A challenge and a reward: $7 million XPrize to create ed tech for adult literacy

by Nichole Dobo, The Hechinger Report

NEW YORK CITY – Millions of dollars are being dangled as an incentive to get people to invent education technology that helps teach adults who struggle with basic reading and writing.

The Barbara Bush Adult Literacy XPrize, announced today, offers $7 million in prizes for those who create technology for mobile devices, such as smartphones, that improves literacy for adults. The goal is two-fold: create awareness of the number of adults with low literacy skills, and inspire talented innovators to do something about it.

“Right now, with 36 million adults in need, less than one percent receive service in the United States,” Liza McFadden, CEO and president of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, said in an interview. “That percent has been falling every year for the last eight years. We’re going in the absolute wrong direction on this issue.”

Adults who lack basic literacy and math skills are more common in the United States than in many other countries, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s adults fared better in literacy than in math skills, but the United States lagged behind others. One in six adults in the United States had low literacy skills, the OCED report found, while in Japan, one in 20 adults lacked those skills.

The new competition was created in partnership with XPrize, a California-based organization with experience in creating these types of reward-based challenges to spur innovation. The first program run by XPrize, announced in 2004, offered $10 million for the development of a privately financed space shuttle. It was inspired by the Orteig Prize, which Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 for his non-stop flight to Paris.

“What we want to do is really kick-start this ed-tech market for adults, because we know that ed-tech market for kids is booming,” said Jennifer Bravo, senior manager of prize development at XPrize. “There’s not too much out there for adults.”

A report this spring from Tyton Partners, a firm that provides investment banking and strategy consulting, suggested that the overwhelming majority of adult education providers believe technology would be beneficial. A key finding: Many adults who don’t have a computer at home have a smartphone, but only about a quarter of adult education programs reported use of educational smartphone apps.

There are pockets of successful innovation in adult education, but it’s been limited, said Jeff Carter, director of adult learning initiatives at Digital Promise, a national nonprofit organization that promotes the effective use of education technology. And these students face obstacles that differ from those faced by traditional students in K-12 and higher education. For instance, they are often low-income, and have work and family obligations.

“There is opportunity for developers if they are willing to put the time in and understand the field,” Carter said.

Competitors in the $7 million adult literacy contest will tackle a series of challenges that span development, testing and deployment of the winning technology to a wide audience.

Here’s how it will work: After a six-month registration process – which includes help linking individuals who want to take part but lack a team – developers will have 18 months to create a program that can be used on a mobile device. A panel of judges will pick five programs that will move to the next round, which will be a 12-month trial with adults who sign on to try the technology. The app must include ways to motivate adults to stick with the voluntary program. And the technology must produce improvements in the users’ literacy.

The results of the year-long trial will be used to select three winners. A $4 million prize will go to the group that develops a literacy app that works best for native and non-native speakers of English. Two other awards of $500,000 each will go to category winners — one prize for those who are learning English and one prize for those who already speak that language. After those winners are named a final gauntlet remains. Several cities will compete for the most successful adoption of the technology in adult education programs.

In the end, the organizers hope, there will also be voluminous data that can be used to spur other people to design more effective education technology for adult education programs.

“One thing that we were told by a lot of the adult education and literacy experts is that there’s no really good data on how adults interact with technology when it comes to learning,” Bravo said. “We’ll actually have a year-long longitudinal data set that comes out of this, where the teams will be collecting ‘How often were the apps used? For what lengths of time? What time of day?’

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which focuses on early childhood and adult literacy, announced the education technology competition on the 90th birthday of Barbara Bush, the wife of President George H. W. Bush. It is a large investment for the foundation; the commitment will consume one-fourth of the organization’s budget each year, McFadden said.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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