Imagine that you had lived your life up to this point never experiencing the internet. No smart phones, no online recipes, no Google searches or social media.
How much would your life change if, one day, you were connected to the online world?
The potential uses of internet access are abundant: education, job training, medical resources, advancements in farming and agriculture, communication with people across the world, all available at the touch of a button. For many communities, however, that online world is something out of science fiction. Women, children, and entire societies fly under the radar of education and international support simply because they live without access to the world’s information superhighway.
“165 million children around the world have no access to education,” writes Katrin McMillan, Founder and CEO of Project Hello World. “Even if we combined the entire global budget for education, it wouldn’t come close to reaching every child. The traditional approach to tackling the education deficit is not working. There are 69 million too few teachers to hit current education targets, that’s just targets. We need an affordable, scalable and world-class solution for ALL children, no matter where they were born.”
Project Hello World has a plan: a solar-powered digital education Hub where children can learn, and explore the world’s body of knowledge, right in the center of their community. Instead of “airdropping” a fully-built system into a community, Project Hello World works with the community to build Hello Hubs in places that are well below the baseline poverty index–where resources normally wouldn’t allow for these sorts of forward-thinking projects.
Community members invest time, meals, lodging for Project Hello World volunteers, and responsibility for their systems as the Hello Hubs take shape. As the Hubs are built from the ground up, the entire community learns about its maintenance, importance, and possibility.
“We move from a position of ‘I’m here because you’re going to give us something’ to ‘I helped build this, this is mine, this is ours,'” Katrin explains. “The community’s investment in their Hello Hub represents a group effort.”
Hello Hubs are free, community-centered educational centers with WiFi access to free, unlimited Internet. Used with tablets or mobile devices, they can be built as fully solar-powered geodesic domes, setups in school rooms, weather-proof wall inserts, and more. There are even capabilities for pedal power if a community doesn’t receive enough sunlight to power their Hub.
The goal of a Hello Hub is to connect children and other community members with the possibilities of the Internet–and develop educational programs that are as age- and culture-appropriate as they are forward-thinking.
However, every solution comes with its hiccups.
“As with every major development issue, women and girls are at the bottom of the pile still,” says Katrin. “My belief is that education is the only way to level the playing field for girls, and to change the way communities think about gender, sexuality, and marriage.”
The issues women face in accessing Hello Hubs stem not from a lack of interest, but from a lack of resources.
In her work with Project Hello World, Katrin noticed that the women in these communities tended to fade into the background when issues arose about time at the Hubs.
Part of this was an issue with self-confidence. “If there are smart devices in the community, women tend not to be the people in possession of them, so they tend to have less ICT literacy,” Katrin explains. “One other issue that is very, very tough to solve is that women have less time.”
In particular, difficulties arose surrounding conservative Muslim women spending time with men at communal Hubs. The solution? Designated “women’s hours” at the Hubs, planned for times when the men headed to the mosque. Over time, the community women successfully advocated for the time to be extended–again and again–and other communities found a solution in female-only tablets and screens.
In light of their successes, the Project Hello World team connected with female leaders in the communities they serve, gathering support with the men of the community and introducing new programs designed specifically for the benefit of women and girls.
For example, as part of the community building process, the team develops women’s groups, which give women in the community an organized structure to address issues of education and access, and incorporates training in digital devices for all ages–not just men and children. As women gain confidence in their own ITC skills, they develop more of an interest in the possibilities of the Hello Hub–and push harder for a seat at the table through their collaborative women’s groups. Project Hello World also introduces vocational skills training for women and girls, along with upcoming program partnerships with OneBillion and I Am The Code.
Hub Mothers, an upcoming program that will launch in March, utilizes Hello World’s distribution partnership with education leader OneBillion. OneBillion produces language-appropriate, culture-appropriate educational software and games for up to eighteen months of study. In the Hub Mothers program, Project Hello World will disseminate “onetabs” pre-loaded with OneBillion’s resources to 100 mothers in a community. The mothers stay in the program by gathering at the Hub once a week to charge their onetabs, discuss their progress, and address any questions or issues that come up with home education.
Project Hello World’s mentoring platform will also roll out later this year. In partnership with I Am The Code, Project Hello World will invite 30 Hub users to be mentored by a wider international network.
“That is something that will help us really support the brilliant, entrepreneurial go-getting women in Nepal and Uganda, and help get them the support they deserve,” Katrin says.
The potential for these Hello Hubs is huge, but funding and access for such a massive undertaking is understandably difficult. Currently, Project Hello World operates in Uganda and Nepal. The organization planned to expand into Afghanistan last year, until upheaval in the political climate made it too risky to move forward. And as always, the funding opportunities for an organization like this have been difficult to come by.
“It’s not an easy undertaking,” Katrin says. “It hasn’t been an easy sell, because people are skeptical about the role of technology in education. I hope that 30 years from now, stories like that will trickle back to me and I’ll know that it was worth it. All of these individual lives matter. The potential among these children is vast. We’re not hearing from them, we’re not able to unlock their potential, and that’s just criminal waste.”
To learn more about Project Hello World, visit their website at www.projecthelloworld.org.