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Can A Computer Teach Children to Read and Write?

2017-10-4

The Global Learning XPrize competition is looking at ways in which children can teach themselves reading, writing and mathematics with only a tablet computer.

The XPrize Foundation and its supporters are offering $15 million for computer programs that teach simple skills to people who have never attended school.

Matt Keller is senior director of the competition. He described the goal of the prize this way: “It’s a little bit out there. It’s a little bit of a crazy idea.”

The first Global XPrize competition is awarding millions of dollars to the team or company that develops the best educational app.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, estimates that 263 million children around the world are not in school. Teaching these boys and girls is a problem that researchers are trying to solve.

Keller spoke to VOA about the prize.

“Can you develop something that’s so intuitive, so inferential, so dynamic that you give it to a child who is illiterate in a very remote part of the world – she picks it up, she touches it and she begins to learn how to read? And that's the challenge that we put out to the world.”

About 200 teams entered the competition. From that group, judges chose five finalists. Each was given $1 million. From the five, the judges will choose a winner to receive a $10 million grand prize.

The finalists will begin testing their computer applications in November.

The testing will involve nearly 4,000 children from the Tanga area of Tanzania. The apps will be loaded on tablet computers donated by the American technology company Google.

The children will try to teach themselves basic educational skills with only the tablets.

A smaller group of children will be tested on their understanding of reading and math. After 15 months, the same students will be re-tested.

The top prize will go to the developer team whose programs provide the highest proficiency gains among the students.

The XPrize group also is working with UNESCO, the World Food Program and the government of Tanzania. They will give out and provide support for the tablet computers.

Keller told VOA that the plan suggested by the XPrize competition is different from other methods of education.

“Most development organizations and most aid agencies and most governments are focused on building new schools and training new teachers,” he said.

Keller said there are many children who do not go to school. Some researchers, he said, are asking the question: "Can you give technology to a child that’s so good that it doesn’t supplant, but supplements a learning process that she may or may not have?”

The competition is partly a reaction to a growing education problem.

The United Nations has set a goal of providing universal primary and secondary education by 2030. This is one of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

A UNESCO report estimates that the world will need almost 69 million more teachers to meet that goal.

“That’s simply not possible,” said Jamie Stuart, who helped launch the non-profit group Onebillion, which is one of the XPrize finalists. He told VOA, “We have to look for radical alternatives in terms of children’s learning.”

Developers at Onebillion have tested their app, called Onecourse, for the past 10 years in Malawi. The program is designed so that children can use it with little or no adult assistance. It teaches reading and number skills with an electronic teacher that “speaks” in the children's language.

However, there are many problems to overcome in making a successful app. One, is making a program that works with people who have never before used a tablet computer.

Stuart said what is most important is “keeping it simple, keeping it focused on the individual needs of the child.”

Other finalists use different ways to teach children.

Curriculum Concepts International created an app that combines games, videos and books. Another finalist, Chimple, educates children through play and discovery-based learning.

Another app, called Kitkit, was designed for children with learning disabilities. And a fifth, called RoboTutor, involves artificial intelligence and machine learning.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Tina Trihn reported this story for VOANews. Mario Ritter adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

app – n. a computer program

intuitive – adj. to know something without proof or evidence

inferential – adj. to reach a conclusion based on facts or evidence

dynamic – adj. moving and changing, not fixed

remote – adj. distant

proficiency – n. the ability to do something well

supplant – v. to take the place of

supplements – n. things that are added

universal adj. including or covering all; present of taking place everywhere

radical – adj. not normal, very unusual

alternatives — n. other choices or possibilities