Can technology solve America’s literacy problem?

by Aaron Souppouris, Engadget

Roughly 36 million adults in the United States read English at or below a third-grade level. For a predominantly English-speaking country, that’s a massive problem. Without an elementary knowledge of the language, this huge portion of the adult population faces a struggle to get by. Finding a job and generally progressing in a career is an obvious issue, but everyday tasks are also difficult. Understanding taxes, helping a child with homework, filling out health care forms or following instructions on medication; these are skills that anyone reading this article takes for granted, but many others toil over daily. We know the situation, but what’s the solution? XPRIZE, an organization best known for its efforts to send private rovers to the moon and create a real-life Tricorder, has created a competition to prove that technology is the answer.

Why do we need technology in this field? We have a network of learning establishments, such as public libraries and community colleges, where low-literate adults can access classes to improve their skills. Programs like these have been running for decades, but there’s a problem: They’re just not working, at least at the scale that’s needed. It’s estimated that traditional methods only reach 2 million to 3 million US adults. Limited course locations is by far the biggest problem, but even if there was the budget to massively increase the number of available classes, it would be unlikely to fix things. Literate or not, all adults have responsibilities, things that make finding the time to attend a class regularly difficult. There are invisible barriers to entry, such as arranging for childcare, organizing shift work or, in some cases, just publicly facing up to the stigma of being unable to read or write.

That’s what XPRIZE is trying to fix. It’s partnered with the Barbara Bush Foundation — a charitable organization focused on family literacy — to offer up a total of $7 million as an incentive to create software that can meaningfully improve literacy at the grand scale required. What form the solution arrives in is open to interpretation; teams can develop structured apps, utilize machine learning, use AI or create a game. It really doesn’t matter, so long as it works, and can help the millions of Americans currently struggling with low literacy.

The Adult Literacy competition focuses solely on mobile software. Jennifer Bravo, XPRIZE’s senior manager of prize development, explains: “We’re challenging teams to overcome the access problem by developing solutions that work on mobile phones so people can access learning tools from anywhere, any time of day, for small or long chunks of time.”

Being able to learn anywhere is vital, but access is only one piece of the puzzle. “About a third of adults drop out [from traditional programs] before they’ve even completed one year,” Bravo continues. “We really want teams to address the issue of persistence — how long people stick with something to really gain the full benefit from it.”

Applications for the prize opened earlier this month and will close in December. After that, teams will have 18 months to develop their solutions before the finalists are picked. That’s when things start to get interesting.

Five teams will be selected to trial their software with 5,000 low-literate adults across three cities. Each will need to have enough content in their app to meaningfully improve literacy levels over the yearlong trial period. They will, of course, get the opportunity to update their applications, but in general the interaction between teams and test subjects will be kept to a minimum, and the trial itself will be paid for and run by XPRIZE. There’s a $4 million prize for the most effective solution, and, as the test pool will be comprised of both native and non-native English speakers, separate $500,000 purses for the app that does the best job at supporting each group. There are also awards for a further phase that will see all teams that met the minimum benchmark for improvement working with cities to encourage low-literate people to start using their applications.

As interesting as the contest itself is, its long-term effects are perhaps more intriguing. The education technology market (ed tech, for short) has grown rapidly in recent years, but it’s largely focused on kids. Unlike other education prizes, the products and services that are born from this competition aren’t required to be open-source. The rationale behind that decision is to try and kick-start an adult ed tech market not just in the US, but globally.

Ignoring the benefits the competition could bring to other English-speaking countries with literacy issues, the tech born from this prize could prove a valuable tool for anyone learning English as a second language, whether for business or personal reasons, and also to entirely different educational markets. “The teams are going to be coming up with new ways of teaching skill sets to adults from different social backgrounds,” Bravo adds. “That will be translatable to other education markets and to other skill sets — not just literacy. We envision that teams can move on [from the initial brief] and focus on different literacy levels or mathematical and problem-solving skills.” The apps could even prove an efficient method of learning languages other than English. A single breakthrough in the relatively young ed tech market could have major knock-on effects.

There’s massive potential for a team to blow a market that’s largely owned by big corporations wide open. That is, of course, if one of those corporations doesn’t win. Although we won’t find out the entrants to this competition until December, previous prizes have attracted the attention of both entrenched companies and new teams. The Global Learning XPRIZE, which is focused on open-source solutions for education in developing countries, has established education firms like Pearson competing against nonprofits, universities and other smaller teams.

Given the Adult Literacy contest has the potential to create commercially viable projects, there’s a high probability we’ll see a number of well-known companies vying for the prize. And while we all love an underdog story, the spirit of XPRIZE is to create a level playing field, to facilitate and aid in the testing of new technologies, and to incentivize progress with enormous prize funds. Whether it’s a single creative who has a moment of genius, or an established giant taking a risk, this XPRIZE could prove one of the most important since the organization’s inception.

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