How an experiment in India brought internet to African children

June 20, 2017 1:07 pm Last Updated: June 20, 2017 1:07 pm

“Nobody knew what the internet was.

Then a woman looked at me and said ‘I’m a teacher. Are there lesson plans on the internet?’

I said, ‘What do you teach?’ She said ‘fifth-grade science.’ So we looked up fifth-grade science lesson plans and reams and reams of material came up of course.

And she started to cry.

And the group closed in around her and comforted her. I didn’t know why she was crying. I waited until she took a breath and she said, ‘For fifteen years I’ve been teaching with no books, and no chalk, and no lesson plans.

Now I have the opportunity to give my students what they deserve.'”

Katrin Macmillan showing a teacher how to find lesson plans on the internet. (Youtube/Projects for All)

It was that inspired moment between Katrin Macmillan and a teacher that broke a barrier, and put them both in a position of complete realization of what access to the internet could bring to their worlds.

They began to realize that children who had nothing could, through the innovative internet hubs Macmillan was building, access the world.

Broadcast for the first time in 2013, over 2.5 million people have watched a TED Talk Sugata Mitra gave about the “Hole in the Wall.”

Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, detailed a project that could provide a great deal of education to a great many children. Young children can easily figure out how to use a computer—and teach other children how to do it—so what else could children teach themselves given the opportunity?

He put computers into walls in the slums of India, and children turned to them for learning.

His proposed solution was that just by providing access, children could be inspired to further their own education. Children are naturally curious, he explained, and the internet will show you how to do things.

“In 9 months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language would reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West,” Mitra said.

Roland Wells, Founder, CEO, and COO of a human rights non-profit organization, was one of the 2.5 million viewers. He saw that this was a way to create a “school in the cloud.”

Wells put the plan into action with a first location, and it was a great success.

Yes, children who had never had access to the internet before, once given access, not only met the standards set in Professor Mitra’s research but exceeded them.

This was the catalyst for a “school in the cloud,” as Wells called it, but the idea remained really just a concept until Macmillan came across this Ted Talk video and got inspired. Mitra, too, knew that he could never have done it on his own, and had put out a call to action in his talks.

Macmillan then founded Project Hello World to turn this idea into reality, with a goal of reaching thousands if not millions of children.

Hello World started with an outdoor Internet kiosk, powered by solar energy: The “Hello Hub” was invented.

Every Hub came packed with applications and educational software. Networked via WiFi, Hello Hubs gave children and teachers unlimited access to the most current technologies available.

“What does it mean? It means you could ask them anything,” Mitra said.

“I have asked 9-year-olds, ‘What is the meaning of quantum entanglement?’ and got back a reasonable answer within 25 minutes.”

“You would ask, ‘are they really capable of reading adult-level stuff?’ By a strange mechanism, in groups, they can,” Mitra said. “I’ve seen it grow question after question after question.”

The Hubs created opportunities that had not existed in their lives before then.

The possibilities were exciting and had the potential to impact entire communities. The students and families suddenly had a window to the world that connected them through state-of-the-art technology. Children who had no formal schooling found themselves in a position of hope through a new tool of education.

“Invariably, these are some of the poorest people in the world,” Macmillan said. When Hello World enters a new neighborhood to break ground and install hubs, the people are puzzled, and say, “But we have nothing, look around you.”

She asks them to use the sand and the gravel to make cement and wood to make the base. The community realizes they can do more and invest more than they had previously imagined. It’s empowering.

“It’s not a trivial issue; it’s about ownership and respect,” Macmillan said.

In Kidubuli, Uganda, many work in the hospitality industry, but not always at fair wages.

Inspired to improve the lives of people in his city, tour guide Emmanuel Tuhairwee decided to start his own company.

When Hello World entered Kidubuli in 2015, he reacted with skepticism.

“How can we have Internet if we don’t even have power?” he asked. Internet was expensive, and the people of Kidubuli are poor.

Then he attended a community meeting—the Hub went up, and he was able to see for himself. He used Skype, he used web search. He saw others get inspired, and possibilities start to grow.

Now he uses the hubs to run his business and maintain the website.

Happy Dennis, a farmer in Kidubuli, has wetlands and wanted to enter the fishing industry.

“If I got the knowledge, I can practice good things,” he said during the construction of one of the earlier Hello Hubs in his city. “And the youth, they can see how I have started that project and they get the knowledge how to start their own jobs. It will fight poverty in Africa.”

Hello World did not come without challenges.  It was new and it represented change. The ultimate goal was to engage communities in a sustainable effort to share this powerful tool openly with all and provide a way to fill the education gap that had been caused by the deprivation of modern technology.

This short video (below) demonstrates an achievable solution to empower and educate through existing technology that was previously only available to those in developed areas of the world.

Because Hello Hubs are still relatively new, a partnership between Project Hello World and SOLE Central was created to provide consistent evaluation and data that will help track progress and make improvements to the system. In order to remain sustainable, it is vitally important that every effort is made to demonstrate and prove its success in ongoing collected data.

“This partnership is proof that sometimes all it takes to create real change is to respond to a bold call for a better world,” Macmillan said.

“I saw Sugata Mitra on TED and, even though I didn’t know at that point how to reach a feasible system for universal education, I knew that we had to try. So we set out to answer Sugata’s challenge to reach all children with a ‘school in the cloud’. Three years and five Hello Hubs later, we can say that we are on our way to achieving that goal”

Watch the story below:

Watch Macmillan’s Hello World project video below: