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New $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE wants to disrupt education as we know it

The new $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE hopes to disrupt the world of education through software-based tablet solutions. (Global Learning XPRIZE)

The new $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE competition, announced by Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE chairman and chief executive, at the Social Good Summit in New York City Monday, is the latest attempt to bring a technology-based solution to the educational crisis in the developing world. This Global Learning XPRIZE — which follows in the footsteps of other successful XPRIZE competitions — envisions teams of educators and technologists competing to create software-based tablet solutions for learning in which children are empowered to autonomously learn basic skills related to reading, writing and arithmetic.

The Global Learning XPRIZE will launch with a six-month team registration period. Registered teams will then have 18 months to develop their solutions. A panel of third-party expert judges will then evaluate and select the top five teams to proceed in the competition, each receiving a $1 million award. A $10 million top prize will ultimately be awarded to the team that develops a technology solution demonstrating the greatest levels of proficiency gains in reading, writing and arithmetic. The total timeframe of the competition is projected to be five years.

In many ways, this new Global Learning XPRIZE represents the continuation of the vision of Diamandis, who famously outlined in his book “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think” all the advantages of bringing technology to bear on the world’s most intractable problems. Education in the developing world — where as many as 250 million children are not being taught how to read, write or do arithmetic — certainly qualifies as one of these problems. Now Diamandis thinks innovations such as smartphones and tablets — once they’re networked and hooked up to the Internet — may be the answer, “Today, education needs to be continuous and exponential. Kids don’t learn linearly anymore, they have tablets, smartphones and the Internet, providing instant information at their fingertips, 24 hours a day,” Diamandis told me via e-mail.

As Diamandis emphasizes, what’s needed is a new way of thinking about education if we plan to educate tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of children: “Traditional models of learning are not scalable,” Diamandis said. “We simply cannot build enough schools or train enough teachers, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is necessary.”

Skeptics, no doubt, will question whether the prize marks more of a disruptive or incremental innovation to change the future of education. They will cite the mixed (and sometimes controversial) record of the One Laptop Per Child program, famously launched by Nicholas Negroponte in 2005, as proof that simply switching from laptops to tablets and from hardware to software won’t make much of a difference. They will point out that many of the technological wrinkles of the Global Learning XPRIZE – like a crowdfunding option on IndieGoGo to help teams raise money for recruiting new members or field-testing solutions — sound more like clever add-ons rather than as something leading to a radically new approach to education.

However, the prize’s senior director, Matt Keller, himself a veteran of the One Laptop Per Child program, points out that the software-and-tablets approach to education is fundamentally different from the hardware-and-laptops approach of a decade earlier. For one, tablets are much more intuitive for children to master. Secondly, open-source software solutions are more scalable than any hardware solutions. Finally, as Keller points out, “The Global Learning XPRIZE is the first effort of its kind and scale where the public is asked to develop original content and applications for tablets that will be put directly into the hands of children, empowering them teach themselves and each other.”

Whether or not the competition is successful is dependent, in many ways, on whether or not it can fundamentally disrupt today’s educational model. As much as we talk about “flipping the classroom” or “massive open online courses,” we still have the same pedagogical model at work — a teacher, a classroom, and courses divided into smaller learning modules. Within the MOOC world, there has been much talk of whether the MOOC model is failing or succeeding, mostly because it is being measured by historical notions of learning rather than by newer notions of “continuous” and “networked” learning.

All that could change, if the vision of the XPRIZE comes to fruition. For one, there won’t necessarily be a classroom. Students will learn everywhere they go. Diamandis refers to this as the difference between linear and exponential learning. Secondly, there won’t be teachers the way we think of teachers today. Even students learning autonomously will require much more peer-to-peer learning, in which students armed with apps and tablets teach each other about the world. Finally, there won’t necessarily be “courses” or “learning modules” involved in the next iteration of educational innovation. There will be software and apps, and it will be up to the prize teams to define exactly what these do.

In fact, says Keller, it’s probably best if we don’t try to define up-front what’s expected of the newest XPRIZE: “The sky is the limit here. We expect to see a number of novel ways to customize individual learning, including solutions related to artificial intelligence, gamification and many others areas.”

In short, instead of just “flipping the classroom,” we could be talking about blowing up the classroom. And that could lead to some really interesting innovations. Moreover, it’s not a cinch that the winning teams will be primarily educators or technologists. The best work, says Diamandis, might come from “a neuroscientist from Boston, a coder from San Jose and school teacher from Nairobi.”

And, best of all, since all the winning solutions will be made available globally under an open-source license, they will be free for educators around the world to download and then modify. That’s one of the key results envisioned by Diamandis.

If this new prize competition lives up to its early promise, we could be talking about a radically new approach to education within our lifetime that involves a new model: no teachers, no classrooms, no courses and no grades. Instead, education will be abundant and cheap and available at the swipe of a finger.