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senorjosh.comDecember 2003: → Mon. 12/29
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12.29.03:    |    December 2003    |    12.30.03:
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digital doorway
December 29, 2003
The children in the rural Cwili settlement of eastern South Africa have a new toy. It is a big blue metal box, and it juts out of one of the community center’s brick walls. The box is safe to climb on, is completely storm- and tamper-proof, and has a speaker that plays music from time to time. What is more, the box houses a small computer and the settlement’s only live internet connection.

The Digital Doorway initiative is testing a new paradigm of computer education. First developed by Dr. Sugata Mitra in India, the premise of “minimally invasive education” is that people - and children in particular - can teach themselves how to use a computer. Given the opportunity to fool around with computers on their own time, Dr. Mitra hypothesized, children would pick up basic computer skills - even in the absence of formal education. Though this is a fairly straightforward principle, it runs contrary to the missions of most ICT inclusion initiatives, which tend to focus on organized training and instruction.

In 1999, Dr. Mitra demonstrated the effectiveness of minimally invasive education in a New Delhi-based project he called the “hole-in-the-wall” initiative. Last year, South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, in collaboration with CSIR, the country’s largest R&D organization, set out to determine whether minimally invasive education could work in Africa as well.

A small team from CSIR flew to India in late 2001 to hear Dr. Mitra’s story firsthand. Excited by what they saw, the team officially founded the Digital Doorway initiative, which was to oversee which was to oversee the construction and installation of a single internet kiosk in the rural township settlement of Cwili. Based on the results of this pilot project, they would decide whether or not minimally invasive education was appropriate to the South African context. Dr. Denzil Russell, an education specialist from nearby Wits University, was brought on board to objectively monitor and evaluate the usage of the kiosk.

The Digital Doorway team quickly realized, however, that a standard New Delhi-type “hole-in-the-wall” kiosk wouldn’t work in South Africa. For instance, while Dr. Mitra’s computer could utilize New Delhi’s sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure, Cwili didn’t even have a reliable telephone line. Every time phone cabling was laid, it was stolen and sold as scrap metal. To overcome the infrastructure issue, the Cwili kiosk uses GPRS to connect to the Internet. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), a wireless protocol that uses mobile phone networks to transmit information, requires very little physical infrastructure and was well suited to Cwili’s context.

And thus, with the installation of GPRS and other South Africa-specific features, the “blue machine” came into existence. An indestructible steel box with a touchpad mouse and plastic-reinforced monitor, the kiosk looks like - and is often used as - a climbing structure, in addition to a personal computer.

The kids, however, do much more than just climb. Via a little camera mounted on the computer, Dr. Russell has noticed some interesting patterns:

  • Roughly 60% of Cwili’s kids have taught themselves basic functionality, including dragging and dropping, window resizing, etc.

  • Many people have figured out how to navigate the web and read/write emails.

  • The most commonly used programs are educational games and Windows Media Player

  • The computers are used as early as 5:00 am, and as late as midnight.
  • The local administrators at Cwili are quite optimistic about the possibilities the blue machine offers to their community. “Some of the adults were scared at first and thought it was a silly toy,” notes Julius Flepu, the on-site manager, “but I have seen some make resumes that help them get employed.” Then, after thinking for a minute, he adds, “but we could really benefit from a good printer.”

    Soon, perhaps, the kiosks will be outfitted with such equipment. Preparing to roll out a series of new computers in other regions of South Africa, Digital Doorway is actively redesigning their machines to meet the demands of the community and environment. The second kiosk, recently installed in the urban city of Mamelodi, runs exclusively open-source software and uses a WiFi Internet connection.

    For everyone at Digital Doorway, minimally invasive education is also highly effective education. Watching the kids jockey for a spot at the blue machine’s keyboard, it would be hard to disagree. The kids haven’t started programming Excel functions, but the “highest scores” in all of the educational games are unimpeachable, and they certainly know the fastest way to download an mp3.

    Posted by senorjosh at December 29, 2003 05:12 PM | TrackBack
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