While NIIT has become a household word in IT circles in more than two-dozen countries, the slum is a constant reminder that in the country that is in many ways powering the information revolution, there is a huge gap between the virtual and the real worlds.
As an experiment, NIIT's cognitive engineering researchers last year made a hole in the wall near the slum and installed a powerful computer connected permanently to the Internet there.
The computer was available for anyone to use.
The result was extraordinary. The slum children, many of whom had had no primary education, went over to check out the computer. There was no instructor on call; they were left to themselves.
Within five hours, one of them, Rajender, eight, had managed to find a Disney site. Within days, a group of children, aged five and 17, had figured out how to download Hindi‑film hits, Disney movie‑clips and cricket trivia.
The children also developed their own language for working on the computer because there was nobody to explain the terminology to them.
When it appears, the children know the computer is working on something.
MIT engineers withdrew the keyboard after it proved unable to stand the harsh use, and replaced it with a crude but sturdy joystick‑like apparatus.
To date, the slum children have created more than 1,000 folders.
THE POWER OF TECHNOLOGY
In the hot
summer afternoons, the sun falls on the screen and the computer is kept
covered and locked; in the long evenings, it is opened and the children
flock to it.
Sanjay, 13, told The Straits Times that most of them played games or checked newspapers online.
"If they give us a keyboard, we will be here all the time," said Sanjay. Both children were attending a nearby government school that does not have a computer.
The implications for a country like India are significant. Wherever governments have had the political will to farm out schemes to private operators, they have usually worked, Mr. Rasaili noted in a conversation with The Straits Times.
Dreams of applying IT to India's huge educational needs are still in the formative stage. Strategists at training institutes like the NIIT and in-state governments across the country are struggling to find ways to bridge India's education gap using the new technology.
The challenge is a formidable one.
NIIT is in many ways the engine of India's IT sector. It is the largest IT training institution in the world and among the projects it is involved in is Malaysia's Smart Schools program.
Significantly, the women in the slum outside the NIIT wall asked rhetorically whether having the computer available would bring them any food, and said they themselves did not have the "brains" to use the computer.
The answer could lie in the state of Tamil Nadu, which has been making strides in IT quietly while its neighbor Andhra Pradesh generates the hype and creates the crucial role‑model in its cyber‑savvy, notebook‑toting chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.
MORE ACCESS TO COMPUTERS
The institute renovated them, installed electrical and network cabling, air‑conditioners, uninterrupted power supply units, computers and printers, and deployed 742 teachers in the classrooms, which were spread all over the state, from big towns to small villages.
Each classroom was equipped with 10 computers and one server.
Clearly, he added, the technology has the power to transform the face of society. But the challenge of education, especially at the primary level where it is needed most, is enormous enough to warrant cautious optimism rather than blind euphoria.
The much‑bandied about potential of distance learning has been slow to take off, not only in India, but worldwide. The academic world has had problems in the areas of authentication and certification.
The role of the teacher and the classroom is not yet a thing of the past and may never be, considering the crucial importance of the element of motivation and inspiration that enliven the learning experience and make it necessary to attend a school rather than simply study an encyclopedia.
Students from a school in Bihar who aspire to be in one of the best schools in New Delhi, for example, can access the homework assignments and tutorials of a Delhi school and benchmark themselves.
About The Author:
Nirmal Ghosh is India Correspondent for Straits Times Interactive. Straits Times Interactive can be found at http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/
This article was published with permission from 2000 Singapore Press Holdings who hold Copyright with All Rights Reserved to this article.