Today I watched a news story about the XPRIZE. The XPRIZE website explains what XPRIZE does in clear and simple terms.


The Global Learning XPRIZE challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months. Once the 15-month field-testing phase concludes, the prize purse will be objectively awarded to the team that generates the best international standardized test scores within the group of participating children. Our goal is an empowered generation that will positively impact their communities, countries and the world.

Teams will compete in a multi-stage competition that test for specific criteria:

Ability to measurably increase the learning of children, with limited access to schooling, within the 15-month field-testing period.

Creation of a design that is easy to use and engaging for children, so they can operate it alone and/or in self-organized groups.

Creation of open source software that makes marked improvements to existing technology.


Many excellent ideas there- empowered learners, independent and self-organised groups of learners, and open source software (shame about the standardised testing part).

A similarly inspiring project is the One Laptop per Child project, which states that-

We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

These projects have been devised specifically for developing world socioeconomic conditions. The learning that these projects intend to deliver are extensively mobile learning based in order to compensate for a lack of physical school infrastructure. These projects are designed to operate without teachers for the same reason.

Readers of this blog will probably not be surprised that I consider the design aspects of these projects that attempt to dispense with the necessity for schools and teachers not merely to be make-do substitutions for school and teacher oriented education but potentially as features that could make these projects a model for a more effective form of education than a school and teacher oriented model could provide. I noticed that the XPRIZE story was mentioned in Hack Education Weekly News, where it was described as an example “ed tech imperialism”. If XPRIZE and the like are examples of imperialism then it seems to me that they are no more so imperialist than if schools were built instead. Such schools would no doubt be run along the lines of twentieth century educational institutional traditions. The end of this post discusses the idea that the growth of m-learning in the developing world could give rise to a kind of post-colonial educational methodology feedback that would involve a reversal of the established flow of practices from developed to developing world (Ivan Illych discussed this possibility in Deschooling Society). Such a reversal leads me to think of the arguments made by Alison Gopnik. A review in Nature of ‘Child development: A cognitive case for un-parenting’ mentions that

Gopnik reveals how the parenting model can affect how children explore. She describes a wide range of experiments showing that children learn less through “conscious and deliberate teaching” than through watching, listening and imitating. Among the K’iche’ Maya people of Guatemala, even very young children with little formal schooling can master difficult and dangerous adult skills — such as using a machete — by watching adults engaging in these tasks in slow and exaggerated fashion. In one of Gopnik’s own experiments using a “blicket detector” (a box that lights up and plays music when a certain combination of blocks is placed on it) four- and five-year-olds worked out that unusual combinations rather than individual blocks did the trick — and younger kids were more skilled than older ones at finding unlikely options.

Gopnik makes many references to pre-industrial educational practices of various cultures and argues for their effectiveness due to their deep compatibility with human developmental processes. My personal enthusiasm for EdTech derives from its potential to provide means of cheaply providing widely accessible learning opportunities more in tune with the rhythms of human growth than industrial educational models permit.  

How much though projects like XPRIZE are actually likely to represent improvements on more traditional educational programmes will be partly influenced by these programmes’ curricula. Basic literacy and numeracy are plausibly utilitarian content- unquestionably so in the developed world. In the developing world there may be other more utilitarian study options available. I have posted here before on the possible educational value of maker culture. In one such post I stated that “Amateur manufacturing is not (currently anyway) a realistic basis for meeting the material needs of the people of the world…”- at that point I perhaps should have specified that I was referring to the developed world rather than to places in the world where manufacturing (and various other forms of economic activity) are at most only semi-industrialised. In such places, education concerned with practical techniques for a range of locally relevant production and maintenance activities might be extremely valuable (as contexts for the teaching of literacy and numeracy if nothing else).   

It has occurred to me (as I alluded to earlier) that areas of the developing world with limited educational and industrial infrastructure could be in a position to leapfrog the twentieth century stage of development in education (and perhaps also in manufacturing), similarly to the way that the wire and cable based stage of telecommunications infrastructure was bypassed in some of the developing world, whereby most people that acquired mobile telephones had not done so to replace a landline telephone but simply to have a telephone at all in a place which lacked landline infrastructure. Interestingly, novel uses came to be made of mobile phones in such places to compensate for inadequate banking infrastructure by using prepaid phone cards as currency for remote transfers and it is not hard to imagine m-learning practices catching on easily in these places.

It might be that in the fairly near future the developed world could end up having lessons to learn on education from the developing world. 





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