XPRIZE and UNESCO

Jun 19 2018

Four years ago, when we first decided to conduct the field test for the Global learning XPRIZE in Tanzania, we were looking for a partner willing to take a chance on something audacious. A partner whose focus was education and who believed in the possibility of technology as a means to achieving universal access to learning. A partner who also believed strongly in the Global Learning XPRIZE belief that by supporting open-source solutions, we would exponentially increase the possibility that the crowd will take what is produced and make it into something even better for the world to share.

We found that partner in UNESCO when we walked into their office in Dar es Salaam and met with their passionate and energetic country director four years ago. A country director who said to us “This is what we have been looking for. Let’s get to work!”

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and acts as the chief education partner with various governments around the world. The depth and breadth of its work in education, science, and culture is stunning, and the imprint it leaves on the world is felt by hundreds of millions of people across the globe on a daily basis. And for XPRIZE, with no office anywhere outside of Los Angeles at the time, finding a partner like UNESCO who had a close working relationship with the government, and who was willing to take a chance, was like discovering gold.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is a $15 million competition sponsored by Elon Musk that challenges teams from around the world to develop open-source software and content designed to bring children from zero literacy to much higher levels of literacy on their own and with each other in reading, writing, and math in 15 months. When we launched the Prize in the fall of 2014, 700 teams from 55 countries around the world signed up to compete. In September of 2017, we announced the top five, and in December of last year, we took those five applications and put them into the hands of more than 2500 children in 141 remote villages in Eastern Tanzania to test each team’s application. The team that brings their cohort of roughly 500 children to the highest levels of literacy will win the XPRIZE.

Since we formally partnered with UNESCO, they have been on the ground getting ready for this one-of-a-kind field test. From working closely with the Government of Tanzania in choosing the children, from selecting and working with the 141 “Village Mamas” -- women from each village who have been empowered to ensure the smooth functioning of the test – UNESCO has been using its deep knowledge of education, and its commitment to working closely with the government to make the Global Learning XPRIZE possible.

It’s funny how sometimes things work out in ways you never imagine. When we walked into the UNESCO office four years ago, we didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a UN organization who shared our belief that the world has to move faster in reaching all children, and that technology was the thing that could get us to that kind of scale. What we found was a UN agency uniquely qualified to ensure a successful competition, and more importantly, a UN agency willing to take a chance on the unknown and the audacious.