XPRIZE competition spurs developers to build adult literacy apps


A $7 million team competition designed to create mobile literacy learning applications for adults has already unleashed a wave of promising innovations, according to the director of the competition.

While the deadline for completing the projects is still about six months away (March 2017), some of the competing teams are “really doing incredibly innovative stuff,” based on status reports recently submitted by the teams, said Shlomy Kattan, senior director of the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE. The Dollar General Literacy Foundation supports the contest.

The mid-competition status reports from the teams “gave us very good insight into where teams are in the development cycle, and what kinds of tools teams are developing,” he said.

“Every submission that we’re seeing is on one scale or another pushing the envelope,” he told EdScoop. Some of most creative teams are developing applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning, he said.

One team has already realized the market potential for the product it was developing, he added. “They already have community-based organizations using their tools,” Kattan said. “They said themselves that they wouldn’t have done it without the XPRIZE. We’re starting to see returns on impact that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

“We’re seeing teams that are taking pedagogical-solution approaches that historically have been face to face and digitizing them for the first time,” Kattan said.

The Adult Literacy XPRIZE is a global competition to develop a mobile app resulting in the greatest increase in literacy skills among adult learners. The initiative, which was launched launched in June 2015, has challenged teams of developers, educators, engineers and other innovators to demonstrate that their technology can substantially improve the literacy proficiency of adults reading at or below a third-grade level within a 12-month period.

Following solution submissions next March, a panel of independent judges will select up to 15 semifinalists. Each semifinalist team’s mobile software app will then be tested with about 800 field participants for a year. At mid-point in the field test, five finalists will be selected based the performance of their apps up to that time. Winners will be picked from the pool of five finalists based on the gains in literacy skills among the field participants.

The winning team will receive a grand prize of $3 million, while teams selected as finalists will receive $100,000 each. Achievement prizes of $1 million each will be given to the two teams that can demonstrate the greatest literacy gains by their field participants among native English speakers and non-native English speakers, respectively.

In addition, finalist apps that show gains in literacy skills among field participants will then be deployed in a Cities Competition in which cities will compete to encourage the greatest percentage of their low-literate residents to download the use the applications over a six-month period. Finalists that advance to the Cities Competition will split an award of $500,000.

The competition started with 109 teams, including 86 from the U.S., Kattan said. Some 85 teams are left in the field, a 22 percent attrition rate.

“Actually, for this stage of the competition that’s low compared to what we’ve seen in [other XPRIZE competitions],” he said. “It’s generally nine months into a solution-development phase that we usually see somewhere between a 30 and 50 percent attrition rate. It confirms for us that the [adult literacy] teams are serious; they’re devoting serious time, effort and resources to developing these tools.”

While about 36 million adults in U.S. lack basic literacy skills, the existing learning infrastructure can only support about 5 percent of that population per year, Kattan said. Neither government nor the private sector can provide the support needed to help alleviate the problem.

“Government is going to spend on other [non-adult literacy] segments of the education system because they believe there’s a higher return on investment on that and that’s traditionally been the case,” he said.

“But also if you look at the way funding is structured for adult education, it’s actually shifting away from adult basic ed to workforce training. And private industry doesn’t really have an incentive to invest R&D dollars innovating in the adult education space because there are no large institutional buyers. So market forces in private industry and government strategy don’t allow for long-term investment in this field.”

The XPRIZE competition is helping to change that, Kattan said. “This competition has led to the creation of 85 companies that are building tools for all these learners,” he said. “And it’s an amazing set of innovations that we’re seeing.”