Q&A: XPRIZE Looks to Reinvent Learning in Africa

Posted October 10th, 2014 at 1:00 pm (UTC-4)
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The Global Learning XPRIZE logo, courtesy XPRIZE.

The Global Learning XPRIZE logo, courtesy XPRIZE.

The folks at XPRIZE – a non-profit foundation that helped finance civilian space travel and develop better technologies to clean up the oceans, have now launched a $15 million competition to provide learning solutions for children in Africa and the developing world.

Chatting with TECHtonics, Matt Keller, Senior Director of Global Learning XPRIZE, shed more light on XPRIZE and its latest project.

Q. What is XPRIZE?

KELLER: …  XPRIZE is a foundation that dedicates itself to offering large cash incentives to teams of people to innovate around grand challenges in the world. So we survey the landscape … We look at what is happening, where are these spaces that are underserved, and can we incentivize teams to go out and make a difference?

… We’re very different, in a sense, from other organizations committed to some of these grand challenges in that we don’t believe that we have the solution. We believe that you do, that the crowd does, that people who are just waiting to be asked and activated to do something have great ideas. And this just gives them an excuse to go out and do something big.

Q. How did you decide on the theme for this project?

KELLER: … We wanted to do an education and learning prize for some time and decided to focus on the issue of literacy.

Studies show that an estimated 250 million children around the world cannot read or write, most of whom are in developing countries without regular access to schools or teachers. So you’ve got kids that don’t have access to school and then you’ve got kids that do have access to schools, but the schools are so poor, in a sense, that the kids don’t learn. And so this is an intractable problem.

… This is one of the reasons we created the Global Learning XPRIZE. Traditional models of learning are just not scalable. We simply cannot build enough schools or train enough teachers, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is necessary.

Q. What does the competition entail?

KELLER: The people in the competition have to develop original software and content that is designed to bring children on their own and with each other up to literacy in reading, writing and arithmetic.

… Can children teach themselves how to read, write and do arithmetic? Can they teach each others without any aid of …  literate adults maybe or school systems that are truly functional? Can they do this on their own? So we’re asking people to design for that demographic of kids who need to do this on their own.

… The teams are going to be asked to design for tablets, but this will be transportable to mobile because … even in the most remote [parts of] Ethiopia or Rwanda or wherever, people have access – some access. So can you bring learning to where people are, no matter where they live? And I think that’s part of the reason behind this prize.

Q. Is there any particular African country that you have in mind for implementation?

KELLER: … We’re going to ask teams to develop their software and content solutions and then we’re going to field-test with kids – probably somewhere between 3,000-4,000 kids. And I head to Tanzania [as of October 3, 2014] … to meet with officials there to see if we can implement this prize there. Kenya is a possibility. Rwanda is a possibility. South Africa is a possibility. But, we’re really looking at East Africa, in particular.

Q. Will you work in collaboration with authorities in the target countries?

KELLER: … We will work hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Education no matter where we go and have their full support and partnership or else we can’t do it. We won’t do it.

Q. How will you address curriculum issues?

KELLER: … This is not a curriculum prize. This is a prize for entrepreneurs and innovators and big thinkers to think, to solve the problem … And this is not going to be the curriculum of a country or of any country. It is going to be designed to be universal in nature.

Q. How will you leverage Africa’s mobile phones for this initiative?

KELLER: … If the team that develops the winning solution can bring children from non-literacy to literacy, you will see this on every phone, every tablet, every smart device everywhere in the world. This is all going to be Open Source as well. It is going to be made free and available to anybody who wants to download it, anybody who wants to use it. So, if we can prove this and kids can do this, my guess is that not only governments will adopt it, not only will multilateral institutions make it part of what they do on the ground, but … there isn’t a parent in the world who wouldn’t want that for their kids.

Q. Have you started receiving applications?

KELLER: We just started … And within a week we’ve had 150 people, teams register from something like 35-40 countries around the world. And we have six more months to go. So we’re expecting lots and lots of teams. And if people are interested in competing, they can just go to xprize.org … and find out … how to register and what the prize is all about.

… Oftentimes people think that the winners will come from a certain sector, [that they] will come from the technology sector, from the science sector or whatever. But people who have good ideas can surprise everybody.

So no matter where you are or who you are, if you think that you have a great idea, that you can compete, you should enter and compete because I think what we are looking for are people who think completely out of the box, who are inspired, who want to compete and who want to do some good.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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