App Makers Aim to Prove
World’s Poorest Children Can Educate Themselves
September 27, 2017
Can children who have never been to school teach themselves
basic reading, writing and math skills using only a tablet
The World Bank and XPrize are betting $15 million on the idea.
“It’s a little bit out there, it’s a little bit of a crazy
idea,” said Matt Keller, senior director of the Global Learning
XPrize, a competition funded by the XPrize Foundation, a
non-profit that spurs inventors to tackle global problems such
as climate change and universal healthcare.
The inaugural Global Learning XPrize competition awards $10
million dollars to the team or company that develops the best
educational app for children who have never set foot in a
classroom. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics,
approximately 263 million children around the world are not in
“Can you develop something that’s so intuitive, so inferential,
so dynamic that you give it to a child who is illiterate in a
very remote part of the world — she picks it up, she touches it
and she begins to learn how to read? That’s the challenge we put
out to the world,” said Keller.
At least 198 teams were up to the challenge. From that pool,
five finalists were recently selected and awarded $1 million
The finalists will begin testing their educational apps this
November. Nearly 4,000 children from 150 villages in the Tanga
region of Tanzania will use tablets donated by Google to access
the apps and teach themselves.
A subset of students initially will be tested on literacy and
numeracy comprehension using the early grade reading assessment
(EGRA) and early grade math assessment (EGMA) models. After 15
months, the same students will be re-tested. The grand prize of
$10 million will be awarded to the developer team with the
highest proficiency gains among students.
XPrize is working with UNESCO, the World Food Program, and the
government of Tanzania to distribute and maintain the tablets.
“Most development organizations and most aid agencies and most
governments are focused on building new schools and training new
teachers,” Keller told VOA News, “What we’re saying is there are
a lot of kids out there who don’t access school and there are a
lot of kids out there who access really bad schools. So, can you
give technology to a child that’s so good that it doesn’t
supplant, but supplements a learning process that she may or may
Goals for the future
By 2030, the world will need to recruit 68.8 million teachers in
order to meet the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal of
universal primary and secondary education, according to a 2016
report by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.
“That’s simply not possible,” said Jamie Stuart, co-founder of
educational non-profit Onebillion, which is one of the five
Global Learning XPrize finalists. “So we have to look for
radical alternatives in terms of children’s learning,” said
Developers at Onebillion already have field-tested their app,
Onecourse, for the past 10 years in Malawi. The app is designed
so that children can use it with little or no adult assistance,
and teaches children reading and numeracy using a teacher
character that speaks their language.
Testing brings many challenges, the least of which involves
working with populations that often never have interacted with a
it simple, keeping it focused on the individual needs of the
child, and adapting to how they learn are the key ingredients,”
The other finalists are Curriculum Concepts International (CCI),
a lesson-based app that incorporates games, videos and books,
Chimple, which focuses on play and discovery-based learning,
Kitkit School , which originally was designed for special needs
children, and RoboTutor, which was developed by researchers at
Carnegie Mellon University, incorporates artificial intelligence
and machine learning.
“If we can prove that a child needs no instruction other than
what’s on that device, then we begin a series of events that
will lead inexorably to a device that is designed for that
child, in that part of the world, with a teacher on it,” said