Global Learning XPRIZE finalists chase $10M prize for literacy solutions

Lao schoolgirls read books. Photo by: Blue Plover / CC BY-SA

NEW YORK — An estimated 250 million children around the world cannot read. XPRIZE, a nonprofit organization that seeks to magnify impact through its incentive-based competitions, aims to solve that problem. The group believes that the key is not just to train more teachers, but to turn students into teachers themselves.

The five finalists for the Global Learning XPRIZE — a $15 million competition financed by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk — were announced at the Social Good Summit in New York on Sunday, held alongside the U.N. General Assembly during Global Goals Week. The teams have developed open-source and scalable software solutions with the aim of enabling children to teach themselves to read over the course of 18 months. Each of the finalists received $1 million — but the one that gets kids reading to the highest level during that time will receive the remaining $10 million in April 2019. Finalists CCI, Kitkit School, and RoboTutor from the United States, along with onebillion from the United Kingdom and Chimple from India, will begin field testing in November in partnership with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the World Food Programme, and the government of Tanzania.

Devex caught up with Matt Keller, senior director of the Global Learning XPRIZE, to learn more about it and its support of work that leverages emerging technology to level the playing field in the classroom and beyond.

“You’re never going to reach what the U.N. hopes to reach by just doing the same old thing, training teachers and building new schools,” said Keller, who previously worked for WFP and One Laptop Per Child. “That should be done, but if you don’t look at technology as a way to scale quality learning, I don’t think you’ll ever get there.” He described the prize’s work as the kind of moonshot thinking that will be needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

When Musk shared news of the prize via Twitter, he called illiteracy the “wellspring of poverty.” “If you don’t focus on that first, nothing can flow from it,” Keller said, previewing remarks he will make at a high-level UNGA side event on youth innovation, social business, and the SDGs on Thursday. The people who fund XPRIZE competitions do so because they believe in the need for exponential growth rather than linear change, and these finalists have the potential for that kind of scale. “If we can prove that every kid is also a teacher, that’s exponential incarnate,” Keller said.

At One Laptop Per Child, he found that laptops are not conducive to self learning — but when tablets arrived, they seemed the perfect learning instrument for children, given how intuitive they are to use, he said. The key is to drive innovation around this potential to develop for the autodidact, or self-taught person, in every child. And because of the open-source nature of this competition, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

“What we’re trying to do is catalyze a market,” Keller said. “If we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt our basic supposition that the right technology can bring out the autodidact in every child, we’re creating a market.”

Musk’s financing of the Global Learning XPRIZE points to growing interest among Silicon Valley philanthropists in technology-based, for-profit education solutions for the poor, particularly when it comes to personalized learning, as well as artificial intelligence for good.

“Somebody could look at that and say, ‘holy cow, if we can create a device at a price point low enough that every parent on planet earth would invest in [it], we're going to do that,’ and that's the golden ticket,” Keller said. “Some company, some group, some startup says there is a billion person market out there at the bottom rung, that at the right price point would buy this for their kid. And that’s a game changer. That’s scale no nonprofit, no U.N. agency, no multilateral could hope to reach.”

As a next step, 4,000 children in 150 villages in the Tanga region of Tanzania will test the software solutions before results are measured against a control group. To watch the announcement of the Global Learning XPRIZE finalists at the Social Good Summit, head to 6:37:35 in this video from the event.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.