Global Learning XPRIZE Seeks to Solve Mass Illiteracy

From giving laptops to children in Ethiopia, to directing what is likely the world’s largest open-sourced EdTech competition, Matt Keller’s life passion is helping children with limited access to education acquire the opportunity to learn. With a total prize purse of $15 million, the first ever Global Learning XPRIZE is seeking the next revolutionary idea in tech-based learning. Senior Director of the Global Learning XPRIZE, Matt recently joined us to discuss this groundbreaking contest.

Conscious Connection: Matt, thank you for being with us. Tell us a little about the mission of the XPRIZE Foundation.

Matt Keller: XPRIZE is designed to inspire innovation, particularly technological innovation, to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. It’s a model that’s very different from the foundation model. The foundation model rewards past performance with a promise of somewhat incremental change in the future. We don’t care about past performance. We think that given an opportunity, lots of people just need to be asked, and that creates dynamism and innovation from the most unlikely sources.

Conscious Connection: Give me an overview of what you’re doing with this global competition to empower children to take control of their own learning.

Matt Keller: Sure. We know that there are roughly 60 million kids in the world who don’t have access to any school. About 250-300 million kids either are in school or they go to school for years without learning how to read or write or do basic arithmetic. [While] training good teachers and building schools is a great idea, it’s really hard to scale.

But can we prove that kids can teach themselves and each other how to read, write, and do arithmetic without any aid from adults? If we can prove that, does that mean that governments and multilateral institutions will begin to look at technology as part of an answer? The prize is designed with that in mind. If we can prove it, we think the world will take notice.

In order to get there, we’ve announced the Global Learning XPRIZE. Teams will register, and teams will then have 18 months beginning on April 1st to develop their solutions, both software and content solutions. We’ll then go through the submissions, pick the top five, and those five teams will each get $1 million. Their solutions will be open sourced, so the world will benefit from what they’ve done.

Those five solutions will be loaded onto tablets and given to kids in East Africa and we’ll monitor their development over another 18-month period. Then the margins will determine the winner, and the winner will get $10 million.

Conscious Connection: Can you elaborate a little on the idea of crowdsourcing innovation to solve challenges, and perhaps tie in some history on these incentivized prize competitions?

Matt Keller: Sure. To illustrate the point, 300 years ago there was the Longitude Prize. People were crashing ships and treasure was lost because nobody could figure out how to measure longitude. So the King of England set up a prize, roughly $10 million in today’s dollars. Everybody thought the astronomers of the world would win the prize. Turns out, a clockmaker from Bristol, England, a man named John Harrison, invented something called the chronometer which was used for a very long time to measure longitude. So you leverage the prize purse and you get somebody who just needs to be asked to win.

The crowd knows way more than we do about anything. We’re not an NGO that thinks that we have the answer to the problem. We don’t. We think the crowd does. And that’s the genius of this model.

Conscious Connection: What originally inspired you to join the XPRIZE team? Talk a little about your background and what you were doing at the One Laptop per Child program.

Matt Keller: I’d been working with Nicholas Negroponte [of One Laptop per Child] and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to give kids laptops, walk away, and see what they could do?” By the time we decided to do it, tablets had come online. So we gave kids tablets and kind of walked away and monitored their progress over the course of about 14 months.

What we found were three things. First, that even though these kids had never seen a tablet before, within seconds they were manipulating tablets, within hours they we opening apps, and within a couple of days they were using hundreds of apps. Second, that kids organically form learning environments where older kids begin to teach younger kids, and the kids who know begin to teach the kids who don’t know. It’s a really powerful idea, the idea of child-to-child learning. Third is child centric learning, autodidacticism, where kids actually can teach themselves using a tablet, primarily because of the form factor – it’s easy to manipulate, it’s intuitive – but also because a tablet is infinitely patient, so you can go back and back and back, again and again and again. The tablet never loses patience with you, so you can master something before you go to the next level.

So Nicholas and I had heard about XPRIZE modeling the prize off of our work, and things worked out where they brought me on board to conceptualize the Global Learning XPRIZE and then implement it.

Conscious Connection: So what kind of solutions are you expecting to receive through the competition?

Matt Keller: I hope that it’s an AI-based solution that anticipates learning curves, knows where the child is, and knows what the child doesn’t know, so that it allows the child to teach [the technology]. A big part of our project in Ethiopia was the very notion that the next phase of AI could be directed at child centric learning. It could be the personal nature of the tablet and the individual child. That’s where I think the exciting breakthrough could come, because every child learns at different rates. Could that machine learn where that child is in a way that’s really personal to that child? If that happens, I think you’ve got something that’s really profound.

Conscious Connection: So how can teams register, and what are the qualifiers?

Matt Keller: It’s really easy. Go to, sign something called an “intent to compete” form, and then, sometime in March, teams will be asked to pay $500 and fill out something a little more substantial, a form that shows that you’re serious. That means you’re registered. Then you have 18 months to work on your solution. At the end of those 18 months you submit your solution. We’ll have a panel of up to 50 judges, who will then go over the solutions submitted and pick the top five that will go into the field.

Conscious Connection: You’ve had a lot of success in your career as a social entrepreneur, as someone who’s built a lifestyle where you’ve been successful in addressing some of these grand challenges. What advice do you have for other aspiring social entrepreneurs or business people who are looking to make a difference doing what they love?

Matt Keller: I think you answered your own question…it’s doing what you love, it’s passion. That’s how you make a difference. You love what you do. If you’re the guy at Goldman Sachs who gets a rush from doing what you do and you love it, you’re going to be successful. If you’re the one who thinks bringing clean water to a billion people will be the thing you love, you’re going to be successful – if you really love it. It’s cliché, but it’s following that passion that’s going to make the difference in your career. The older I get the more convinced I am of that.

Conscious Connection: What are some ways our readers can get involved with XPRIZE?

Matt Keller: There’s a forum we’re starting. You can go online and begin discussing some of these issues, whether it’s health, the environment, learning, or children. What we want to do is engage a global network of people who care about this stuff.

We live a world that is becoming increasingly connected. We’re at the one-second mark of understanding this connection and how technology fosters that connection, but we’re trying to create a global community of citizens who care about this stuff, who are passionate, and who want to get involved whatever way they can. So, maybe they have friends who they know that could compete, maybe they just want to be part of the discussion and offer ideas, maybe they want to critique them. The more people who are engaged, the better off we are.

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