Achieving Literacy Through Technology

By Peter Diamandis, CEO, XPRIZE Foundation and Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida

Barbara Bush often says, “The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed.”

Unfortunately, there are 36 million adults in the United States today who lack basic literacy skills.

In one of the most prosperous nations in the world, tens of millions of adults cannot read above the equivalent of a third grade reading level.

These adults do not have the skills and tools necessary to earn high-wage jobs, support their children’s academic success, or ensure their health and safety and their families’. It’s not just individuals and the people they love who suffer. Low literacy skills cost the United States an estimated $225 billion in lost productivity and tax revenue each year and add an estimated $230 billion to our annual healthcare costs.

The ability to read matters. It allows us to attain knowledge, which is fundamental to social and economic mobility. And, it is key to breaking the cycle of poverty by empowering individuals with the skills they need to succeed in life.

Generation after generation has fought to solve the epidemic of adult illiteracy in America. Community colleges, libraries, school and non-profit organizations run a huge variety of literacy programs all across the country, serving approximately 2 million adults per year. These programs generally follow an outdated model that requires people to come to a class, sit with other students or one-on-one, and learn to read. It requires classrooms and teachers. It requires adults to travel, to set aside hours every week at prescribed times, to get childcare, and to change work schedules. And it cannot possibly scale to meet the need of the tens of millions adults who need assistance.

The world has changed. We cannot expect a model of learning that was developed during the Industrial Revolution to serve us well today. Technology has revolutionized the way we do almost everything — from working to banking to communicating to volunteering to parenting. Technological innovations hold the power to solve some of the greatest economic and social challenges we face, including how we address adult illiteracy.

Over the past several years, many organizations have acknowledged the potential of emerging technologies, and smart devices in particular, to strengthen adult literacy skills, primarily because smart devices are widely owned, cost-effective and mobile; because adult learners are already familiar with these devices’ user interfaces; and because smart devices allow for 24/7 accessibility.

It’s time to bring technology to bear on this widespread — but rarely discussed — problem. Let’s bring together innovators, teachers, developers, academics, hackers and gamers, focusing their energy and expertise on this challenge, putting the power of the market to work to affect change for tens of millions of American adults and hundreds of millions more around the world.

This is why XPRIZE, in partnership with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and Dollar General Literacy Foundation, is launching a $7 Million Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

This prize will incentivize a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we approach adult learning — putting learning tools in the hands of those who need them most, so learning can happen anytime, anywhere.

We hope hundreds of teams from around the globe –entrepreneurs and innovators, educators and literacy experts, software and app developers, universities, and more — will focus their attention and resources on solving this problem, spurring innovation that ultimately propels adult literacy into the 21st century and beyond.

Technology has already transformed our lives in every way imaginable, and the opportunities remain limitless. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and XPRIZE are committed to working together toward achieving the challenging goal of ending low-literacy and empowering millions of Americans to rise up and take control of their own destiny.

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