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People Are Competing to Solve an Education Crisis in Developing Nations

Alice Rowsome

XPRIZE challenges teams to develop open source and scalable software to enable children to teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months.

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Turning up to class is one thing. Walking out having learned something is another. In fact, according to the a new hard-hitting report by the Unesco Institute for Statistics (IUS), while the number of children and adolescents attending school has reached 91 percent, a staggering 617 million children and adolescents around the world still cannot read, write, or demonstrate basic arithmetic skills, despite attending class. The figure signals "a learning crisis" according to UIS.

While international aid has made significant efforts to get kids in school, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and conflict zones, the lack of quality within schools is now setting off alarm bells. The traditional system is failing and needs to be overhauled. How? The XPRIZE, an innovation engine that incentivizes the solutions to the world's problems through competitions, thinks it has found the key to solving today's education crisis and it is about to test it.

In the next few months, the XPRIZE, in partnership with Unesco and the World Food Programme (WFP) will give 4,000 children, with limited access to schooling across 200 villages in rural Tanzania, their own Pixel C tablets (donated by Google) set up with one of five educational apps carefully developed by the five XPRIZE finalists. The goal is to enable a child to learn autonomously, using a tablet.

To measure the success of this approach, and more specifically, the success of each of the five apps, the children's writing, reading and math skills will be tested before and after the 18-month period. If XPRIZE can prove that children can teach themselves how to read, write, and do basic math, using the tablets and specially designed educational apps, then the results would, undoubtedly, radically change the way that governments, international institutions and individuals from around the world invest in technology proven to help children learn.

VICE Impact spoke to three of the finalists to find out how they went about designing educational apps that, they believe, have the power to revolutionize the way we do school in the world's most disadvantaged places.

VICE Impact: Why do you think the system is failing?

Sooin Lee from KitKit School : Having a child with special needs made me realize that many children don't have early childhood skills that are often taken for granted. Maybe their brain is shaped differently, maybe they have social or emotional issues, or maybe they have a hungry stomach, all these things interfere learning. But early childhood skills are crucial to processing early elementary skills, and as a consequence, many aren't ready to consume teachers' curriculum.

Some children have never seen a picture book, so when you show them a picture of a lion it's not in their cognitive capacity. So we should really be careful to judge what children know and don't know. We believe that technology and curriculums have failed to deliver in the past because our minds are too rigid about what human beings know and don't know and how education should be delivered.

How do you teach children how to read, write and count effectively?

Srikanth Talapadi from Chimple : We go through a constructivist model. At first, the alphabet letters are disguised as little monsters, so the child can play with them and color them. While the child is doing these activities, the shape of the letter gets implanted into their mind. Once the child is comfortable with the shape of the letter, we introduce the phonetics. Then we link two letters together, and then words. As for sentences, we encourage children to go through a story.

We haven't simply translated stories from books to tablets, we have re-created the storytelling experience instead. We use animation and children are able to find out how they are written and sound. So if there is a tree, a dog, and a road, they can click on each and get to read what each word is. Along with the visual drama of having the animations and images, we have a complete learning environment, while keeping children interested.

How do you keep children motivated and focused if a teacher isn't watching over them and pushing them to learn?

Jamie Stuart from Onebillion : I've been going to Malawi for 10 years and it is not uncommon to see classes made up of 100 children. I've been in classes with 350 children to one teacher. It's effectively crowd control. The teachers do their best, but often they are not paid, they are poorly trained and have their own worries at home. Many children that we see are in such large classes, that teachers often don't know their students' names.

We have a digital teacher called 'Amazing Anna' that takes the child through the course, but she also praises the child when they do well. So although we can't capture the essence of a human, we do have a digital teacher that guides the child through the course.

How else can technology help children learn?

SL: Technology can provide an adaptive path for each child. Technology is kind enough to repeat again and again.

JS: And unlike school, where the teacher is pulling all the kids at the same pace, with technology, the faster ones can go quicker and the ones that need a bit longer, can take a little longer.

Tablets are expensive. Is this really a cost-effective solution?

JS: Because we know the children only need a short and focused period of time using the app, you can get many children using a device over the course of the day. Each tablet is currently being used by eight to 10 children every day. So if you do the sums on this being a shared resource, it actually competes very well with other kinds of interventions, like building extra classrooms blocks, buying extra resources for the classrooms, training more teachers and so on.

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Why is this competition so important?

SL: We want to show the power of technology. Some governments and organizations have tried to encourage this before, but they have been cautious because there hasn't been a successful case and they haven't wanted to experiment. Proving this system works to the international community, will be really great. And then governments and organizations will be inspired and confident to use this technology. We can then bring more investment to this field. It might not be our team that wins, there are four other awesome competitors, but I really hope that we can all prove something on the field to move tablets and educational apps forward to status-quo.

Each finalist has received 1 million dollars to help further develop their apps. The children in Tanzania will be testing the tablets from November 2017 until February 2019. The winning app will be made open source. You can follow the competition or help get involved too.