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Teaching with tablets in Tanzania: The Elon Musk project you don’t hear about

4 min read

Better Society
Teaching with tablets in Tanzania: The Elon Musk project you don’t hear about
Source: None

Elon Musk is famous for a lot of things, but you may not know he’s funding a project to help children in Tanzania read and write to the tune of $15 million.

Using tablets in rural Africa, XPRIZE hopes to inspire education

We all know Elon Musk has been busy revolutionising the way we think about space travel, electric cars, solar power, and most recently even tunnels – but what you probably didn’t know is that he is funding a project to help children in Tanzania read and write, with a prize pot of $15 million for the best solutions. The BBC’s Dan Simmons visited one of the 150 villages in northern Tanzania selected to test the different tablet apps.

Could XPrize tablets replace teachers in Tanzania?Source: Facebook/BBCFuture

The XPRIZE hopes to inspire education for hundreds of millions of children

An estimated 250 million children around the world cannot read, write, or demonstrate basic arithmetic skills.

Many of these children are in developing countries without regular access to quality schools or teachers.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is a challenge to teams around the world to develop software and apps for tablets that could help youngsters learn basic skills. This week 11 semi-finalists were chosen from nearly 200 teams to move forward into the next stage of the competition. Each team must create software that allows children to learn on their own.

Source & Main Image: BBC

XPRIZE has traditionally run prizes focused on the hard sciences “Whether it be space flight, greater efficiency in cleaning oil spills, or incentivising more fuel efficient cars. But when we started to look at what some of the daunting grand challenges facing humanity truly are, we came to the conclusion that it was the right time to open ourselves to the social sciences. And at the top of the list of ‘grand challenges’ was the fact that hundreds of millions of kids around the world cannot read or write or do basic math.” – XPRIZE’s Matt Keller. Source: Forbes

Children from 150 villages will be given one of 8,000 Pixel C tablets

In Tanzania, children from 150 villages will be given one of 8,000 Pixel C tablets supplied by Google. On them will be software designed by a variety of teams as part of the XPRIZE to help the children (aged seven to ten) learn without more formal education.

XPRIZE announced it had picked 11 semi-finalists from around the world, whittled down from 198 entrants in 2014, to move on to the next stage of the project. These will now have one month to finalise their software, which must be open source. In September, five finalists will be picked, each awarded $1 million, to move ahead with tests in Tanzania.

“The goal is getting [the children] to the highest level possible, but particularly to the cusp of going from learning to read to reading to learn,” Matt Keller, senior director for the Global Learning XPRIZE, told IFLScience‘s Jonathan O’Callaghan. “It’s a moon shot for sure.”

Over 18 months, the children will use the learning resources on the tablets, with “substantial” pre-tests and post-tests focusing on reading, writing, and arithmetic, said Keller. Whichever team sees the most marked improvement in their children – compared to a control group – will win $10 million.

The tests that will be used are the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and the Early Grade Math Assessment (EGMA). XPRIZE has picked children who live very far from a school, making getting an education almost impossible. “They will all be largely illiterate, living in very remote places,” said Keller.

Source: IFLScience

An additional 1,000 children will form the control group, who do not have access to the software, to see how their educational development differs over 18 months.
Each finalist’s software will be given to 600 children, totaling 3,000. An additional 1,000 children will form the control group, who do not have access to the software, to see how their educational development differs over 18 months. Source: IFLScience

Power for the tablets will be provided by 150 solar-charging stations

None of the teams will directly enter any of the villages. Instead, the monitoring will be done by XPRIZE’s partners, UNESCO and the UN World Food Programme. Power for the tablets will be provided by 150 solar-charging stations, one for each village, which will last for up to five years. The children will keep the tablets after the project is over, and XPRIZE hopes they can continue using these for years after.

“It is very important to note this is not a sustainable project,” said Keller. “The hardware does not yet currently exist that would make this sustainable. But we believe we will help drive market forces in such a way that results in devices that will be sustainable over the long term.” 

All of the money for the project is being put forward by Musk, who was born in South Africa, which Keller said made it his “largest philanthropic gift to date.” Musk has kept his involvement in the project fairly quiet, but may become an advocate for it in its later stages. He is not otherwise directly involved.

It might seem a bit strange giving such large prizes to the teams, when that money could be invested elsewhere. But the idea is to provide a more sustainable base in which children in developing countries can access education, and XPRIZE believes this is the best method.

“We are looking for an exponential increase in the number of children who can access quality learning,” said Keller. “Donating $15 million to build schools (many of which fail kids for a variety of reasons) will never get us the scale we need now.“

"Our belief is that technology is the only thing that can – someday – guarantee that every child on Earth has a world-class education in the palm of her hand.”

If the project is successful, the team is hopeful that the software can be applied elsewhere. It could be translated into Arabic, for example, to help refugees living in Syria. It could also help children in other countries who do have access to education but fall behind at school.

Source: IFLScience

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