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Next XPrize Aims for Worldwide Student Literacy

The Latest XPrize will award one team $10 million to develop the most effective software and content for helping children around the world teach themselves how to read, write and do arithmetic. The Global Learning XPrize competition will last about four years and is expected to draw teams from around the world.

XPrize is an organization that sponsors competitions in a number of world-changing areas, including energy, space and life sciences.

As Matt Keller, senior director of the initiative explained during a Huffington Post Live interview, the challenge is this: "There are roughly 250 million to 300 million kids who can't read or write a word, even after they go to school. There are a lot more who go to school and leave being barely functionally literate. How can technology play a role in disrupting what's been a system that hasn't met the needs of these kids? How do we reach this generation of kids right now to succeed and fill their own potential?"

He noted that the use of technology is vital for disrupting the space of education. "We can't train enough teachers fast enough. We can't build enough schools fast enough. That model we've relied on so long can't scale adequately to reach the numbers of kids we need to reach. [In] many parts of the world, teachers may or may not be one grade above the kids they're teaching. In Afghanistan the numbers are off the charts in the number of teachers who are not literate."

For the next six months, Keller said, his organization will recruit teams to compete. Each will spend the following 18 months developing their solutions of open software and content. That will be delivered to XPrize, where a global panel of judges will select the top five. Each of those winners will receive $1 million. Also, those solutions will be placed on tablets and put into the hands of 3,000 to 4,000 children in at least 100 villages for 18 months. The team that delivers the highest rate of literacy among those kids, based on pre-tests and end-tests, will win the $10 million prize.

For that pilot testing phase, XPrize will provide both the tablets and the power infrastructure to run them. While that approach won't be "scalable" going forward, noted Keller, "We feel that within four years when this prize is won, there's going to be hardware that's going to be $10, $20 tablets that [will] have solar panels on the back [and those will be] self-charging, self-healing, self-connecting."

Ruth Kagia, senior advisor in the Executive Office of the President of Kenya, added that she's surprised that type of innovation doesn't already exist. "The idea of taking this idea forward to getting the kids themselves to do it overcomes — leapfrogs, if you like — all those barriers of teachers, of books, of light, of roads, of desks."

"With the awarding of the Ansari XPrize 10 years ago, we catalyzed the commercial spaceflight industry, which has now grown to become a multi-billion-dollar industry," said XPrize Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis. "Today, we are thrilled to launch our next world-changing competition to revolutionize global literacy. 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. This open source solution can be iterated upon, scaled and deployed around the world, bringing quality learning experiences to children no matter where they live."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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