U.S., U.K. teams share $10mn XPRIZE award for child literacy

Representatives from onebillion and KitKat school receive the XPRIZE at a ceremony in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Representatives from onebillion and KitKat school receive the XPRIZE at a ceremony in Los Angeles on Wednesday.   | Photo Credit: AP/XPRIZE

Bengaluru team among five finalists in a global challenge to teach reading skills

A California company founded by game-developer parents who wanted to help their special-needs son is sharing a $10 million (₹70 crore) award with a London-based educational organisation for creating programmes to train children how to teach themselves to read.

Kitkit School from the U.S. and onebillion from the U.K. were declared co-winners of the XPRIZE for global learning at a presentation on Wednesday night. A team from Bengaluru was among the five finalists.

Nearly 200 teams from 40 countries entered the competition, jumping at the chance to become the latest winner of an XPRIZE, a coveted international award funded by future-looking entrepreneurs, billionaires and philanthropists who have banded together with the goal of making the world a better place through technology.

Elon Musk announced the winners honouring all the finalists. The total XPRIZE For Global Learning, funded by Mr. Musk, was worth $15 million, with each finalist getting $1 million just for making it to the final round. The winners additionally receive $5 million each.

The goal was to develop open-sourced software, put it on tablets donated by Google and have thousands of children in 170 remote villages in Tanzania test it. The five finalists, which also included teams from New York, Pittsburgh and Bengaluru, spent 15 months refining the software.

They had to develop programmes filled with games that could grab children’s attention and then, like teachers do, use drawings, letters, numbers and sounds to teach them to teach themselves to read, write and do arithmetic.

Games and stories

For instance, the Chimple team from Bengaluru created a learning platform aimed at encouraging children to learn reading, writing and mathematics on a tablet through more than 60 games and 70 stories.

When testing began, XPRIZE officials said only 2% of the children could read as much as a sentence in their native Swahili. Three-quarters had never attended school and many had to be shown how to swipe their finger across a tablet’s screen just to power it up. But 15 months later, 30% of the children had acquired basic reading skills.

Representatives of both winning teams said the hardest part was developing software at their home bases, putting it on tablets and hoping the children would take to it and figure out how to use it.

“We had to learn fast and work closely with partners who were in East Africa,” said Sooinn Lee, who co-founded Enuma Inc., the operator of Team Kitkit School, with her husband in 2012 and whose company produces the popular children’s app Todo Math. “It often felt like driving in the dark,” she said.

Despite that, all five finalists developed functional, open-sourced software that will be put on the web so everybody can use it.

Ms. Lee said Kitkit’s efforts will include adapting its software for smartphones, as they are widely used in developing countries.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 4:17:04 AM |

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