Awards 2001 The Worldaware Award for Innovation

The Worldaware Award for Innovation

This award is given to a company or organisation which has developed an innovative idea in, for example, medicine, technology, education or finance, with the proven potential to make a significant contribution to socially, economically or environmentally sustainable development.

Runner-up: NIIT Ltd.

The illuminated screen which appeared two years ago in the yellow wall on the edge of the Kalkaji slum in New Delhi stirred eight-year-old Rajinder's curiosity. Rajinder, second son of a mason, discovered that, if he ran his finger from left to right over the touch pad beside the screen, an on-screen arrow moved right. If he moved his finger down, the arrow moved down. And if he moved the arrow on to a symbol on the screen and pressed hard on the touch pad, a new display with new information appeared.

Rajinder and his friends discovered how to draw on the screen and how to create short messages without a keyboard. One day they found that one of the symbols gave access to the internet, and they could play Hindi film songs.

By this process, they mastered an on-line computer, even though they could not speak English and had limited knowledge of the Latin alphabet. They invented names for what they saw, such as sui (needle) for the arrow. They called up astrology sites for adults too nervous to use the screen themselves. Sugata Mitra, who works on the other side of the yellow wall, for India's third largest listed company NIIT Ltd, comments: "Rajinder is the Neil Armstrong of minimally invasive education."

Dr Mitra, NIIT's head of research who initiated Yellow Pages in India and Bangladesh, believes that the schools of the world have got it wrong for thousands of years. People do not naturally learn the way that teachers think they do. Schools teach, say, arithmetic and then show how this applies to shopping. The natural way is to start with the shopping, count the change and work backwards to an understanding of the arithmetic which brought this result. Dr Mitra calls this natural approach 'minimally invasive education' and he put the computer screen in the wall to show that it could work. It did. Without instruction, children living in a slum learned to operate a computer.

This attracted the interest of The Times of India which ran a story headed Rajinder Ban Gaya Netizen (Rajinder becomes a netizen). This in turn brought James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, to Kalkaji. Meanwhile, Rajinder, now ten, is in the fifth year at Ready-G-Welfare-Centre School, studying among other things science and English. He wants to be a scientist when he grows up because, he says, he wants to invent something new. Eighty children now use the Kalkaji computer.

After Kalkaji, Sugata Mitra set up a computer screen, with similar results, in Shivpuri in Central India, a town with few computer-users. Next he tried Madantusi, a North Indian village where no one had even seen a computer. At the school he and his colleagues installed a computer loaded with CD ROMs including games, films, music and educational material. He returned six months later to find that 20 children were proficient computer-users. They had worked out the meaning of English words such as 'close' and had learned to pronounce them.

Dr Mitra calculates that the cost of setting up a computer outdoors in India is around 3,000 including leasing an internet line. The running cost of 60 per child per year is under a third of the cost of conventional computer teaching with similar objectives. Delhi has set up 30 hole-in-the-wall computers. The ICICI Bank is setting up ten more in Western India. The World Bank is to pay for a further 100.

NIIT, which stands for National Institute of Information Technology, was founded in 1981 by Rajendra S.W. Pawar, Vijay K. Thadani and P. Rajendran who had studied at the Indian Institute of Technology. Their aim was to bring computers and people together.

With about 2,300 centres across the country, NIIT has trained two million Indians in computer skills. Half its business, however, is now in software development and half its revenues are from abroad. It operates in 38 countries.

The Judges say

NIIT's goal of successfully bringing computers and people together as a means for advancing development through IT education in India is both innovative and imaginative. The results so far of providing many poor children in India with access to computers have been exciting, showing that children can learn rapidly new technology skills and a familiarity with the English language. 'Learning through Exploration, Discovery and Adventure', and the particular application through setting up Internet 'hole-in-the-wall' kiosks, offer a realistic prospect of accelerated learning on a wide scale. Education is the key to unlocking development potential, and this project deserves recognition and support as a novel contribution to solving problems of mass education in developing countries.