Many mice per PC makes for more hands

Microsoft Research Lab India Pvt. Ltd. is piloting a technology with schoolchildren in a suburb of Bangalore that lets several computer mice be used with a PC simultaneously to make up for a shortage of computers.

A key problem at rural schools in India is that the number of students far outnumber the PCs in the classroom, said Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India. As a result, several students often have to use the same PC, and one child often monopolizes the computer, he said.

The concept of having multiple mice and cursors on a single PC has been researched for some time, although most efforts have been for non-educational purposes, Toyama said.

Using technology developed at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, under a project financed by Microsoft Corp., Microsoft Research India has developed a technology for such collaborative learning around a single PC, Toyama said.

The technology enables a number of mice to be connected to a PC’s (universal serial bus) port. “Just for the cost of extra mice we can multiply the value of the PCs that are in the school,” said Udai Singh Pawar, assistant researcher at Microsoft Research India. “The challenge is to design applications that get students to work together, and learning happens from that process,” he said.

Microsoft’s research group developed some sample instructional programs, including software that displays multiple cursors in different colors on the screen, Toyama said.

Other tools include a utility that keeps track of how each student does on an instructional program. The group also developed a voting mechanism that lets students switch to a different PC application only if the majority of them click their mice in favor, Pawar said.

Microsoft Research plans to release a software development kit on the Web to let developers create additional local content for schools. It is also talking to product groups at Microsoft that may be interested in incorporating the technology in their products, Toyama said.

Microsoft Research India, in Bangalore, is one of six research labs worldwide run by the Redmond, Washington-based software company.