Interview with Katrin McMillan, CEO, Hello World: PART TWO
Charley Rogers continues her chat with Katrin about worldwide access to education, and edtech’s role in its development
Name: Katrin McMillan
Job title: Founder and CEO, Hello World
Hello World deploys Hello Hub kits to communities in need of educational resource. Communities learn to build, use and maintain the hubs themselves, so that they can continue to gain benefit long after the Hello World team has departed.
Each Hub provides wifi internet access, and is loaded with educational resources such as apps and games, in relevant languages. The hubs have weatherproof touch screens for easy interface, and are available 24/7.
CR: You mentioned when we spoke before that often well-meaning philanthropists build schools in developing countries without providing ongoing support. But Hello World seems very different in that respect – it works continuously with communities. How does that work?
KM: In an ideal world, every child would have a nurturing, creative school with a well-educated, well-qualified, safe teacher, and the resources to test and play, learn and experiment, explore and stretch their imagination and ability as far as it can be exercised. But that’s just not possible.
Even if you combine every penny out there for educational resources, and applied it to schools and teachers worldwide, you wouldn’t come close to even scratching the surface of the scale of this problem.
And yes, you’re quite right. Philanthropists in general went to school, they had a post-industrial educational model, which was good enough for them. And they think it’s right for every other community, and very often don’t take into account the basics of the reality of the situation, which is that teachers often won’t stay in difficult places, it’s very hard to maintain the cost of running a school, and it’s very hard to get resources to these areas. And there is a giant teacher deficit anyway. So even finding a well-qualified teacher is problematic.
It is easier to imagine an education system like the one we had, and it’s a stretch for a lot of people to really engage with the possibility of education technology. And frankly, when I started pitching Hello World eight and a half years ago, people thought it was just lunacy. The marketplace has really changed since then, but it would have been very amusing to have been a fly on the wall in some of those early discussions.
I think we take a very patriarchal approach to development, and I think that’s disrespectful, problematic and unhelpful. Worldwide. I also think that our own education system in the UK is problematic. We haven’t learned to adapt the way that children are taught very quickly. We’re still asking them to memorise, when in fact, we know that they’ll grow up and never be more than a few inches from an unbelievably high-powered computing device that means that they don’t need to know things off by heart. And that actually, what they need to know is how to discern real news from fake news, reliable research from unreliable research. So I think there’s a way to go in our own educational system as well, to help children build resilience for a new workforce, and a new way of learning.
CR: I hear this a lot, that in fact our education system in the UK is completely fit for purpose, but the purpose has changed – the world no longer works the same way it did during the industrial revolution. And what I find particularly interesting is that in some places in the world, it has never worked like that.
KM: That’s such an interesting point, because it’s a bit like when we talk about leapfrog technology. In the developing world, there’s no need to repeat a lot of our archaic practices and technologies – they could leapfrog the landline, for example – and bypass some things that we had to go through.
The same should apply to education. It just has to. If you can do basic arithmetic, and you believe that every child has the right to, and deserves, education so that they can shape their future, then you know it’s not possible. That will tell you that a new paradigm is essential, and that we have to get creative. And maybe being forced to get creative might mean that we can do [education] better for [students in developing countries] than we’re even doing it for our own kids. My kids don’t know how to engineer an outdoor solar-powered internet-connected computer hub. I wish they did, but they don’t.
That’s what kids should be learning – they should be learning useful skills and being asked to play leadership roles from a really, really young age. They should be allowed to explore their interests and not be taught to stop at the end of the curriculum. Being allowed to do a deep-dive into things that really fascinate them, and being given the tools to do so, would be ideal for kids, wherever they’re from.
CR: One of the biggest talking points in UK edtech at the moment is questioning the place and usefulness of assessments and certification. Is that something that these children will need to get jobs in their countries?
KM: That’s such a good question, it really is. Very often I think most testing is completely obsolete, stressful and unnecessary, and it hadn’t occurred to me that qualifications would be something that were useful.
But quite often communities say, “How can I get a certificate to show that I’ve done Hello World?” And the answer is that you can’t really. You can go onto the Open University and do courses, and we have lots of young people taking formal online courses so that they have certification. We have kids at the University of Kampala doing all of their studies at a Hello Hub that’s just outside of Kampala because they don’t have computers of their own. And even if they do have computers, sometimes they take them to the Hub because they can’t afford internet. So it does play a role in these peripheral ways.
In Nigeria, we sort of ended up inventing a certificate that said anyone who had participated in the build of Hello Hub had sort of ‘graduated’ Hello World. It just said that you have participated in the build of the Hello Hub, and people were thrilled with that because it was a kind of status, or something they could present to a potential employer. And I’m fine with that, because most of them learned really incredible engineering skills, and made very dedicated investments.
But I see Hello World as I see other issues with certification, achievement and formal, measurable attainment; the tests are often wrong. And what’s interesting, where it relates very heavily to Hello World, is that our funders and the international community ask us to prove what children are learning.
Now, I assumed, naively, early on that it wouldn’t be too hard. And when we do literacy and numeracy tests, their scores, and their ICT scores, are vastly improved. But quite often donors want us to relate that to the national curriculum, or international curriculums. But kids are learning to read and write, to become numerate, and to be good researchers and problem-solvers. But they’re also learning how to build irrigation systems to avoid annual flooding, to reinforce their houses so they don’t melt in the monsoons, to make cement in a more effective way, how to plant and when to plant, they’re looking at the weather to figure out crop cycles. So they’re problem solving in ways that are incredibly practical and useful, and have a real economic impact. And it’s really difficult to measure that.
So now we’re partnering with a social impact organisation called 60 Decibels, who are speaking to every member of the Hello Hub community who wants to participate – and so far everybody does – to find out what value they find in their Hello Hub. And the results are so much more interesting and inspiring than a reductive ‘how many kids are getting the equivalent of a GCSE?’ If that’s what you’re looking for, then I don’t know if this project is the right project. We’re doing something different.
CR: And what are some of the most striking impacts you’ve seen that aren’t necessarily measurable in conventional Western ways?
KM: We discovered that in one of the Hubs [in Nigeria], it was in use all through the night, and it didn’t really make any sense [to us]. There’s no other power in this community, there’s no street lighting, and it’s not a particularly safe place. It just didn’t make sense that it was in use quite as much as it was. We knew that it would be used a lot, but Sugata [Mitra, the inspiration for Hello World] never left his holes in the wall available through the night. We were a bit confused. So we asked one of our community support officers, Aliyu, to go down to the Hub at night and find out what’s going on. And [he found that] the orphaned kids who were living in the sewers and didn’t feel particularly welcome to use their Hub at the same time as all the other children, some of whom were already engaged in school, or had parents and meals, and some stability. So they were coming out of the sewers to use the Hub at night. So we said to Aliyu, “This is great news! Can you change your hours and be there at night for a few days a week?” And he did. He helped the children to unlock their proficiency, and to shortcut the system a bit and figure out how to access it a bit easier. And because they were getting more time at the Hub compare to the other children, they became everyone else’s teachers; because there were fewer of them they had more screen time, and they became really proficient really quickly.
When the sun came up and the other children would arrive at dawn, they were using it still, and with some real skill. Because they had no family obligations, they were there more, and became authorities and had a status in the community that they hadn’t had before. We learned to support them with Aliyu being there to make sure they were listened to, and those kids became literate. They were able to problem solve and research ideas for new businesses. It also gave them something to do and a safe place to meet and play. We realised it needed to be lit so we added really great lighting to every Hub all through the night.
So, there are so many examples of ‘unofficial’ impact that the Hubs have had, beyond all the testing that we do.
For more information about Hello World, visit their website at www.projecthelloworld.org