Making the Whole Earth Internet Big Enough for Children

04/22/2015 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

When Projects For All set out to design an internet kiosk for school children in Suleja, Nigeria, experienced planners raised an important concern: How could they assure older boys would not monopolize the computers?

Nigeria represents 15 percent of the world's out-of-school children. Meeting a teaching shortfall, particularly in remote areas like Suleja, requires creative solutions. Recent experiments in minimally invasive digital education suggests that students with limited access to teachers can perform comparable to students in traditional classrooms when they have access to information and encouragement. For this to work, however, small details surrounding access are important. In Suleja, kiosk designers decided to lower the height of the seating and invite younger children to select colors. The hope was to cue older users into expectations of shared usage. For the most part, this seems to be working so far.

The work of Dr. Sugata Mitra, a pioneer of child-led digital education, is an inspiration to organizations like Projects For All. Over a decade ago, Mitra began by observing children in an Indian slum as they engaged an internet kiosk. Surprised by how well they learned on their own, he sought a means to improve performance with only limited adult intervention. For organizations who have built a track record implementing a variety of community-focused, bottom up initiatives, this methodology is good match. Context, design and community support serve to reinforce Mitra's ideas while playing to Projects For All's strengths.

While detractors of Mitra's work criticize his findings as "too good to be true," and argue unmonitored children are prone to vandalize equipment or are unlikely to share, they tend to overlook the important role context, community support, and design play. This is precisely why Project For All works closely with communities in designing and planning each hub in a manner which evokes a 21st century barn raising.

Project For All's approach is especially interesting when considered in relationship to other experiments in digital learning. Educational innovation has always been a focus and inspiration of a whole earth internet. In fact, the vision of a universal internet usually includes the representation of some kind of digital classroom of the future. While the ability for remote communities to access a wealth of information on every topic remains central, a highly designed Jetson-like access point might work against the student according to Mitra's research.

To understand the difference of these two approaches to digital education, one might compare the failed One Laptop Per Child program with a Project For All "Hello Hub." In one sense, it is somewhat problematic to compare these two ideas given that their foci are different -- but that may also be the point. Making use of widely available technology frees up resources to weigh often overlooked issues pertaining to basic access, like the height of seating. In other words, more bandwidth is available for the community itself.

An incorrect conclusion sometimes drawn from Mitra's work is that adults are not necessary or "undesigned" learning platforms are good-enough. Rather, it is more about emphasizing the importance of context and community in learning. When it comes to internet access, community is often seen as secondary to the larger project of building infrastructure. While it is understandable that billion dollar deals to launch a network of satellites into orbit grab headlines, the success of that effort, even the worthiness of it, often hinges factors that receive less attention. After all, while intensifying competition between the likes of Google, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to build a new space-based internet is important, it will all fail if we don't consider how to give even small children a place to sit.