Global Learning XPRIZE Offers $15 Million in Ed Tech Competition to Help the Neediest Kids Teach Themselves: 5 Questions

Global Learning XPRIZE Offers $15 Million in Ed Tech Competition to Help the Neediest Kids Teach Themselves: 5 Questions
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Photo courtesy XPRIZE

This morning the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE is announcing a $15 Million Global Learning XPRIZE. The five year competition will challenge experts and leaders in science and technology to develop open source, scalable software to help children in developing countries learn.

There are 60 million kids in the world who have no access to school, another 2 million who to go school without being able to read or write, and another 100 million who throughout their primary school years still lack basic reading and mathematical skills,” Global Learning XPRIZE Senior Director Matt Keller told RealClearEducation. “We view this as a global failure.”

Teams will have 18 months to develop their software solutions to give those children tools to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. A panel of expert judges – pulled from across related fields like neuroscience, development, games and education, will then select the top five teams to advance to the next level of competition.

Those top teams will then be awarded $1 million to deploy their solutions in the field for 18 months across at least 100 villages in developing countries where English is a primary language, aiming to reach about 4,000 children. The software solutions will most likely land in areas of Africa and Asia like Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh and India, where enrollment in education is high, but literacy and access for girls is low, Keller said.

The $10 million grand prize will be awarded to the team whose software solution produces the greatest proficiency gains in reading, writing and math as tracked through the developed software solutions.

Founded in 1995, XPRIZE is a nonprofit seeking to solve global grand challenges for “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” by creating and managing large-scale incentivized prizes across learning, exploration, energy and environment, global development and life sciences. Perhaps best known for its Ansari XPrize a decade ago that catalyzed the commercial spaceflight industry, XPRIZE offers prizes across a range of domains. A $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE and $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE are among the current open competitions. The Global Learning XPRIZE is funded by a group of donors, including the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, the Anthony Robbins Foundation, the Econet Foundation, and the Merkin Family Foundation.

RealClearEducation talked with XPRIZE Senior Director Matt Keller about the new challenge. Keller was previously senior vice president of One Laptop per Child, leading the program’s literacy project in Ethiopia. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

How did the Global Learning XPRIZE develop?

This XPRIZE is modeled on the notion that kids around the world can teach themselves, and each other, how to read and write and do basic numbers. The call is for teams to create dynamic software and content that’s original, that can bring kids from a level of zero, or close to zero, to “x” over an 18-month period. The team that can bring that population of kids to the highest level of “x,” of literacy or proficiency, wins the prize. Our challenge is: Can you use technology as part of an answer in the context of education?

This is the first time that XPRIZE has issued an education challenge. Why now?

If you can help solve literacy in education, the effects of that are profound. We saw education as the key across multiple sectors – from environmental degradation to economic prosperity to better governance. At the same time, education is probably the biggest challenge that we saw in the human and social sciences. We’re also big believers in technology, and the two seemed to combine.

Who do you anticipate will compete – who are the people that comprise these teams? Are they students, engineers, educators, etc.?

We’re going to have people from all over the world. There’s a lot of neuroscience involved in this regarding how the brain learns to read and do math, so we’ll see people in that field. That’ll be combined with people who are really good at coding and storytelling. We want to bring these people together. Garage-based entrepreneurs will likely compete, as well as those embedded in research and universities. Places where you have people studying computer science, coding, education, economic and human development – those are perfect places where teams will form naturally. Professors, students, experts – a concentration of people will do this as a mission.

What kinds of “software solutions” are you looking for to achieve proficiency goals?

We’re hoping to see something like [artificial intelligence] that can perhaps anticipate a child’s learning trajectory, where a child can teach to it, that encourages peer-to-peer learning and self-learning. Maybe there will be some dynamic games where kids are learning but they’re not even aware that they’re learning because it’s just fun.

The bigger challenge beyond program design and creation for developing countries is maintaining the program after its inception. How does XPRIZE plan to do that – and how does it plan to measure the program’s effectiveness?

Our competition is for software. In the four-year interim period between registration and selecting the final winner the hardware side will have advanced and allow for even greater possibilities. The cost of tablets will go down to $20 or less each, and they’ll be affordable for communities and governments. New tablets – or some sort of device – will have been developed to be self-charging, self-healing and can withstand environmental degradation. So as the Global Learning XPRIZE is progressing, we’ll see huge progression on the hardware side that will allow a solution to come from this to scale.

We’ll provide tablets to the kids in this trial and they’ll be able to keep them. We want to work with the UN, host governments, the World Food Programme, and similar groups, to make sure that the children will have those tablets ready to go and to monitor progress. We want to be able to make these software solutions available to anyone who wants them.

Below, a video on the Global Learning XPRIZE:

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