There’s a huge need for basic education in the developing world. A United Nations report earlier this year estimated the number of kids out of school at 57 million globally and gave a sobering update on efforts to build more places of learning. The Millennium Development Goals aim to have every kid in classrooms by its deadline in 2015. At the current rate, it’s going to take until 2086 before all the required places are opened.
It’s clear that waiting for governments to train teachers for their traditional role in large dusty schoolhouses will consign millions of people to illiteracy and poverty. But it’s still unclear what new models, technologies, or ideas might help close the gap. The latest X Prize, launched today, hopes to spur new thinking and development. Offering teams total prize money worth $15 million, it aims to have a road-tested software system in place within two years.
“In the education field, not a lot has changed for a long time,” says Matt Keller, who leads the Global Learning XPRIZE (GLEXP). “We see the same thing replicated over and over again. In every part of he world, there’s a rush to solve the problem of illiterate kids by training more teachers and building schools. That is fine but it often ends up going at a very slow pace.”
Keller hopes to close the gap by building a system that helps kids learn both autonomously and with each other. The prize aims to build on research that peer learning–where kids help each with problems alongside whatever message is coming from the front of the class–can be more effective than traditional teaching.
The prize invites teams to submit proposals for tablet-based software running on Android and aimed at kids 5 to 12 years old. Five teams will be selected to go forward to develop their full project, with each getting $1 million. The winner, selected after field-testing in one or possibly two countries, gets $10 million.
What might the system look like and do? Keller, who previously worked at the One Laptop Per Child, speculates that it might track a child’s learning throughout primary school, anticipate learning problems, and allow the kid to teach back. “Teaching is a great way of learning,” he says. It also might help organize students into groups or pairs, so each kid has a personal mentor to help them through the program.
It remains to be seen whether fully autonomous learning outside a school setting can work as well as a traditional model–or even work well enough. But after $15 million in funding, and all the work the prize is likely to catalyze, we might be closer to knowing.