XPRIZE Launches New Tech Competition Focused on Global Education

Associate Editor

The XPRIZE organization—which has focused its competitions in areas like commercial spaceflight, oil-spill cleanups, and building super-efficient vehicles—is for the first time sponsoring a worldwide competition in the area of education technology.

The $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, a competition challenging software-development teams to improve educational opportunities for millions of children, has drawn the largest pool of applications in its opening weeks in the event’s history. The XPRIZE organization was founded in 1995.

Applicants are asked to develop apps for use on tablets. Children will need to be able to use the apps to teach themselves basic literacy and numeracy, without any help from adults.

Teams of developers have until March 31 to register for the competition, which will unfold over five years. Already, in the first six weeks since the competition was announced in September, 240 teams from 52 countries had signed up. That is the largest response received in the history of the XPRIZE, which is run by the Culver City, Calif.-based XPRIZE Foundation, an educational nonprofit whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs that can bring worldwide benefits. The foundation does so by creating and managing large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prizes.

After the six-month registration period is over, registered teams will have 18 months to develop their solutions. Then, a panel of third-party expert judges will select the top five teams to proceed in the competition, each receiving a $1 million award.  A winning team will then be chosen, based on its ability to show that its technology results in improved achievement in reading, writing, and arithmetic among children with limited access to education.

Their software will be tested in the field across a minimum of 100 villages, reaching thousands of children over 18 months in the developing world. The testing will take place in a country where English is a primary language of instruction. The $10 million top prize will ultimately be awarded to the team that develops a technology solution demonstrating the greatest levels of proficiency gains in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Vast numbers of children around the world lack access to education, statistics show. Fifty-seven million children worldwide have no access to elementary school, and 250 million children do not learn basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2013.

“We will never build enough schools or train enough teachers to meet demand, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is needed,” said Peter H. Diamandis, XPRIZE chairman and CEO, in a statement at the time of the competition’s launch.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is underwritten by a group of donors, including the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, the Anthony Robbins Foundation, the Econet Foundation, the Merkin Family Foundation, Scott Hassan, John Raymonds, and Suzanne West.

A companion crowdfunding aspect of the prize raised more than $937,000—nearly twice its $500,000 goal on Indiegogo—to mobilize a global street team of supporters to get involved with the prize and expand field testing of submissions.

Education Week recently interviewed Matt Keller, senior director for the Global Learning XPRIZE, who is leading the XPRIZE effort in education. Previously, Keller led One Laptop per Child, a literacy project in remote Ethiopia that tested the theory that children from non-literate communities could teach themselves to read using tablets filled with applications designed for self-learning.

This is quite a departure for the XPRIZE competitions. What made the organization decide to delve into the field education?

The XPRIZE had, for a lot of years, thought about how to branch into social sciences, compared to hard sciences like space and ocean health. Technology in education is a relatively difficult and new space.

I had been doing work along with people at Tufts and MIT on a project in Ethiopia that posited….that children could teach themselves and each other how to read with just tablets. We used very rudimentary, off-the-shelf apps, and worked with about 50 kids total. The project showed enough promise to pique the curiosity of a lot of people.

Did it work?

No. First, we used apps in English. When children learn how to read, learning in your mother tongue is enormously more possible than learning to read in a second language. Also, we used rudimentary, off-the-shelf apps not designed for self-learning. But what we saw shaped our belief that it was possible.

Children organized immediately into self-learning communities. Kids would take the tablets and teach each other what was on them, which proved our belief that children are innate teachers, and that a great way to learn is to teach.

A few kids—outliers, to be sure—were at the cusp of early reading when we finished that project. Our thinking was: What if there was software and content in the mother tongue language, designed specifically for self-learning?

We all believe that would be transformational, and decided, let’s make it a competition and put a $15 million prize purse on it.

What language will the apps be developed in?

English and the local language where we test. As an example, if we distribute tablets to 4,000 children in Tanzania, and the local language is Kiswahili, we will develop the apps in Kiswahili and English, so they can be made available to the English-speaking world.

What age group do you want the apps to reach?

Ages 7 to 12.

What device will developers design for?

The platform will be an Android-based tablet. The teams’ submissions will all be open-sourced because we believe, at the end of this prize, it’s a public good and people should be able to localize it. The software will be disseminated to anyone who wants it.

What other results do you expect? 

We want attention focused on how we can get more kids to be able to fulfill their own potential. Even for kids here, if we can prove this, it could allow the device to be a mentor for those who fall behind in reading, for example, and might otherwise never catch up.

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