Global Learning XPRIZE winners could transform US classrooms

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May 28, 2019

Earlier this month, the Global Learning XPRIZE announced two winnersKitkit School and Onebillion—for a $10 million award for developing “software that empowers children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic within 15 months.” The competition aims to initiate a sea change for millions of children worldwide who lack access to basic education. Yet the XPRIZE results are worth watching not only for what they could do for children in the developing world, but also for how they could come to influence education in developed countries like the US.

For both of the winners, the goal is autonomous learning—enabling students to master basic literacy and numeracy without any support from teachers. To do this, the companies developed apps loaded with books and game-like learning activities that run on inexpensive tablets. To field test the technologies, XPRIZE deployed them to students in Tanzania, most of whom had no previous formal schooling.

US educators likely see these apps as poor substitutes for professional, teacher-led instruction. Nonetheless, don’t underestimate the disruptive potential of innovations that start off looking mediocre.

At the outset, disruptive innovations are always inferior to the conventional solutions available to the more privileged segments of society. This is why they nearly always get their start serving nonconsumers: people who are delighted with substandard solutions because they lack access to alternatives. In this case, nonconsumers are families who lack access to quality schools and children shut out of formal schooling altogether due to factors like gender, income, or political discord. Nonconsumers offer disruptive innovations the runway they need for improving over time until they become viable alternatives to the mainstream.

Could XPRIZE winners disrupt US education?

If the XPRIZE contenders can commercialize their technologies to families and governments in the developing world, those technologies will be on a trajectory to eventually change the way we teach basic literacy and numeracy in the US.

Does this mean software-loaded tablets will eventually replace elementary schools in the United States? No. Elementary schools offer more than just basic literacy and numeracy training. They give working parents a safe place to send their children during the day; they serve as community hubs where children learn to socialize; and they provide enriched learning experiences through science fairs, creative writing projects, field trips, maker spaces, school plays, and the like. Software does not compete with schools. Rather, it competes with the higher-cost teacher-led instruction that schools currently use to teach mastery of basic knowledge and skills.

But what about the early learning software US schools already use? US schools are not wanting for technology tools, but many tools serving the US market are designed to support how schools look today, rather than radically reimagine how they might look in the future. They aim to support teacher-led instruction, not to work independently from teachers. When apps made for the developing world get good enough to substitute for teacher-led instruction, they could theoretically compete in the crowded US market on price and convenience because they don’t require schools to train their teachers on how to integrate the tools with teaching practices.

Unlocking new roles for teachers

Then does this mean software is going to disrupt teachers? Yes and no. As educational software improves over time, it will likely start to rival teacher-led instruction in basic literacy and numeracy. The more that teaching literacy and numeracy becomes a science, the more software will be able to adroitly fulfill that instructional role.

However, disrupting some tasks on teachers’ plates is not the same as disrupting teachers. Good teachers do much more than instill basic literacy and numeracy. For one, they provide the “why” of learning: they care about their students, believe in their students, and create classroom cultures that value academic achievement. Additionally, teachers are the designers and orchestrators of the rich, school-based learning experiences described above. Teachers should welcome software that disrupts some of their instructional roles because, in so doing, it empowers them with more capacity (i.e. time) for the valuable parts of their work that software cannot do.

Disruption is a process—it doesn’t happen overnight. For the next five years, I’ll be watching closely to see how the Kitkit School and Onebillion develop their technologies into sustainable educational solutions for students in Tanzania and other parts of the developing world. Then for the following five years, I’ll be watching to see how the companies—or other derivatives of their open-source technology—make their way into classrooms the world over. Meanwhile, schools in the US should be on the lookout for XPRIZE-like software. When the software gets good enough to allow US students to learn basic literacy and numeracy on their own, it will be a boon to teachers by giving them more capacity for student-centered learning experiences that software can’t provide.

The XPRIZE challenge has now been won, but the education transformation it can fuel has only begun.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.