XPRIZE Semifinalist App Could Help Kids In Developing Countries Teach Themselves

Jun 26, 2017

The XPRIZE, known for its lunar program that aims to send private companies to the moon, is also funding an effort to develop educational software. The goal is to enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic in about a year. Semi-finalists for the $10 million  prize were announced last week, including a CMU project called Robo Tutor.

The application can be used on a tablet or phone and guides a student through a series of activities in both English and Swahili.

The team’s leader, Jack Mostow, said about 120 students, faculty and post-doctoral students are working on the project.

If the project is chosen as a finalist, XPRIZE will conduct a large-scale controlled study involving 4,000 children in 200 Tunisian villages. Google is donating tablets that can be recharged at solar powered stations. Educators who speak Swahili will administer pre- and post-tests to determine which of the five finalist apps have the highest gains in 15 months. The winner will be given a $10 million  grand prize to continue the work.

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke with Mostow about his team’s application.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SARAH SCHNEIDER: Who is this meant for, who are you trying to help?

JACK MOSTOW: The goal of the global earning XPRIZE is to help children ages 7 to 10 in developing countries with little or no access to teachers. Half the kids in developing countries don't have school or they don't have teachers, let alone well-trained teachers who show up for work all the time. The market has failed to provide teachers for these kids. Well, where are you going to get in today's global economy if you can't read or write or do arithmetic? Your options are pretty limited.

SCHNEIDER: Is Robo Tutor better than a human teacher?

MOSTOW: Of course not. I wouldn't expect it to be, nor would I require it to be. However, it is much better than the human who ain't there. And if only half the kids have teachers, then half the kids don't have teachers. Even the kids who do have teachers don't necessarily have effective teachers.

SCHNEIDER: So it's not trying to replace instruction.

MOSTOW: It's making up for a gap. In fact, the entire Global Learning XPRIZE, I view, as a proof of concept to test the idea that, first of all, children together can figure out technology without adult assistance. That premise probably does not surprise most Americans who are still used to back in the old days when, you know, if a 4-year-old can assemble this, then you better go find a 4-year-old. But even in non-technological societies, the premise is kids together can figure out technology. The proof of concept is if they can show that this technology in the form of an Android tablet with these apps on it can provide a basic education at a basic level to kids who aren't getting it otherwise then that should persuade whoever the powers that be who have the resources to replicate that experiment in other countries, and other languages in other cultures.

SCHNEIDER: Why did you want to create an application to teach children?

MOSTOW: One of the messages I got loud and clear from my parents from, I don't remember when, early age, is that I was expected to make some contribution in life. You're supposed to make the world a better place. So, it was a great opportunity to do that. It was an opportunity to do math and reading and writing although reading and writing are very intimately linked. So, what's not to love?