TED prize winner Sugata Mitra. Photo: AFP/ TED
When Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a slum wall in India, he had no idea it would later win him $US1 million to build a school on the internet that could spur an education revolution.
Dr Mitra, 61, was last week awarded the top TED Prize to pursue the promise of building virtual schools on the internet, where young minds can learn, unfettered by adult teachers.
Dr Mitra's journey to the prestigious TED gathering in the Southern California city of Long Beach began more than a decade ago in Kalkaji, Delhi, when he stuck a computer in a slum's wall to see what children would do with it. His work inspired the novel Q&A, which was turned into the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.
"I bumped into this whole thing completely by accident," Dr Mitra said in February at the TED gathering when pitching for the prize. "I used to teach people how to write computer programs in New Delhi, 14 years ago. And right next to where I used to work, there was a slum. And I used to think, how on Earth are those kids ever going to learn [how] to write computer programs?"
It was then that he decided to make a hole in the boundary wall of the slum next to his office and stick a computer inside it "just to see what would happen if I gave a computer to children who never would have one, didn't know any English [and] didn't know what the internet was".
The "Hole in the Wall" experiment was later made into a documentary, which first aired in 2002.
After deflecting a few questions from children passing by about the introduction of the computer, Dr Mitra returned several hours later to find that they had learnt how to browse the internet on it.
The results shocked him. "We found them browsing and teaching each other how to browse. So I said, 'Well that's impossible, because - How is it possible? They don't know anything."
It was then suggested by a colleague that perhaps one of Dr Mitra's computer programming students had taught the children near the slum how to use a keyboard and mouse. It was possible, and so he did the same experiment again in a remote village hundreds of kilometres out of Delhi, where it was unlikely a person with computer knowledge could help children out.
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