$15m prize ignites learning revolution

2015-01-07 07:00 - Matthew le Cordeur
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So far, about 300 teams from 60 countries have signed up for the Global Learning xPrize.


Cape Town - Leading South African tech and education entrepreneurs are three months away from finding out if they are finalists in a $15m competition to develop free software to revolutionise learning in Africa and beyond.

The Global Learning xPrize challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic, empowering them to take control of their own learning and ultimately their future.

Head of prize operations at Global Learning xPrize, Matt Keller, told Fin24 that the competition came about after some work he and xPrize CEO Peter Diamandis had done in Ethiopia around technology and learning.

“We came to the conclusion that literacy was the key, was the ticket, for every child to escape a life of poverty,” he said via Skype in Madison, Connecticut in the US.

“We built a prize based on that.”

Collaborating with tech leaders

Keller said companies like Google and South African Elon Musk’s SpaceX were all part of the efforts around xPrize.

“[They] are committed to using technology as a way to transform people’s lives,” he said. “They’re keenly interested to seeing this succeed.”

Watch the full interview:

New model for a new era

Comparing the prize model to normal NGOs and NPOs, Keller said: “The prize model is one that promises a huge reward for future performing,” he said. “Your return on interest can be by a factor of 10 or 50 or 100, so it is a very unique and interesting model.”

xPrize also had a crowd funding campaign to raise money for the roll out of the tests. “We raised [about] $1m,” he said. “That money will go towards more kids, more sites in East Africa. And the reason why we wanted more kids and more sites was because we want to make this as statistically accurate as we can.

“We want to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this solution was the cause for children teaching themselves and each other children how to read, write and do mathematics.”

His challenge to contestants is: “Can you come up with a technology that allows children to teach themselves and each other how to read, write and do basic mathematics, without any adult help, without any adult supervision, just the child by themselves?”  


Let the race begin

So far, about 300 teams from 60 countries have signed up. Of those, 70 teams are from Sub-Saharan Africa, where the eventual finalists will be testing their software. He said there were currently six teams from South Africa and one team from the so-called Digital City of Africa, Cape Town.

Teams have until March 31 to register with their developed solutions. From there, a panel of third-party expert judges will evaluate and down-select the semi-finalists. Semi-finalists will have one month to tweak their solutions and/or reconfigure their teams before the judges elect the top five finalist teams to proceed in the competition.

Each of the five teams selected will receive $1m and advance to the next phase, where their solutions will be field-tested in rural villages. Each of the five teams’ solutions will be deployed across a minimum of 100 villages in a developing country, reaching 3000 children (ages approximately 5-12), the competition will take place in a country where English is a primary language of instruction.

At the end of the 18 months, the team whose solution enables the greatest proficiency gains in reading, writing and arithmetic - will receive the grand prize of $10m.

Sharing the knowledge for free

All of the top five finalist solutions, including the winner’s, will be open-sourced to the world.

“With its success, the winning technology becomes a proof point demonstrating that children can teach themselves to read, write and do arithmetic autonomously,” the xPrize website said.

“The open-sourced solutions should be shared and reiterated so that their potential to ignite a revolution in the technology and learning sectors throughout the world can be fully realised.”


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