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App Makers Aim to Prove World’s Poorest Children Can Educate Themselves

The Global Learning XPRIZE logo, courtesy XPRIZE.
The Global Learning XPRIZE logo, courtesy XPRIZE.

Can children who have never been to school teach themselves basic reading, writing and math skills using only a tablet computer?

The World Bank and XPrize are betting $15 million on the idea.

“It’s a little bit out there, it’s a little bit of a crazy idea,” said Matt Keller, senior director of the Global Learning XPrize, a competition funded by the XPrize Foundation, a non-profit that spurs inventors to tackle global problems such as climate change and universal healthcare.

The inaugural Global Learning XPrize competition awards $10 million dollars to the team or company that develops the best educational app for children who have never set foot in a classroom. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, approximately 263 million children around the world are not in school.

“Can you develop something that’s so intuitive, so inferential, so dynamic that you give it to a child who is illiterate in a very remote part of the world — she picks it up, she touches it and she begins to learn how to read? That’s the challenge we put out to the world,” said Keller.

The finalists

At least 198 teams were up to the challenge. From that pool, five finalists were recently selected and awarded $1 million dollars each.

The finalists will begin testing their educational apps this November. Nearly 4,000 children from 150 villages in the Tanga region of Tanzania will use tablets donated by Google to access the apps and teach themselves.

A subset of students initially will be tested on literacy and numeracy comprehension using the early grade reading assessment (EGRA) and early grade math assessment (EGMA) models. After 15 months, the same students will be re-tested. The grand prize of $10 million will be awarded to the developer team with the highest proficiency gains among students.

XPrize is working with UNESCO, the World Food Program, and the government of Tanzania to distribute and maintain the tablets.

“Most development organizations and most aid agencies and most governments are focused on building new schools and training new teachers,” Keller told VOA News, “What we’re saying is there are a lot of kids out there who don’t access school and there are a lot of kids out there who access really bad schools. So, can you give technology to a child that’s so good that it doesn’t supplant, but supplements a learning process that she may or may not have?”

Goals for the future

By 2030, the world will need to recruit 68.8 million teachers in order to meet the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal of universal primary and secondary education, according to a 2016 report by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.

“That’s simply not possible,” said Jamie Stuart, co-founder of educational non-profit Onebillion, which is one of the five Global Learning XPrize finalists. “So we have to look for radical alternatives in terms of children’s learning,” said Stuart.

Developers at Onebillion already have field-tested their app, Onecourse, for the past 10 years in Malawi. The app is designed so that children can use it with little or no adult assistance, and teaches children reading and numeracy using a teacher character that speaks their language.

Testing brings many challenges, the least of which involves working with populations that often never have interacted with a tablet before.

“Keeping it simple, keeping it focused on the individual needs of the child, and adapting to how they learn are the key ingredients,” said Stuart.

The other finalists are Curriculum Concepts International (CCI), a lesson-based app that incorporates games, videos and books, Chimple, which focuses on play and discovery-based learning, Kitkit School , which originally was designed for special needs children, and RoboTutor, which was developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, incorporates artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“If we can prove that a child needs no instruction other than what’s on that device, then we begin a series of events that will lead inexorably to a device that is designed for that child, in that part of the world, with a teacher on it,” said Keller.