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Meet The Winners Of Elon Musk’s $15 Million XPRIZE To End Global Illiteracy


Peter High

Today, there are hundreds of millions of children around the world who cannot read, write, or do basic arithmetic. This waste of human potential results in continued poverty for millions of individuals and even entire nations. That is why the Global Learning XPRIZE was launched in 2014, challenging teams from around the world to create scalable, open-source software that will enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic in 15 months.

In 2017, five finalists were selected from over 198 teams and awarded $1 million each, and last year, testing was expanded with the launch of an Impact CoalitionNow, after 15 months of field tests with nearly 3,000 children across 170 villages in Tanzania, the winner(s) have finally been selected.

Elon Musk with the winners of the Global Learning XPRIZE


Meet the Winners

Two teams, onebillion and Kitkit School, will split the $10 million Grand Prize purse sponsored by Tesla and SpaceX Chief Elon Musk. While the winning solutions enabled the greatest proficiency gains during field testing, the organizations behind the two solutions differ.

UK-based onebillion has developed onetab, a dedicated learning device that is pre-loaded and locked to onecourse, their comprehensive and modular software that adapts to the child’s abilities. “Winning the Global Learning XPRIZE means that this is the moment for exponential scaling as three things are coming together: software that delivers significant learning gains for children, technology that is scalable, and implementation models that work locally,” said Judith Hermetter, Head of Communications for onebillion. “The biggest benefit of winning the prize is that it will allow us to make the solution work for children all over the world.”

While onebillion is a nonprofit, Kitkit School was created by Enuma, a leader in digital early learning solutions whose flagship product, Todo Math, has been downloaded over 6 million times on iOS and Android. Their team is based in Berkley, CA and Seoul, South Korea, and their solution draws on technology and design from the game industry to lower barriers for struggling users. “Our vision is to create solutions that can empower struggling learners to become independent learners,” said Kitkit School CEO and co-founder Sooinn Lee. “What should the content look like for children who are not motivated to learn? What can we do for a child who is not prepared to learn the curriculum? We believe that our unique approach tackles the hardest problems of education.”

From Celebration to Action

While onebillion and Kitkit school have officially won the XPRIZE, this is not the end of the road for the remaining finalists, including Robotutor, Chimple, and Team CCI. “The solutions from all five of the finalists works, and that is something that I do not think any of us expected,” said Emily Church, Executive Director of the Global Learning XPRIZE. “They all have plans moving forward with pilots they have started.”

The success of the finalists proves that children can teach themselves and each other how to read, write, and do basic math, and this is nothing short of a breakthrough in how the world thinks about how children learn. “The Global Learning XPRIZE showed the world the potential of what self-learning software can achieve through its groundbreaking field test,” said Lee. Now that there is data supporting an effective recipe, there has been a snowball effect of growing interest and support from tech companies, research institutions, nonprofits, and governments.

To foster a community that will drive impact, XPRIZE is taking the unusual step of hosting a post-competition workshop. Called “From Celebration to Action,” the workshop brings together diverse stakeholders and will focus on four key areas:

  1. Data – XPRIZE is launching a data commons that will build upon the competition data and related social/emotional data. The hope is that other EdTech pilots will join, resulting in a freely available data set that can be used for global lessons learned.
  2. Localization – children learn best in the languages they already know, so XPRIZE is aiming to have 12 languages by the end of the year.
  3. Hardware – the two ways to distribute this technology is through apps that can be downloaded onto existing, low-cost devices, and through dedicated learning devices, which may be a better option for more rural communities.
  4. Delivery – now that the technology exists and the data validates its effectiveness, an ecosystem of partners including large non-profits, multilateral organizations, and governments need to work together to get solutions into the hands of kids.

Unlocking Minds with Technology

Building literacy is the crucial first step, but it cannot end there. “My vision is for us to move from children getting basic literacy to having access to world-class education,” Emily said. “This is something we now have the technology to enable, and this is especially true as connectivity increases, and our AI tools grow more capable.”

This sentiment was echoed by Shafiq Khan, president of Impact Coalition partner Teach the World Foundation. “The big story is that this self-learning paradigm is going to be enabled by digital tools,” he told me in an interview last year. “And it simply could not have happened before because analog practices could not have handled it.”

Not only does literacy represent an opportunity for children to escape economic despair, but data collected by XPRIZE and UNESCO suggests that as children’s literacy increased, so too did their confidence in themselves and their aspirations for the future. By empowering these children with a foundation of literacy, the hope is that they will not only be able to envision a better future, but also have access to the knowledge and resources necessary to drive change. As XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis told me in 2017, “Technology, in the hands of individuals today, is growing at such an extraordinary rate, that we are empowered more than ever before to solve our own problems.”

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Technovation podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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