Just more than two years ago we launched the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE with a mission to empower the nearly 36-million low-literacy adults living in the US—and 780-million adult learners worldwide—to acquire the skills they need to advance their education, find better work, or simply read a bedtime story to their children.
We believe in the power of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE to galvanize the adult education community—both those who have had a life-long commitment to improving the lives of adult learners and those who have come to this work more recently—to think audaciously about solving one of the world’s great learning challenges. We believe that focusing a community’s efforts on a defined problem set—namely, developing mobile tools that learners could use anytime, anywhere—will push us all beyond our collective comfort zone and fundamentally change the way this country addresses a foundational education problem.
Already, we’ve had some important early wins. 109 Teams from 22 countries registered to compete. With 86 of those teams representing 27 states in the U.S., the Adult Literacy XPRIZE had the largest domestic competitor pool of any XPRIZE to-date. These teams collectively spent over a quarter of a million hours in 2016 alone developing tools for adult learners; 41 of these teams turned in a final submission—a fully functional app designed for adult learners reading at or below the equivalent of a third-grade level. That represented the largest number of physical submissions XPRIZE had ever received. And today, we are proud to announce the 8 semifinalist teams.
In many ways, however, defining the problem as a technical one (i.e., “build an app for that”) understates the magnitude of such an undertaking. Teams competing for the Adult Literacy XPRIZE had to develop an app engaging enough that learners would continue using it, effective enough that using it translates to learning, and appropriate for a learner population that struggles with technical literacy and often uses older model phones with inconsistent internet connectivity. Each one of those problem sets is a business onto itself. All of them together? It’s never been done before.
On top of the pedagogical and technical challenges competitors face, proving these solutions work requires large-scale testing across multiple sites over a period of fifteen months. This in itself is a novel, not to mention difficult, undertaking. Adult education has historically been place-based and time-specific, with many organizations serving a small number of learners. We proposed to disrupt that model by getting the semifinalist apps into the hands of 12,000 learners, both ones enrolled in adult education courses and ones that are not, in the greater metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia. This would represent the largest single pool of learners at this level of literacy—equivalent to third-grade or below—enrolled in any one program today.
To reach learners, we teamed up with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Dallas County Community College District, and the Philadelphia Office of Adult Education, as well as dozens of Champions across the three cities. Together, we are activating hundreds of volunteers, more than 100 field operators, and dozens of staff members of these partner organizations. All told, more than 1,000 people will have a hand in recruiting, testing, and enrolling these 12,000 learners. We are calling on all these people because having a lasting impact on anything, and especially on the field of adult education, takes an army.
The biggest heroes, of course, are the adult learners. Their enthusiasm, patience, and sheer desire to learn never ceases to humble me. I joined XPRIZE two years ago because I believe in the importance of this mission and because I believe this project, and the work it requires, can make a significant and lasting contribution to adult education. I believe in the impact education can have on people’s lives, its ability to uplift, and its fundamental importance in creating a more just and equitable society. This is work that matters—today more than ever—and I am grateful for the thousands of competitors, collaborators, and adult learners who are creating this impact.
I look forward to the road ahead of us, and am confident that together we will maximize the impact of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
Shlomy Kattan is Senior Director of the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation.