By adaptive - October 12th, 2015

Basic education for children is still an elusive goal for many developing nations, but as Siegfried Mortkowitz reports, XPRIZE has enticed a number of entries to find a mobile solution to help share knowledge and bridge this learning gap.

Emily Church is part of a revolution. In her position as XPRIZE Learning’s Director of Education and Impact, she and her team are coordinating a competition to find the ideal mobile solution to bring basic education to children in developing nations, who are currently being denied it by economic, geographic and even social barriers.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is offering $15 million in prize money to teams of software developers to design a program for tablets and smartphones that will enable, and motivate, children aged seven to 10 to learn the fundamental reading, writing and math skills by themselves.
“There are 250 million children in the world who don’t know how to read or do basic math,” Church says. “This is a shocking number in 2015. There are millions and millions of kids who are not getting access to learning. We would not be able to train enough teachers to reach so many children. So the issue is, how can we leverage technology to reach kids who are not being reached?
“We are using the technology to reach the most under-served kids. Many have a long, sometimes unsafe, walk to school, and many don’t have access to schools at all.”
A total of 198 teams from 39 countries have registered for the competition, no doubt drawn as much by the challenge and objective of the mission as by the prize money. XPRIZE, a non-profit organization, will give $1 million to each of the five finalists selected and $10 million to the winning team.
These five solutions will then be tested for a period of 18 months in a country still to be officially revealed. Currently, XPRIZE representatives are in talks with officials of this country to be named later; Church will only say that it is an East African country where Swahili is spoken.
“There will be baseline testing,” she explains. “We’ll be testing the children at the beginning of the period and at the end. The solution with the best results will be the winner.” The announcement of the grand prize winner is scheduled for February 2019.
XPRIZE will be supplying donated solar-charging panels and the tablets to the communities where the five finalists will be tested. The communities will be able to keep the hardware after the testing. The tablets will have a built-in mechanism to fix bugs and facilitate upgrades. “They will be preloaded with the software, so no internet {connection} is necessary,” Church says. “We’re hoping the kids will be able to do it on their own.”
To make it easy, the tablets will have an intuitive touch-screen operating system. Local individuals will be trained to teach the children how to turn the tablets on and how to charge them.
The teams have been given two conditions for their solutions: that they be submitted in English and Swahili and that the software be open-source. Regarding the language requirement, Church says, “We want to show that it’s software that’s adaptable. We hope it will be adjusted to different languages.”
And she says the solution needs to be open-source because “we want to share the software itself and we want to share the learning data with anyone who wants it, such as researchers and universities, or developers who want to adapt it to another culture or environment.”
The program also needs to be simple and fun to use, Church says. “Are kids going to be able to use it and will they stay engaged? For cognitive change to happen, they need to stay engaged.”
Church emphasizes that one important feature of the program is that it is made equally available to girls and boys. “Hopefully, they would all learn and read together.”
This type of project has not been attempted at such a large scale before, Church says, but far more modest trials at self-paced learning for children using tablets, such as one in Malawi and the U.K., have been very successful.
Her vision for the winning solution is global. “We want it to be available around the world, and to see it used wherever it is needed, even in such dramatically under-resourced places as Ebola-stricken areas and refugee camps.”
For Michelle Lissoos, managing director of iSchoolAfrica, which provides iPads, teacher training and digital-skills transfer instruction to more than 160 primary and secondary schools in remote South African townships, “This can be a great solution. If it meets the necessary criteria, it will meet a critical need in these under-resourced markets.”
While she notes “it will never replace teaching entirely,” self-paced learning using mobile devices “is absolutely acceptable for basic numeracy and literacy. However, for greater depth of digital literacy, project-based learning and content creation, it can only go so far.”
It also meets some pressing infrastructural needs, Lissoos says, explaining: “There are still skills and resource shortages. There is a lack of qualified teachers and there are too many overcrowded classrooms.”
She says that whatever program ultimately is chosen, the solution must provide relevant and engaging content and ongoing feedback to keep the children motivated. “For self-paced learning, formative assessment is critical. Kids love technology, and if they keep getting feedback, they’ll remain motivated. The solution must have an excellent feedback mechanism.”
In addition, Lissoos says that the program must be accompanied by a supportive infrastructure. “It can’t be box-dropped,” she explains. “There has to be a context, with stakeholders and a vision of what’s going to happen next.”
She believes that mobility is slowly becoming an essential resource to solving global educational issues. “Mobility has changed the potential,” Lissoos says. “I haven’t seen a systematic shift yet, but people are starting to think about making content more accessible. This is the eventual answer to educating under-resourced and under-served children and young adults.”

For all the latest mobile trends, check out The Open Mobile Summit 2015 on November, 9-10, San Francisco 

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