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Can A Computer Teach Children to Read and Write?

2017-10-05

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[00:00.00]
  • The Global Learning XPrize competition is looking at ways in which children can teach themselves reading, writing and mathematics with only a tablet computer.
  • [00:17.15]
  • The XPrize Foundation and its supporters are offering $15 million for computer programs that teach simple skills to people who have never attended school.
  • [00:35.92]
  • Matt Keller is senior director of the competition.
  • [00:41.67]
  • 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.”
  • [00:52.65]
  • The first Global XPrize competition is awarding millions of dollars to the team or company that develops the best educational app.
  • [01:06.96]
  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, estimates that 263 million children around the world are not in school.
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  • Teaching these boys and girls is a problem that researchers are trying to solve.
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  • Keller spoke to VOA about the prize.
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  • “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.”
  • [01:55.50]
  • About 200 teams entered the competition. From that group, judges chose five finalists.
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  • Each was given $1 million.
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  • From the five, the judges will choose a winner to receive a $10 million grand prize.
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  • The finalists will begin testing their computer applications in November.
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  • The testing will involve nearly 4,000 children from the Tanga area of Tanzania.
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  • The apps will be loaded on tablet computers donated by the American technology company Google.
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  • The children will try to teach themselves basic educational skills with only the tablets.
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  • A smaller group of children will be tested on their understanding of reading and math.
  • [03:04.51]
  • After 15 months, the same students will be re-tested.
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  • The top prize will go to the developer team whose programs provide the highest proficiency gains among the students.
  • [03:22.38]
  • The XPrize group also is working with UNESCO, the World Food Program and the government of Tanzania.
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  • They will give out and provide support for the tablet computers.
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  • Keller told VOA that the plan suggested by the XPrize competition is different from other methods of education.
  • [03:52.47]
  • “Most development organizations and most aid agencies and most governments are focused on building new schools and training new teachers,” he said.
  • [04:07.99]
  • Keller said there are many children who do not go to school.
  • [04:13.83]
  • 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?”
  • [04:32.90]
  • The competition is partly a reaction to a growing education problem.
  • [04:40.03]
  • The United Nations has set a goal of providing universal primary and secondary education by 2030.
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  • This is one of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • [04:59.99]
  • A UNESCO report estimates that the world will need almost 69 million more teachers to meet that goal.
  • [05:11.32]
  • “That’s simply not possible,” said Jamie Stuart, who helped launch the non-profit group Onebillion, which is one of the XPrize finalists.
  • [05:24.58]
  • He told VOA, “We have to look for radical alternatives in terms of children’s learning.”
  • [05:34.11]
  • Developers at Onebillion have tested their app, called Onecourse, for the past 10 years in Malawi.
  • [05:45.49]
  • The program is designed so that children can use it with little or no adult assistance.
  • [05:54.36]
  • It teaches reading and number skills with an electronic teacher that “speaks” in the children's language.
  • [06:04.66]
  • However, there are many problems to overcome in making a successful app.
  • [06:12.60]
  • One, is making a program that works with people who have never before used a tablet computer.
  • [06:22.71]
  • Stuart said what is most important is “keeping it simple, keeping it focused on the individual needs of the child.”
  • [06:35.09]
  • Other finalists use different ways to teach children.
  • [06:40.77]
  • Curriculum Concepts International created an app that combines games, videos and books.
  • [06:50.85]
  • Another finalist, Chimple, educates children through play and discovery-based learning.
  • [07:00.26]
  • Another app, called Kitkit, was designed for children with learning disabilities.
  • [07:09.37]
  • And a fifth, called RoboTutor, involves artificial intelligence and machine learning.
  • [07:18.53]
  • I’m Caty Weaver.
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