An interview with Dr Sugata Mitra

Dr Sugata MitraI had interviewed Dr Sugata Mitra for Hindi blogzine Nirantar about an year ago. While going through old emails I came across the original English interview and thought that I should post it online.

Dr Mitra, as you might be aware, is an award winning scientist. He has been known for the Hole in the wall (HIW) project where he proved that kids could learn computers without formal training and teachers. He started the HIW experiment at the slums at Kalkaji, Delhi in 1999. More kiosks were later setup at Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh and Madantusi, Uttar Pradesh. Sugata calls this “Minimum Evasive Education“, referring to the environment where kids learn using their natural curiosity without the intervention of teachers. The experiment, scaled up to more than 23 kiosks in rural Indian was also repeated in Combodia in 2004.

I am not aware of the real implications of this experiment and whether it went past the academic interests and echoed in the corridors of the government, but the experiment surely suggested a way towards providing low-cost IT education in India.

In the Hole-In-The-Wall (HIW) experiment what is the hardware configuration of the PCs? How do these cope up with the dust/heat of open environment? And in rural areas how did you tackle the issue of dismal power supply? Did you use any customized software?

HIW KioskDr Mitra: Personal computers, such as those used in homes and offices all over the world, are designed to work indoors, usually in a carefully conditioned and controlled environment. Such computers can not be placed in outdoor environments, without air-conditioning and with poor power conditions, such as those prevalent in rural India and Cambodia.

Over the period of the experiment, we evolved a design for an enclosure that would enable the usual personal computer to function in an outdoor environment. The enclosure consists of a brick structure resembling a narrow hut with the computer screens visible on the outside of the hut through glass panes fixed to rectangular “holes in the wall” on one side of the hut.

The conventional mouse used with home or office PCs does not function effectively for more than a few days when exposed to outdoors weather. We devised a new solid-state mouse (called ToBu) without any moving parts. The mouse consists of six small metal circles embedded on a plastic plate. These are called touch buttons and need only to be touched with a finger to activate their functions. Four to move the cursor in the left-right and up-down directions, and two for left and right “clicks”. The cursor can also be moved diagonally using a combination of the four touch buttons that control movement.

The keyboard and the ToBu mouse project out from below the monitor through the same rectangular opening in the wall. They are covered by a Perspex cowl that protects from dust. The user inserts his or her hand from under the cowl. The opening below the cowl is wide enough only for small hands to enter. A metal lid covers each monitor and keyboard combination (called the “faceplate”). This is opened during operational hours and forms a sun-shade over the computer. The height of the faceplate and lid are such that adults would need to stoop down at an awkward angle to see the screen. There is a seating rod in front of each computer, placed at a distance from the wall such that it is uncomfortable for tall people.

These design elements are necessary to ensure that only children (usually 13 years and less) access these computers. In rural settings in India, where many adults would not have seen a computer, there is a great deal of curiosity about the device and this can, sometimes, lead to situations where children are not given a chance to operate the computers. Each playground computer is equipped with a web camera and a microphone.

All electrical power is conditioned at the input to correct for voltage spikes, over and under voltage and frequency fluctuations. Four hours of battery back-up is provided for each installation. Sensors inside the enclosure and related software enable us to remotely monitor the following:

  1. The temperature, humidity and illumination levels inside the enclosure.
  2. Electrical conditions
  3. Mouse movement history (when the mouse was moved last).
  4. History of applications run on each computer
  5. Screen images on each computer
  6. Images of children using the computer
  7. Voice recordings of children speaking
  8. History of sites visited on the Internet

In addition, software controls ensure that:

  1. No essential software of data is deleted or renamed.
  2. The desktop icons are not removed
  3. The system closes unused programs
  4. The system restarts when and if a computer hangs.

The entire arrangement is usually placed such that the screens face the north-east. This is to avoid glare from sunlight on the screens. Such playground computers are placed in safe, public locations where their screens are clearly visible to passing adults. This ensures that there are few or no attempts at vandalism, theft or the usage of the computers for accessing pornography or other undesirable material

Amongst the 100 computers placed in the above manner throughout rural India and Cambodia, 4 have been damaged due to vandalism and the access to pornographic material has been estimated at 0.3% of available time, during the four years of the experiment.

With HIW concept we are talking about unmonitored teaching, san the teacher. Do you advocate applying the concept to pre-primary & primary education or would it yield results in higher education as well?

HIW KioskDr Mitra: The hole in the wall arrangement is suitable for primary and pre-primary only. But the concept of collaborative, self-regulated instruction can be applied to all age groups.

One of the ironies of our present education system has been that it fails to prepare students for the real-world and get a job. Will such education translate to jobs?

Dr Mitra: Computer skills are essential for any job.

The project has received grants from World Bank and GOI. But how do you foresee the implementation of the idea? What kind of budgets will the government need? Do you think Governments would shelve money for such schemes if they were to continue spending on the conventional education route as well?

Dr Mitra: Not really. I think both methods will need to coexist. The Sarva Shiksha Avijan has funds for innovations and they are using this to put hole in the wall computers in remote areas of India.

Innovative projects like HIW comes, especially in a country like ours, from the stables of Private sector. Why do you think the sarkari think-tanks, who are fed on tax-payers money to germinate such ideas, are unable to device any?

Dr Mitra: I don’t think that is strictly true. There are many important ideas that have been developed by the Government. The Space program for example. However, speed and the ability to take new ideas to the market are lacking in the Government.

Can the Internet replace teachers? How do think we could counter the perils of pornography and the known risks of net-life to which kids are most vulnerable?

Dr Mitra: Most of these risks are non-existent in public hole in the wall computers. Visibility of the screen to passing adults and the fact that all usage is in groups ensure social control that prevents both misuse and vandalism.

One of the observations of the HIW that we read was that the children use metaphor for components. NIIT has been synonymous with computer education where you charge people to teach terminologies. Isn’t learning terminologies an important part of education?

Dr Mitra: Could be. Here, they are learning to use a computer. The learning is purely functional. Its like learning to drive a car – it doesn’t really matter whether you know what a carburetor is or how gears work.

Will NIIT consider adapting its course material based on the findings of HIW?

Dr Mitra: Yes.

In a way, we feel, the HIW experiment has shown that an informal, unconventional education system that teaches through games and provides interactive learning works better. Why do you think only computers can achieve that goal? Is it akin to simply aiming to creating computer-literate citizens suitable only for white-collared jobs?

Dr Mitra: Maybe there are other ways also. I am only trying to show that learning to use a computer can be self instructional for all children. I think every citizen will need to be computer literate, whatever work they do. Just like everyone needs to know arithmetic, not just white collar workers.

Edutainment probably forms the basis of HIW and Kids TV programs call themselves that. How do you rate the present TV programming for kids, especially in the cable TV era? Where do you think they have failed or need to improve on?

Dr Mitra: There are good and bad TV programs. The more the edutainment the better they are. For example, Natgeo, Discovery, etc. are very good.

There is a fact that many would find intriguing. We are nation where rural sector still doesn’t have basic infrastructure, there is wide-spread lack of basic health-care and education. And here we are talking about bridging the digital divide first. Isn’t this an urban dream really? Does it really matter for the real India?

Dr Mitra: Ask the village people. I think our urban idea about villages should and should not have is where we go wrong. They want cable TV, the Internet and Revlon, for example. But we in the cities think only we should have those things and not them.

Has HIW been implemented in other countries as well? How has been the response?

Dr Mitra: Yes, in Cambodia and South Africa. Results are identical to India.

What is usually the minimum age -group/education of the target group in any HIW experiment?

Dr Mitra: Age group: 6 or less to 15 or so. Education level – not important or required, even illiterates can learn to use the computer.

There is a lot of Indian language content now a day on the net. How do you see the trend? What has been the catalyst of this growth according to you? How do you foresee the future?

Dr Mitra: Indian content will come from Indians. The more the access the more the content will become. Eventually, one-sixth of the Internet will be in Indian languages, just as one-sixth of humanity is Indian.

We read about complex systems in an article of yours. Would you like to relate the ‘Social bookmarking sites” and “Blog Unconferences” to this paradigm?

Dr Mitra: Yes, they are all self organizing complex systems. I have two papers on the subject.

What are your views on the GOI rejecting the One Laptop per child grant? Do you agree with their arguments?

Dr Mitra: I don’t know their arguments. I don’t think one should accept or reject anything without first measuring their effectiveness.

What’s currently keeping you occupied?

Dr Mitra: Educational technology, self-organising systems etc.

My interview at BhashaIndia

bhasha-indiaI had a nice chat recently with Bhasha India people on Indibloggies and Indic Blogging scene (although they spelled Indibloggies wrongly throughout in the published version). Bhasha India is doing a great job of proving knowledge and tools to disseminate the use of Indian languages over the internet. Do read it over here. Noted Hindi blogger Ravishankar Shrivastava was kind enough to publish a Hindi translation of the interview at his Hindi blog. Thanks to Bhasha India and Ravi!

Strong infrastructure a must to market MP as IT destination: Avinash Sethi

India’s software industry is reaching its adolescence and facing challenges from several directions. While the main appeal of quality and low-cost service remains in place, price does not remain the only issue now. Customers are demanding more sophisticated services from their Indian outsourcers.

At the same time multinational competitors like IBM and Accenture have been nipping at their heels. With easy gains becoming a thing of past for the software organizations here Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Avinash Sethi, co-founder of Indore based software firm Infobeans to know the challenges a middle-sized company based at MP faces.

An Electrical Engineer from SGSITS, Indore Avinash began his stint with Tata Consultancy Services as a trainee. In 1998 he joined Intel Corporation, Oregon. The very next year he returned to Indore and launched e-Infotech along with his friends Mitesh Vohra and Siddarth Sethi, fulfilling the dream of building a software services organization of their own. In the year 2000 e-infotech was re-introduced as Infobeans.

Tell us in brief about Infobeans and its products. How would you classify the products and services?

Avinash Sethi
Avinash Sethi
InfoBeans is a dream conceived by 3 young enthusiastic entrepreneurs during their college time. We are a web-based solutions provider catering to the corporate needs of Fortune 500 companies.

It took shape in the US, where all of us were working there and wanted to do something together for Indore and at Indore. While working for our respective companies in the US, we started AaapkaIndore.com, a web portal dedicated to Indorians all over the world. Since its inception this e-Commerce portal has been immensely popular with the NRI community and helps them in staying connected with the pulse of Indore. Our other products include QGen, a questions paper generator software and RMS – a resource management system aimed at small and medium corporate.

As of now, Mitesh is taking care of all business development activities of InfoBeans in the US while Siddartha came back to Indore in 2002 to help the company get on the fast track.

What technologies is Infobeans currently working on? Is it easy to find trained manpower in these areas?

We have been working on varied technologies involving .Net Framework, J2EE and XML technologies for client server and web applications as well as Windows CE and Blue-tooth environment for wireless applications. It is certainly not easy to find right candidates in above skills in Indore. Recently we had to hire candidates from Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai in order to meet our growing needs.

As a long term solution to this scarcity of quality manpower we are planning to offer training focused on industry needs. This would be open for everyone who is interested in learning from experts in the trade. This is based on our belief that the skills that our company has gathered over the years should be shared with budding software engineers of the city. Our training programs would assist them in getting acquainted with the real world problems in the software engineering space.

Talking of your portal, how do you evaluate the challenges in terms of the size of Internet advertising market in India and bandwidth issues?

At aapkaindore.com we learnt to face the challenges of constantly changing customer requirements and maintain ease of use with increasing complexity while keeping the security implementation in mind. Internet Advertising is not that significant in India owing to the low Internet usage. Internet does not come that cheap and at the same time it is hopelessly slow. Bandwidth thus would be the next step in Internet revolution in India. Ample bandwidth is a must if one intends to meet the growing needs of users.

Performance of most of the IT companies last year, including the top players like Infosys, was insipid if not dismal. How tough is it for medium sized companies like yours to survive in these turbulent waters?

It is equally tough. A distinct edge that we have over large corporations is that we can address changing client requirements quickly and efficiently. Our customers work with us because we are always there to help them in their hour of need.

Many domestic software players have got into the business process outsourcing domain, does InfoBeans have any plans to follow suit?

Yes we have plans to venture into BPO. We shall float a separate division as it’s a different business altogether.

What sets InfoBeans apart from its competitors?

Our vision – Customer’s success defines our success. We want to go beyond just customer satisfaction. We want to help our customers succeed in achieving their goals.

Your marketing base is in US while the workforce is based here in Indore. So how does the information flow in terms of data and material happen?

Internet! It is such a wonderful channel for information flow. In case of urgency the telephone is always there. Visits to the US are also required for requirements gathering, client interaction, and product deployment.

What advantages and disadvantages does Indore have for a software development company?

Talking of advantages I might include a peaceful and friendly social environment, low cost of living and a good telecom infrastructure. Among disadvantages – scarcity of trained manpower, poor power infrastructure and lack of IT initiatives both from Government and local IT forums.

How do you compare the IT initiatives of MP Government to those of other state governments say Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka? What are your expectations?

Nothing compared to what you see in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Indore can become a IT hub. To do that, the government must market MP as THE IT destination while providing uninterrupted power supply, direct transport connectivity with major IT cities in India and by building state of the art IT park.

Tell us something about your growth plans, investments proposed and any interesting upcoming project.

We have identified three areas of growth for InfoBeans for next 2 years: Software services, BPO and IT Training. Presently we are working on a Conference Management Tool for Deutsche Bank. It is going to be used in huge conferences hosted by Deutsche Bank around the world.

Lastly, your comments on the current Indian IT scenario.

I’m positive about the overall IT scenario. India plays a significant role in global IT outsourcing and would continue to do that for decades to come. Post 9/11, IT spending was adversely affected. Today, almost two years later, both global and US economy seems to be back on track. Companies are looking at IT as a growth driver and IT spending is again looked at as a wise investment.

BPO is the next big thing that is catching up fast in India. That is another IT opportunity that would generate employment for millions of college going crowd. In cities like Bangalore and Mumbai a graduate in any stream gets to the tune of 10-15k per month as starting salaries in call centers. No other industry can offer this kind of salaries and glamour to a non-professional graduate.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 14 July 2003]