The Elon Musk Project You've Never Heard Of That Might Change The World

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Elon Musk is revolutionizing space travel, electric cars, solar power, and even tunnels these days. But you probably didn’t know he’s funding a project to help children in Tanzania read and write to the tune of $15 million.

It’s called the Global Learning XPRIZE, the latest attempt from the XPRIZE Foundation to revolutionize a new area of the world. They’ve tackled space planes and tricorders in the past, and are currently also running a race to the Moon.

This time around, the project is a much more humanitarian effort. The goal is to find a way to teach illiterate children to read, write, and do math by themselves. Globally, about 260 million children do not have access to primary or secondary education.

This project aims to address that. In Tanzania, children from 150 villages will be given one of 8,000 Pixel C tablets supplied by Google. On them will be software designed by a variety of teams as part of the XPRIZE to help the children (aged seven to ten) learn without more formal education.

Today, XPRIZE announced it had picked 11 semi-finalists from around the world, whittled down from 198 entrants in 2014, to move on to the next stage of the project. These will now have one month to finalize their software, which must be open source. In September, five finalists will be picked, each awarded $1 million, to move ahead with tests in Tanzania.

A test in Malawi performed by the team onebillion. XPRIZE Foundation

“The goal is getting [the children] to the highest level possible, but particularly to the cusp of going from learning to read to reading to learn,” Matt Keller, senior director for the Global Learning XPRIZE, told IFLScience. “It’s a moon shot for sure.”

Over 18 months, the children will use the learning resources on the tablets, with “substantial” pre-tests and post-tests focusing on reading, writing, and arithmetic, said Keller. Whichever team sees the most marked improvement in their children – compared to a control group – will win $10 million.

The tests that will be used are the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and the Early Grade Math Assessment (EGMA). XPRIZE has picked children who live very far from a school, making getting an education almost impossible. “They will all be largely illiterate, living in very remote places,” said Keller.

Each finalist’s software will be given to 600 children, totaling 3,000. An additional 1,000 children will form the control group, who do not have access to the software, to see how their educational development differs over 18 months.

You can read more about each team here. Some have developed software that uses games and stories to help the children learn, while others make use of machine learning and facial recognition.

None of the teams will directly enter any of the villages. Instead, the monitoring will be done by XPRIZE’s partners, UNESCO and the UN World Food Programme. Power for the tablets will be provided by 150 solar-charging stations, one for each village, which will last for up to five years. The children will keep the tablets after the project is over, and XPRIZE hopes they can continue using these for years after.

“It is very important to note this is not a sustainable project,” said Keller. “The hardware does not yet currently exist that would make this sustainable. But we believe we will help drive market forces in such a way that results in devices that will be sustainable over the long term.”

All of the money for the project is being put forward by Musk, who was born in South Africa, which Keller said made it his “largest philanthropic gift to date.” Musk has kept his involvement in the project fairly quiet, but IFLScience understands he will become an advocate for it in its later stages. He is not otherwise directly involved.

XPRIZE Foundation

It might seem a bit strange giving such large prizes to the teams, when that money could be invested elsewhere. But the idea is to provide a more sustainable base in which children in developing countries can access education, and XPRIZE believes this is the best method.

“We are looking for an exponential increase in the number of children who can access quality learning,” said Keller. “Donating $15 million to build schools (many of which fail kids for a variety of reasons) will never get us the scale we need now.

“Our belief is that technology is the only thing that can – someday – guarantee that every child on Earth has a world-class education in the palm of her hand.”

If the project is successful, the team is hopeful that the software can be applied elsewhere. It could be translated into Arabic, for example, to help refugees living in Syria. It could also help children in other countries who do have access to education but fall behind at school.

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