Tech for good: Interview with Katrin McMillan, CEO, Hello World

Editor Charley Rogers talks with the CEO of edtech non-profit Hello World, Katrin McMillan, to discuss global access to education, and how technology is helping


Name: Katrin McMillan
Job title: Founder and CEO, Hello World
Twitter: @HelloWorld_Org


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.


Hello World background

CR: Katrin, thank you so much for sitting down to chat with me today. First of all, I was wondering if you could give a bit of background about Hello World? How did it get started?

KM: Hello World began eight years ago, when I was living in Nigeria.

There, as with so many places, the lack of schools and the gross education deficit was quite alarming. There were so many times that I visited remote communities to discover that well-intentioned philanthropists had built school buildings, but that there was no ongoing support to resource those schools; no books, no chalk, often no teachers, and as often as not no students in them either.

I was working on multiple development and community projects, but I became increasingly preoccupied with this education deficit. And I had a feeling that technology had something to do with solving it, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

Around that time, I moved to live with the Hamar tribe [in Ethiopia], who are arguably the most marginalised people in the world. There, as in so many places before, I discovered a derelict school building and a community on the brink of extinction.

I became increasingly preoccupied with this education deficit. And I had a feeling that technology had something to do with solving it, but I wasn’t quite sure what.

When I sat with them, and talked to them about what they needed, they said, as in pretty much every community before, “Well, we need money”. And I said, “okay, that makes sense. So how you going to achieve that?”

“We need to work,” they said.

That’s a different concept for this particular tribe, to enter economic activity. They don’t use the national currency. So I asked, “How are you going to work?”
“We need to speak the national language.”

“That’s a good start. How you going to do that?”

“Well, we need education.”
And when you boil down every conversation in these contexts, it came down to education.

But there are no teachers that will stay with the Hamar in this remote and harsh part of the planet. In all of the hardest parts of every single country in the world, there is a brain drain and a lack of teachers. It’s the same in the UK, you go to some of the most difficult places and you find that there, it’s hard to retain teachers. And you can’t blame teachers. You can’t blame those who are working in the Eastern DRC for crossing the border to work in Rwanda, given an opportunity. You absolutely can’t blame them.

So, with a 69 million teacher deficit, and hundreds of millions of kids going with no access to education, and as many – if not more – receiving incredibly poor-quality education with under-qualified teachers, and under-resourced schools, we have an education emergency on our hands.

Yet we widely tout that education is a human right. But the development decisions that we’re deploying to attack this problem don’t seem to be taking into account the scale of the emergency. We need something affordable, we need something world-class, and we need something scalable.

Eight years ago, it struck me that technology was the way to tackle the problem. And it was around that time, having spent this time living with the Hamar tribe, that I came across Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk into his research and the ‘hole in the wall’. Now, it’s not a development project, the hole in the wall, it’s just a research project. He was trying to prove that children can’t become autodidactic in the absence of schools and teachers, and yet the children smashed his expectations, and took their ability to learn and explore so much further than he had imagined. So I gave him a call. And after a few attempts, he took my call.

I told him what I was trying to figure out. And he told me very generously what he had learned, what hadn’t worked in his project, what needed to be fixed, where they’d stumbled, and over the course of a few conversations, a plan for Hello World was hatched.

Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk from 2010

Educational challenges

CR: The community, then, is essential in making sure an educational project takes hold. And each community has its own challenges. What kinds of challenges is Hello World dealing with?

KM: The idea was, that children who didn’t go to school needed access to rugged screens in outdoor spaces. A lot of the kids I’ve worked with over the years are homeless and living in sewers, and don’t feel particularly welcome in some community spaces.

We wanted rugged touchscreens, loaded with educational software connected to the internet, in an open community space. It would be open to the elements, so it had to be dustproof and rainproof, and able to withstand children using it, on average, 18 and a half hours a day.

And the idea was to really test self-directed learning. The concept was that we would not build Hello Hub, we would teach the children and their community how to build one for themselves. And the reason for that is that then they’ve made an investment in it, they’ve learned really important engineering skills, they’ve had lots of time to have conversations about what it is, why it’s coming to their community, who it’s for, who’s responsible for it, and how it can be used. And they’ve learned how to repair and maintain it at the same time.

And you know, it’s the IKEA effect. It’s been well documented that if you assemble your own IKEA kit, you think it’s worth a lot more than something that is identical but was pre-assembled for you. And so with that kind of investment, a community has some skin in the game. That, I think, has proved to be critical; essential to the success of Hello World.


Hello World’s mission statement

Hello Hub success stories

CR: Hello World certainly has been successful. What are some of your favourite success stories so far?

KM: We’ve been working with a social impact organisation called 60 Decibels, who are speaking to every member of the Hello Hub community about what value they find in their Hub, so that report should be coming out soon. But aside from that, one that’s on my mind at the moment is that I just put a team together in Uganda to scale building 14 Hubs from October, and even more next year. So we’re in the process of scaling, and in order to do that we’ve built a most exceptional team. Two of the team members are Tabu and Hilary. Hilary was our driver on the first Hello World build in Uganda, about six years ago. The first day he came along, dropped us off, and we said, “why don’t you spend the day doing other jobs, and you can pick us up later.” So he did. But the next day he dropped us off, and was curious about what we were doing, so he ended up hanging around for the whole day and participated in the build. We’ve since supported him to do electrical engineering at university, and he is in the Hello World team. He was educated at Hello Hub, and the same is true of Tabu.

When Tabu was a teenager, he had heard about [something going on] and walked a couple of hours to a village called Kidibuli. When he got there, he saw a group of white people working on something with the community and it was very busy. So he hung around and came back every day thereafter, and to every build we did in nearby communities. He’s also now been to university and done engineering. [Hilary and Tabu] are both very skilled engineers, and community support officers for Hello World.

Tabu comes from a really difficult background, and the odds were stacked against him in ways he would have to decide to tell you about, but he would say his life has been defined by Hello World. But most of all, I have this exceptional team. And because they’re educated at Hello Hubs, they are the right spokespeople to grow the project, they can do it better than me, they have the right languages, and the right cultural understanding. And they understand better than I do what Hello World is capable of, because they’ve been educated at the hubs.

For 15 years I’ve taught in this school with no books, and no chalk, and no way to really help my children. And I didn’t know that everything I needed to give them a chance was in the air.
– Teacher and Hello Hub user in Nigeria

Another of the stories I’ve told a lot is the day I realised that Hello World is for teachers as well as out-of-school kids. It was in Nigeria, at the first Hub build. Around the build of every hub we run a women’s group, and it’s very hard to explain what the internet is to a community that as often as not, has never heard of it.

I was doing a very bad job of trying to explain what it was and eventually gave up and said, “tomorrow, think of a question to bring and we’ll ask the internet those questions.” The next day they did, and once they’d got their confidence, the questions started coming thick and fast. There was a huge variety of questions – wanting to see what snow looks like, what Nigeria looks like, a lot of questions about maternal and family health. But then one woman said, “This internet, does he know any lesson plans?” And it turned out she was a science teacher, and she was teaching the taste buds. So I said, OK, let’s look it up. And obviously reams of lesson plans on the taste buds came up, and as I was scrolling through reams of material, she started to cry. The group closed in around her, and I stood back. When she caught her breath, she looked up and said to me, “For 15 years I’ve taught in this school with no books, and no chalk, and no way to really help my children. And I didn’t know that everything I needed to give them a chance was in the air.” [She said the air] because I was talking about the internet as a kind of satellite in the sky.

That’s when we realised that the Hello Hubs have a place at schools as well as outside of them, and she taught us that.

One of the other stories I love is from a women’s group [we ran] in Uganda. Again I was explaining the internet, and this time I’d learned to just get people to ask questions rather than try and explain it in abstract terms. The women thought about it overnight, and they came with their question: “What is the national monument of Uganda?” And I thought, ‘oh, great question’. And it was a while before I realised that they didn’t want to know – they already knew – they wanted to check that the internet knew. So for the next 15 minutes, they tested the internet, and I thought that was so cool.

See part two of this interview here.

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