Non-Profit XPRIZE Challenges Educational Software Pioneers

A non-profit believes that it can solve the problem of 58 million children from 6 to 11 who do not go to school — a number which the United Nations estimates has not changed since the middle of the last decade.

That non-profit is XPRIZE, and it wants to create software that kids will want to use to teach themselves.  XPRIZE is throwing down the gauntlet to entrepreneurs to develop open-source software that children can use to learn to read and understand and manipulate math by themselves.

Avi Wolfman-Arent, writing for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, states that the five best submissions will receive $1 million each to test their software in villages in an English-speaking part of sub-Saharan Africa.  The top pick of those five will receive a $10 million prize if the software improves learning.

“It’s based on the supposition, still unproven, that kids can teach themselves how to read and write,” says Matt Keller, director of the Global Learning XPRIZE.

XPRIZE is not new at this game.  It managed the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE for private space flight and the $2 million challenge by philanthropist Wendy Schmidt to reduce ocean pollution.  But this educational challenge is the first of its kind, and education is a new topic for XPRIZE. First, the $10 million prize comes from an anonymous donor.  Second, XPRIZE will attempt to expand the competition by raising $3 million through the crowd-finding company IndieGogo. And, third, if the crowdfunding idea works, there will be a second five-team competition in a yet-to-be-revealed country, probably India.

Keller says he does not think that Global Learning XPRIZE has the answers, but he does feel that the crowd does.  The project will continue whether the crowdsourcing idea works this time or not, though Keller does think it will in the future.  The idea is not to replace the current education models in the selected locations, but to supplement what is already there.  Eventually, the hope is that the technology will help overburdened classroom teachers in crowded classrooms.

Waiting for governments to train teachers  is not working, nor does it seem that a plan exists that will ever work.  Global Learning XPRIZE‘s road-tested software system is aiming to be in place within two years.

“In the education field, not a lot has changed for a long time,” says Matt Keller, who leads the Global Learning XPRIZE (GLEXP). “We see the same thing replicated over and over again. In every part of he world, there’s a rush to solve the problem of illiterate kids by training more teachers and building schools. That is fine but it often ends up going at a very slow pace.”

He wants to close the gap with autonomy for the kids and the possibility of the kids working with one another, as peer learning can be even more effective than traditional teaching.  Teams are invited to submit proposals for tablet-based software running on Android and focused on kids 5-12 years of age.  At least, says Keller, this challenge will get us closer to knowing what will work and what won’t.

The solutions in the second phase of the competition will be tested for 18 months.  The team whose software teaches the children the most will receive a $10 million prize for further development and implementation. Tereza Pultarova, reporting for Engineering and Technology Magazine, says the submissions will be evaluated by a 30-member panel.  Also, every dollar pledged will go towards optimizing the success of the prize in ways such as global team recruitment and adding team members to field testing.