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X-Prize taps the crowd to tackle global education

The goal: Create software so exciting to use that kids will want to teach themselves to read and do math.

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    Schoolchildren sit under a tree where classes are being held in Leer, Unity State, South Sudan. The classes are taught by volunteer teachers.
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The United Nations estimates 58 million children from ages 6 to 11 don’t attend school, a number that has remained stubbornly stagnant since the middle of the last decade.

One nonprofit believes it has the solution: Create software so exciting to use that kids will want to teach themselves.

X-Prize is challenging entrepreneurs to develop open-source software that children can use to acquire basic literacy and arithmetic skills on their own.

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"It’s based on the supposition, still unproven, that kids can teach themselves how to read and write," says Matt Keller, director of the Global Learning X-Prize.

The five best submissions will receive $1 million each to test their software in 100 villages in an English-speaking part of sub-Saharan Africa. The best of those five will receive a $10 million prize so long as the software improves learning.

X-Prize has managed a number of similar competitions in the past, including the $30-million Google Lunar X-Prize for private space flight and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt’s $2-million challenge to reduce ocean pollution.

This competition differs from those predecessors in three ways.

First, it addresses education, a new topic for X-Prize.

Second, the $10 million purse comes courtesy of an anonymous donor.

Third, and perhaps most intriguingly, X-Prize will attempt to expand the competition by raising about $3 million through the crowdfunding platform IndieGogo. If the crowdfunding campaign succeeds, the five-team competition phase will include villages in a second yet-to-be-identified country—most likely India.

"We’re not an NGO that thinks we have the solution," says Mr. Keller. "We think the crowd does. So this is tied into our ethic."

Though the Global Learning X-Prize will move forward regardless of crowd participation, Mr. Keller believes future prizes could be completely crowd-funded. That would mark a turn for the organization, which since 1995 has relied on splashy one-time gifts from prominent donors.

The topic of the most recent prize also figures to raise eyebrows. By diving into such a politically fraught cause, the organization will almost certainly confront criticism.

Mr. Keller says X-Prize’s goal is "not to supplant existing school systems but to supplement what’s out there" and that the winning application will mostly serve students who otherwise wouldn’t have had teachers. He hopes developed countries will eventually use the technology to aid overburdened instructors in crowded classrooms.

He says he’s talked to "a lot of teachers" about the idea of self-teaching software, and they’ve all responded with enthusiasm. He has not spoken with any teachers' unions.

Mr. Keller believes the challenge facing applicants is twofold. On the back end, hopefuls will have to program software sophisticated enough to know what its users know and adapt accordingly. Just as crucial, they’ll have to weave that program into an interface compelling enough to compete with the usual distractions of childhood.

"My guess is the team that wins is going to be the team that develops something so sticky, so dynamic, so engaging that kids are enthralled by it," says Mr. Keller. "They’re going to learn in spite of themselves."

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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