Opinion

Weapons of Mass Instruction

We are in the midst of a global education crisis – 100 million young children never get a chance to attend school, and another 300 million go to school and leave without ever having learned to read, write, or understand basic numbers. This epic failure in educating the world’s children has direct implications for American foreign policy. Less-educated children often grow to be underemployed, impoverished adults who are far more susceptible to the siren song of extremism and cause-related violence. Not to mention the massive human potential that lies untapped in every corner of the globe.

The crisis and its dangers are so acute, Congress passed the Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development Act in 2017 on a bipartisan basis. The act requires the United States to – among other things – develop a comprehensive, integrated strategy that improves educational opportunities and addresses key barriers to school attendance, retention and completion, especially for girls.

While the READ Act and its focus are extraordinarily important, we believe that technology will be the only thing that will bring learning to children at scale. We believe we are on the cusp of a moonshot moment where the merging of advances in neuroscience, computer technology and child-driven learning methods can provide a transformation in the lives of children around the world, guaranteeing universal access to education and thus realizing the fulfillment of a basic human right.

This is why we launched the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE. Sponsored by Elon Musk, we challenge teams from around the world to develop open-source content and software aimed at accelerating child-driven learning. The winner will be the team that brings their cohort of children from zero literacy to the highest levels of literacy in reading, writing, and math on their own and with each other. We are currently testing these applications among 2,500 out-of-school children in 141 very remote villages in East Africa, making it the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

We are also studying how the introduction of this technology changes behavior in remote communities. And what we are finding is that children are bathing more because they believe they are in school with the tablet. Children are teaching and learning from each other and teaching their parents. Disabled children have access to learning for the first time. Children who dropped out of school because they were embarrassed at not being able to read are going back because the tablet has given them the confidence they need. The tablet and its technology is an infinitely patient teacher and the students are not afraid to fail.

When we launched this prize, many people thought the idea was crazy. But now, the idea is being embraced by dozens of new partners who see this as the future of learning at scale. We are announcing partnerships with organizations like the Queen Rania Foundation and others that will take the software and content generated by the Global Learning XPRIZE from the border regions of Pakistan to Syrian refugee children living in Jordan, from South Africa to Liberia, to Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh who have no access to school.

This prize model of crowd-sourcing innovation has yielded stunningly effective outcomes. In the early 1700s, the king of England put up a prize purse of roughly $4 million for the first person who could figure out how to measure longitude. That prize was won by an obscure clockmaker who solved one of the world’s grand challenges. Charles Lindbergh won $25,000 for flying nonstop from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was an unknown mail pilot from Missouri who changed the course of aviation history. And the first XPRIZE – the Ansari XPRIZE – was a competition dedicated to generating interest in civilian space travel. That prize led inexorably to Space X, Virgin Galactic and countless others who now seek cost-effective civilian space travel.

Enormous energy, innovation and daring has gone into winning the Global Learning XPRIZE and we are on the verge of a revolution in learning, with the goal of providing access to education to every single child around the globe. When this prize is awarded, we will be substantially closer to living in a world where the once-dormant genius of hundreds of millions of children will be unleashed. And that unleashing of human potential will mean a more prosperous, a more abundant, and ultimately, a more peaceful world.

Matt Keller is the senior director of the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE and the XPRIZE Foundation’s Civil Society Domain which develops incentivized tech competitions in all areas touching and concerning civil society.

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