News Column

'Hole in the Wall' Comes to Kenya

January 21, 2014

Brenda Okoth

About 15 years ago, Education scientist Sugata Mitra was working for a company called NIIT -- an education and training company, also a software development company in New Delhi, India. NIIT's plush office was surrounded by a boundary wall. Outside the boundary wall was a big sprawling slum. As he had access to a number of computers and broadband, Mitra had an idea.

"What I did was I broke an opening in the wall; put a glass pane and a computer monitor against the glass pane. It had a broadband connection set on vista which was the search engine at the time and a mouse embedded on the wall and left it there. It was set up three-feet above the ground. I then asked a colleague to go around and film anything interesting that would happen," Mitra said in a past TEDtalk interview.

Eight hours later, the machine imbedded in the wall drew the attention of an eight-year-old boy who had no prior computer knowledge. He used the mouse to search the web, while his six-year-old sister watched attentively.

"I got a lot of questions from my office on whether it would be productive or they would just break the glass and unplug the computer from the wall. I came back after two months and I found this eight-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl browsing the net. When they saw me they said, "We need a better mouse and a faster processor". Then I asked them how did you know about this and they said something very important that every educationist should know, "if you have given us a computer that only works in English, we taught ourselves English in order to use it." This is diagrammatically opposite to the adult perception of learning. An adult would say, you have given me a machine that works in a language I don't understand, therefore I cannot use it." Two negatives, the children converted it to two positives."

Mitra called this social experiment; The Hole in The Wall (HIW). The experiment aimed at proving that children could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Sugata termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated in many places. HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India.

This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespectively of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own with public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English. His publication was judged the best open access publication in the world for 2005 and he was awarded the Dewang Mehta Award for innovation in IT that year.

The Hole in the Wall experiment also left a mark on popular culture. Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup read about Mitra's experiment and was inspired to write his debut novel Q & A, which later became the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Mitra's work got the attention of Molly Macaire, a student at Marlborough College in England, after watching him on TEDtalk last year. "I remember him speaking on self socialisation systems where the structure system appears without explicit intervention from outside the system. The idea is if good schools cannot exist in a particular place, is it possible that we produce some kind of learning. Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent phenomenon. Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do. If children have interest education happens. Through my mother's work at Karura, we had interacted with members of the Huruma community neighbouring the forest. I knew that the children there had no access to a computer or internet. It is this that inspired me to set up a similar project in Kenya at the Huruma slums."

She shared her vision with her parents, former British High Commissioner Rob and Alice Macaire. Alice is a Patron of The Friends of Karura, the community forest association that was instrumental in getting Karura Forest fenced, secured and transformed Karura "from the dumping site for hijackers and murderers and illegal private developers" into a tourist destination.

With the help of her friends and family, Molly was able to raise enough money to buy one computer to start-up her project at the end of December 2013. The computer has been set up in the community church and the children working with Molly are under the supervision of an adult as they learn. The computers also have child protection, thus ensuring their safety while they are online.

"I have started with a small group of four nine-year-olds. I skype with them every day after school for a little bit and the better the children's learning gets, the longer the time of study. To begin I encourage them to play games so that they are comfortable on the computer. They have educational games set up for them, some even involve coding computers. So I start asking them general knowledge questions. Soon they start to educate themselves because they are browsing the net. This way they are not only learning English but increasing their world knowledge. When they are comfortable, I will set questions for them to see what they have learnt so far."

The self-learning project, Molly says, is not meant to replace school; it's supposed to be complementary. "For instance if they have a problem with a lesson at school, when they get to speak to me, they can ask for help in that. I already have friends of mine from school, who will be helping with the project. There are 1,500 children in Huruma, we have started with four but if we get more computers, we can work with more children," said Molly.

When deciding what computer to buy, Molly contacted her former teacher from Kenton College, Martin Muckle, who is now the Kenyan distributor of Aleutia computers. Aleutia is a UK-designed computer, the only one in the world made for the hot and dusty African environment.

"Aleutia's main feature is extreme energy efficiency, so they run on about 20 per cent energy consumption of a normal desktop and about 50 per cent the energy consumption of a normal laptop. It has a solid state system, meaning it has no moving parts. This means it is less likely to break down than devices that have mobile mechanisms.

"The computer is cooled by convention using low voltage processors direct from Intel so they have no need for a fan. Now the trouble with a fan in Africa is it tends to blow in lots of dust and that very rapidly destroys the machine. Also they use a solid state hard drive which makes it incredibly reliable. We are looking at local assembly of the computers here in Kenya.

"They are perfect for solar installation. For instance, if you were running a computer lab with normal computers for which you found you needed five solar panels and five batteries to get it going, with these computers, you could run your lab with one solar panel and battery. The savings in a solar environment are enormous," said Muckle.

With all these added benefits, the computer is priced slightly high than other desktops.

"The computer is Sh60, 000 plus VAT. If you were to look at a computer lab of about 10 or 11 our system would run on 350 watts. Normal computers that go for about Sh30,000-Sh40, 000 use about 1.5 to 2 megawatts. If you go to a shop and ask for solar panels or batteries for 2 megawatts, think how much you are going to spend in comparison to get those that can power 350 watts. One company we worked with were happy with our project. They told me how they had done a computer installation in Nothern Kenya and the desktops they took for use died in two days because of the dust. The trouble with these areas apart from the dust is the heat, so the computer fans have to work faster, drawing in dust and increasing the energy consumption."

Molly's vision is to expand the self-education programme by getting more computers and hopefully inspire more students around the world to get involved.

"Most of the money we raised, we used on the first computer and setting up the broadband to work. If we can get some sponsors to help buy more laptops then we can increase the number of children we work with. It's a wonderful initiative that I believe will help bridge the digital divide of underprivileged children. With IT literacy they will also have a platform wherein they can express themselves."

For more information on how to be part of the programme, please email


About Stonehouse Ltd

Stonehouse Ltd has been in Nairobi for the last four years. It supplies energy efficient technology and internet services to customers in Kenya and other countries in East Africa. Stonehouse is the sole distributor of Aleutia computers, the only computers in the world built specifically for Africa. Stonehouse has a very close business and personal relationship with Aleutia Ltd UK.

Stonehouse believes Kenya is in great need of IT development, particularly in education, and obviously Kenya has a very high solar regime. It has spent the last two years researching the various options before acquiring the exclusivity contract with Aleutia. The computers are not only for solar-powered use but their extreme energy efficiency makes them suitable for such a purpose. The computers are equally useful in mains environments where they cost less to use and last much longer on power back-up systems.

The Aleutia computers, as supplied in Kenya by Stonehouse, have been designed and built from the ground up for the African environment. The main benefits include:

Extreme energy efficiency -- It uses only one-fifth the energy of normal desktops. This extreme energy efficiency makes them the most cost effective solar-powered computer available.

- It has no fan meaning that no dust is sucked into the system (Aleutia buy parts directly from Intel that no other desktop manufacturer has access to that allows this aspect of the design).

- No moving hard drive meaning lower energy consumption and greater reliability.

- Simple maintenance with only six parts (two of which are the casing) and the ability to be dismantled with a single screwdriver.

- Small form factor means that they can be installed in an unobtrusive way and because they have no moving parts run completely silently.

Two projects that Stonehouse Ltd is very happy to have completed in Kenya are the equipping of a rural school near Naivasha with a completely solar powered computer laboratory exclusively for educational purposes, and the recent installation of a networked system running from a combination of mains and solar at a community centre near Nanyuki.

These two systems demonstrate the versatility of the devices on both usage and power. Stonehouse has also been able to provide stand-alone computers to offices in Nairobi who were actually losing business as a result of the frequent power cuts. The solution they provided included modest power backups that allow for uninterrupted use for around 15 hours.

The company is making plans for technological developments in the IT sector, particularly emerging hardware and applications.

The proprietor of Stonehouse Ltd Martin Muckle moved to Kenya in 1976 when he was 10. His father was the Project Manager Kenya for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation working to test small farm machinery in rural Kenya.

Martin Muckle spent all of his formative years travelling around Kenya learning about what technology worked in the African environment and what didn't, and the reasons why. These experiences in appropriate technology have left a deep and lasting impression on him and have formed a large part of his decision to market the Aleutia computers which are unparalleled in their suitability to the future IT development in Kenya.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: AllAfrica

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