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A few weeks ago, Projects For All and partner Avenues: The World School presented at the SXSWedu Conference in Austin, Texas. The organization and the school teamed up to examine ways in which high quality education can be brought to children who have limited or no access to traditional schooling.

We asked the team to tell us more about their collaboration, current projects and the road ahead – and what makes the SXSWedu crowd an interesting audience to connect with. Read on for our conversation with Project Hello World manager, Drew Edwards; Avenues senior research scientist, Julia Higdon; Avenues research and development associate, Austin Volz: and COO of Projects For All and co-founder of Project Hello World, Roland Wells.

Children in Busawula, Uganda, sharing the screens at their Hello Hub.

Children in Busawula, Uganda, sharing the screens at their Hello Hub.

Your teams recently presented at SXSWedu. Could you give us a quick overview of your panel, Learning from Children in the Most Remote Places?

Julia: 263 million children around the world do not have access to education. At SXSWedu we wanted to show how we’ve been working together to answer one question: What are we going to do about it? We presented an online project that we tested with children in Uganda using the Hello Hubs, which was to create weather measurement tools and to collect weather data. We wanted to learn more about how, with minimal direction from adults, children might engage with projects and learn through the Hubs.

Roland: Through our research partnership, we were able to explore ways to provide an online education for children in under-resourced and marginalised communities and how to best support them in their learning. At SXSWedu we were able to share some initial findings from our research – and they were promising.

Julia: Indeed! Our research showed that children can complete projects and can learn through the Hello Hubs, and we were excited to show the audience a video (below) that some of the students uploaded showing off the amazing weather tools they built with the resources they had on hand.

At a community center in Katale, Uganda, a student discusses her newly built wind vane with Austin.

At a community center in Katale, Uganda, a student discusses her newly built wind vane with Austin.

Hello World, the project behind the Hello Hubs, is innovative and likes to differentiate itself from other educational development projects out in the field. Having a top school like Avenues on their side makes them stand out even more. How did the audience react to such a team and its ambitious goals?

Roland: People showed some real excitement about Hello World and our research in self-directed education. The idea of children being in charge of their own learning is very powerful – and not something that is picked up by many other development projects.

Austin: The audience was also very engaged. One teacher wanted to know how she could help and even offered for her students to fundraise for the project. Other questions were feeling out our relationship to the communities, asking who decides what Internet content is appropriate – they do – or if we lock up access to the computer components — we don’t!

Roland: Our community-led approach – which is guided by respect, trust and local ownership – is indeed unique, and people were very keen to find out more.

Julia: What we’ve learned from working with Hello World is that it is important not to parachute into a community or culture with a particular technological solution and expect results from that. The right approach is a thoughtful, respectful partnership and an ongoing process of research and development. Throughout the presentation, we were careful to emphasize the importance of community engagement with building, owning, using, making decisions about, and maintaining the Hubs. We knew that the audience at SXSWedu would likely have helpful insight and experience, and we invited anyone to contact us if they had ideas about research, design or development.

Drew: People came up to us after the presentation and were surprised that we are in different teams; they thought we work so well together! This shows the chemistry between us and Avenues and the common vision we share. Avenues has very interesting curriculum perspectives and we have really interesting development perspectives. We complement each other and that is why we are such strong partners.

The panelists speaking at SXSWedu.

The panelists speaking at SXSWedu.

SXSWedu aims to foster innovation in learning by hosting a passionate and diverse community of stakeholders from the education sector. Why was it important for you to be present at this conference?

Austin: Our goal for the conference was to share our approach. We are focusing on enabling students all over the world to learn. We think that schools are one way to do that – but not the only way. To discover those ways we use a research and development approach, leaving behind assumptions and instead testing potential solutions.

Roland: Meeting with others who are dedicated to ending the education gap and improving the quality of education is important for Hello World. It’s a huge task, so any opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate is important. Speaking about our work is a great way to get feedback and hear any challenges or questions on our work and process. This also helps us grow and improve. Reaching every child is a big goal, and SXSWedu is known for featuring and attracting projects and people on the leading edge of tech, design and education.

What are your teams working on at the moment and what are the next steps?

Drew: The main research question that we’re continuing to work to answer is whether children can learn in a self-directed environment – and first findings suggest that they definitely can. But how can we ensure that children actually complete projects if we leave them to their own devices? Avenues is currently testing possible incentives that help kids to complete more projects.

Julia: In addition to that we’re also defining more learning outcomes and developing ways to measure learning through the Hubs. Their informal nature and the learning that takes place at the Hubs present real challenges from a research perspective that we’re currently excited to take on.

The team poses before their presentation.

The team poses before their presentation.

What is the timeline of the collaboration between Hello World and Avenues, and what are your mid- and long-term goals?

Austin: One of our mid-term goals is to show that, with the support of their communities, children can and want to use the Hello Hubs to learn through our platform, Avenues Online.

Drew: We want to make this online platform accessible to as many people as possible in marginalised and remote communities, but also in refugee camps where many thousands of children are waiting for a chance to have an education. Hello World is the delivery mechanism for Avenues Online. Pulling this off is an ambitious goal but we know it is feasible.

Julia: Our goal is simple: We want to provide all children with the best possible education so that they can learn. And when we say all, we mean all. And when we say the best, we mean the best. We’re serious and it might take a long time. But in the meantime, we’re thrilled about each new discovery that we’re making through our partnership and research.

Roland: We are hoping to lead the way with this research, and show how and to what extent children can learn when they have access to a Hello Hub. We have a long way to go and our ambitions are high. But we feel that our strong partnership can take us there faster and with much greater impact.

Our researchers would love to hear from you. If you would like to contact us, please email research@avenues.org and hello@projecthelloworld.org.

This interview was conducted by Monika Hubbard, director of communications, Projects For All, and Jennette Mullaney, communications and social media manager, Avenues: The World School.