Republic of Central Africa. September 2011. Source: http://goo.gl/Hy8yj

India: a developing country, an emerging economy that every day becomes more and more attractive from the global economic lens. With a population over one billion inhabitants, India is positioned as the second most populous nation in the world*. With unprecedented socio-economic progress, especially in the area of telecommunications, India has developed practical ways to reach those in deeper need. In this case ICTs has worked as a tool to reach most under-resourced populations and to get positive outcomes from providing these services. Among ICTs characteristics, perhaps the most important one –portability- makes them imperative tools in a society with the highest rates of illiteracy**.

What Was the Idea?

In 1999, Dr. Sugata Mitra, a computer scientist at NIIT (a global education company) decided to make a social experiment in a rural area outside of New Delhi, India. He provided a limited number of computers with free, high speed internet in the streets of a slum area.  The computers were placed in holes and inside the walls, making them reachable for public users. Known as the Hole in the Wall experiment, children showed initial interest.   Although no one was physically there to monitor or supervise, they were being videotaped for further analysis. These children, without prior knowledge, not only developed skills to manage computers, but also acquired basic skills in mathematics and English. In the next six years the same experiment was replicated in different rural locations in India.  As it expanded, issues like gender equity were taken into account for example by creating special kiosks for girls.

What Did They Find?

Dr. Mitra, based on these series of experiments, concludes that children can and actually did learn independently  by forming self-organizing learning systems to teach themselves (e.g., how to use a computer).  This learning happened regardless of their preceding socioeconomic backgrounds or languages. Results show that children are able to educate themselves and this fact becomes of crucial importance in the context of many villages that are not able to provide either teachers or computers–. This project is part of the concept of Minimally Invasive Education systems. This term describes the learning processes of children in unsupervised settings, without any direct intervention from adults and with appropriate levels of motivation. This method promotes the process of exploration, discovery and collaboration with peers.  It also stimulates the natural curiosity children exude. Children carried the knowledge they learned at school where they most likely did not have opportunities to use a computer. As they interacted with the computer, in short as 3 minutes they were able to identify what they could do with the mouse. With games –some educative and some other recreational- and the regular browsing service, children started a process of learning and relating with English –the language provided by the system- and improved their abilities in math and sciences.

Kids using a HiWEL kiosk in India. "They don't call a cursor a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle. And they don't call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because they've never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru, which is Shiva's drum, and it does look a bit like that." Dr. Sugata Mitra. Source: http://goo.gl/yZ7bb

Yet, the project did not procreate knowledge by itself; involved children could at least read. The fascinating thing of the method was how they were able to, under the right conditions, teach themselves from a tool that they previously did not know how to master (to see the research results please go to Hole in the Wall research findings at http://goo.gl/8hQx7). Thus, new knowledge can be generated in a natural and non-formal process, enhancing collaborative relationships among the group. Even though children learn individually, at the very beginning of the learning process –where little is known about computers, and where they have to develop strategies to star using it properly- there is usually one child that takes the leadership and guides the rest of them. As this leadership develops, the group of children cultivates collaborative relationships in pro of learning.

Main results

This initiative that began with a couple of computer stations is now known as HiWEL –Hole in the Wall Education Limited- with nearly 300 learning stations, reaching about 300,000 children in India and some African countries. Among the main outcomes of the project are:

a)      students becoming computer-literate through self-learning

b)       learning enough English to send e-mails, chatting or navigating through the web

c)       improving their math and science skills

d)      being more prepared for upcoming standardized tests.

As this initiative gains recognition there are several important questions to ask.  Can technology replace teachers in this or any other context? If teachers are irreplaceable, what is the possibility of hiring long distance teachers that can connect with students on the computers? While it is not likely that technology can comprehensively replace interaction between teachers and students, there is evidence that this model contributes to student initiative and learning.    Therefore, these alternative methods are really innovative enhance student learning.



* Taken from ‘In 2025, India to Pass China in Population, U.S. Estimates’, The New York Times on December, 2009. http://goo.gl/PuLyZ

** ‘India still home to largest illiterate population: UNESCO’, The Hindu on January 2010. http://goo.gl/KcqgB



ICT in Eduation, Unesco Bangkok http://goo.gl/FPMUj

Searching for India’s Hole in the Wall; EduTech, A World Bank Blog on ICT use in Education. http://goo.gl/GXdWw

Teach-yourself computing for kids, BBC News on May 2005. http://goo.gl/m07Wf

Can computers take the place of teachers?, CNN on September 2010. http://goo.gl/LqedG

Free computer-access project inspired ‘Slumdog’, CNN on February 2009.  http://goo.gl/Kzxbk




Posted on March 13, 2012, in Non-formal education. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is a very interesting post, because I think that is a screenshot of the education in the future. Education surely will be a mix of teacher’s class (physical presence and via online) and computer’s self-learning. The questions you made at the final of the post made me think about the differences and changes in educational practice’s trough the last years, from my parent’s time to ICT’s era.

  2. Maria, this is a fascinating post! Thanks for teaching me. I also really like how you’ve organized this post, especially the introduction to the post where you talk to the viewer directly. VERY GOOD!

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