Kids need a good education to have the best chance of succeeding in the world, but in distant parts of developing countries that may be neither schools nor teachers. The Global Learning Xprize aimed to spur innovation in the tech space to create app-based teaching those kids can do on their own — and a tie means the $10 million grand prize gets split in two.
The winners, Onebillion and Kitkit School, both created tablet apps that resulted in serious gains to literacy rates in the areas they were deployed. Each receives $5M, in addition to the $1M they got for being a finalist.
Funded by a number of sponsors including Elon Musk, the prize started way back in 2014. Overseen at first by Matt Keller (previously at the famous but sadly unsuccessful One Laptop Per Child program), and later by Emily Musil Church, the prize asked entrants to create free, open-source software that kids could use to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.
After soliciting teams and doing some internal winnowing of the herd, a set of five finalists was arrived at: CCI, Chimple, Kitkit School, Onebillion, and Robotutors. They came from a variety of locations and backgrounds, and as mentioned all received a $1M prize for getting to this stage.
These finalists were then subjected to field testing in Tanzania, where 8,000 Pixel C tablets generously donated by Google for the purpose were distributed to communities where teaching was hardest to come by and literacy rates lowest.
Among the participating kids, only about a quarter attended school, and only one in ten could read a single world in Swahili. By the end of the 15-month field test, 30 percent of the kids could read a complete sentence — results were even better among girls.
The winning teams had similar approaches: gamify the content and make it approachable for any age or ability level. Rural Tanzania isn’t hurting literacy-wise because of a lack of worksheets. If these kids are going to learn, it needs to be engaging — like anywhere else, they learn best when they don’t realize they’re being taught.
Onebillion’s approach was to create a single but flexible long course that takes kids from absolutely zero reading knowledge to basic competency. “Onecourse is made of thousands of learning units, some could be on reading activities, some could be on numeracy activities — it’s a modular course, it’s built around the child’s day and adapts to their needs,” explained the company’s CTO, Jamie Stuart in a video about the team.
“When the child is not yet at a stage when they can read, the story can be played back to the child a bit like an audio book. When the child starts to be able to decode words we can offer them assistance, and then later on they can attempt to read the story by themselves.”
Kitkit School came from Sooinn Lee and her husband, both game developers (and plenty of others, of course). She points out that games are fundamentally built around the idea of keeping the player engaged. “Sometimes in education software, I see there is software too much focused on what to deliver and what is the curriculum, rather than how a child will feel during this learning experience,” she said in her team video.
“We create gamified learning with a mixture of high quality graphics, sound, interactions, so a child will feel they’re doing a really fun activity, and they don’t care if they’re learning or not, because it feels so good.”
All the finalists were on the ground in these communities working with the kids, so this wasn’t just an fire and forget situation. And if we’re honest, that may account partially for the gains shown by these kids.
After all, the main issue is a lack of resources, and while the tablets and curricula are a good way to bring learning to the kids, what matters most is that someone is bringing it at all. That said, pre-built fun learning experiences like this that can run on rugged, easily distributed hardware are definitely powerful tools to start with.