May 23, 2019
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Global Learning Xprize splits $10M purse for best teaching app for disadvantaged kids

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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.

I asked about the field test process itself. Church, who led the prize project, gave a detailed answer that shows how closely the organization worked with local communities:

The field test was a very unique and complex operation – the field test included nearly 2,700 children and 170 villages in some of the most remote parts of Tanzania over the course of 15 months. XPRIZE worked closely with its partners on the ground to implement this unique 15-month field test – UNESCO, World Food Programme, and the Government of Tanzania. In total that required over 300 staff members in Tanzania from all levels – from the regional educational officials to village mamas — women from each village who have been empowered to ensure the smooth functioning of the test. This was truly a ground-up, community-driven operation. Logistically, this required identifying and sensitizing communities, conducting baseline and endline assessment of all the children prior to tablet distribution, installing solar charging stations in all of these villages for the tablets, and physical data collection and tablet distribution by our heroic Field Assistants on motorbikes (just to name a few of the critical activities).

Once the tablets were in the hands of the children – the general approach was to be very “hands-off” as we wanted to see whether or not the software itself was leading to learning gains. We instead relied on village mamas to create a safe environment in which a child can use the tablet when they chose to. In short – we realize that in order for this work to scale globally – hands-on instruction is hard to do.

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.

As for the communities involved — they won’t be left high and dry now that the testing is over. Church told me that there are plans to make the apps part of Tanzania’s education system:

Our UN partners on the ground (UNESCO and WFP) have worked hand-in-hand with the Government of Tanzania to develop a plan regarding how to continue to use the software (deployed in Tanzania as part of this project), the tablets in the project, and the solar stations installed. This plan will be implemented by the Government of Tanzania in late June in conjunction with UNESCO and WFP. Part of this plan is to get the content in all five of the applications approved to be part of the formal education system in Tanzania, so it can be integrated. We laud the foresight of Tanzania to see the value in tablet-driven learning as a way to reach all children.

And the devices themselves will stay put, or even be replaced. “The staff on the ground will work with the communities to ensure each child as part of this project receives up-to-date software and a new tablet,” Church wrote. “In addition our partners are actively working with communities to teach them how to maintain and continue to use the solar stations in their villages beyond this project.”

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Women’s Safety XPRIZE $1M winner is a smart, simple panic button

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Devices like smartphones ought to help people feel safer, but if you’re in real danger the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone, go to your recent contacts, and type out a message asking a friend for help. The Women’s Safety XPRIZE just awarded its $1 million prize to one of dozens of companies attempting to make a safety wearable that’s simple and affordable.

The official challenge was to create a device costing less than $40 that can “autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.”

Anu and Naveen Jain, the entrepreneurs who funded the competition, emphasized the international and very present danger of sexual assault in particular.

“Women’s safety is not just a third world problem; we face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses,” said Naveen Jain in the press release announcing the winner. “It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national problem.”

“Safety is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t be considered a luxury for women. It is the foundation in achieving gender equality,” added Anu Jain.

Out of dozens of teams that entered, five finalists were chosen in April: Artemis, Leaf Wearables, Nimb & SafeTrek, Saffron, and Soterra. All had some variation on a device that either detected or was manually activated during an attack or stressful situation, alerting friends to one’s location.

The winner was Leaf, which had the advantage of having already shipped a product along these lines, the Safer pendant. Like any other Bluetooth accessory, it keeps in touch with your smartphone wirelessly and when you press the button twice your emergency contacts are alerted to your location and need for help. It also records audio, possibly providing evidence later or a deterrent to harassers who might fear being identified.

It’s not that it’s an original idea — we’ve had various versions of this for some time, and even covered one of the other finalists last year. But they haven’t been quantitatively evaluated or given a platform like this.

“These devices were tested in many conditions by the judges to ensure that they will work in real-life cases where women face dangers today. They were tested in no-connectivity areas, on public transit, in basements of buildings, among other environments,” explained Anu Jain to TechCrunch. “Having the capability to record audio after sending the alert was one of the main differentiators for Leaf Wearables. Their chip design and software was also easy to be integrated into other accessories.”

Hopefully the million dollars and the visibility from winning the prize will help Leaf get its product out to people who need it. The runners up don’t seem likely to give up on the problem, either. And it seems like the devices will only get better and cheaper — not that this will change the world on its own.

“Prices will come down as the sensor prices drop. In many countries it will require community support to be built,” continued Jain. “These technologies can act as a deterrent but in the long term culture of violence again women must change.”

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Global Learning XPRIZE awards $1 million each to final five teams

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The Global Learning XPRIZE, an international competition to create educational software, has reached its penultimate stage: 5 teams out of an initial pool of nearly 200 have been selected to receive $1 million and compete for the $10 million grand prize.

The problem, of course, isn’t that kids around the world don’t have a good enough app — access to basic resources, teachers and other considerations are the real limitations. But that’s why the competition aims to create software that kids can use to teach themselves, off the grid and with no top-down help.

A panel of independent judges whittled down the numbers, and semi-finalists got a month to shape up and present again; the 5 finalists selected are about to begin field testing. Thousands of tablets provided by Google, charged at solar stations made available for public use, will be the hardware platform. Matt Keller, who is leading the program, has been on the ground in the Tanzanian villages where they plan to perform the testing, identifying potential pain points.

I’ll let XPRIZE do the describing in the bullet points below, since they’ve actually used and judged them, but each team also has their own video (linked in the name) describing the team and technique employed:

  • CCI (New York, United States) is developing structured and sequential instructional programs, in addition to a platform seeking to enable non-coders to develop engaging learning content in any language or subject area.
  • Chimple (Bangalore, India) is developing a learning platform aimed at enabling children to learn reading, writing and mathematics on a tablet through more than 60 explorative games and 70 different stories.
  • Kitkit School (Berkeley, United States) is developing a learning program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture aimed at helping children independently learn, irrespective of their knowledge, skill and environment.
  • onebillion (UK/Malawi/Tanzania) is merging numeracy content with new literacy material to offer directed learning and creative activities alongside continuous monitoring to respond to different children’s needs.
  • RoboTutor (Pittsburgh, United States) is leveraging Carnegie Mellon’s research in reading and math tutors, speech recognition and synthesis, machine learning, educational data mining, cognitive psychology and human-computer interaction.

Each was awarded $1 million to fund further development — and of course as a reward for having created an effective piece of software.

Next up is the real test, though: thousands of kids will put the apps through their paces for more than a year. The program that shows the best results will take home the grand prize, a $10 million check.

That probably won’t be until early 2019, but it’s likely we’ll hear from the Global Learning XPRIZE team before then. You can keep up with the latest developments at the competition’s website.

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