Global Literacy XPRIZE Invites Comments

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

On Monday, September 22, the XPRIZE Foundation announced the Global Literacy XPRIZE in New York City. This newest XPRIZE may, in some ways, be more ambitious than the previously announced $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. It seeks to bring literacy to more than 300 million children who cannot read, write, or do arithmetic.

The XPRIZE Foundation, in the last part of its proposed rules, says, “At XPRIZE, we don’t believe that we have all the answers, but we believe passionately in inspiring and incentivizing people to find solutions to our Grand Challenges… But we want to hear from you… You can email us your feedback at…” This article summarizes my comments and should stimulate readers to provide theirs. If you have comments for the XPRIZE Foundation, please leave a reply here, in the discussion at the end of this article, for all of our readers to see. Likewise, should you have remarks about my comments, I would love to hear from you. The following comments are my own opinions informed by my own experiences. A good argument may well persuade me to change them. In any event, I look forward to an excellent discussion.


Quickly summarizing the competition: Teams will compete to develop software solutions to learning literacy that can be applied worldwide using Android tablets with nearby servers. Literacy includes reading, writing, and numeracy. The language to be learned will be English. The software will be open source. The software and content, ready for trial in the real world, must be completed within 18 months of selection of the finalists. The overall time frame from announcement to final award is 4-1/2 years. Read the official guidelines for all details.

I’ll begin by praising the XPRIZE Foundation for this bold effort to eliminate illiteracy across the entire globe. Education may well be our most serious problem today because a well educated world (really educated and not just schooled) will address all of our other problems such as clean water, climate change, terrorism, poor nutrition, preventable disease, ocean health, renewable resources, and so on. The Foundation is approaching problems that others ignore or give up on but that must be solved. Their competitions to date have energized entrepreneurs and those with entrepreneurial spirit to attack serious, nearly intractable problems. The technologies being developed are likely to have an impact far removed from the competition in which they are created.

I think that the “Proposed Guidelines, V.1” for this Global Literacy XPRIZE competition, have a number of controversial parts and am highlighting the ones that I believe should be altered. While the comments below are intended to be constructive, they are also definite, blunt, and tough. I feel that they should be if they are to get any attention. The controversial parts I see are: open source, teaching English, writing, and the Android platform. I wrap up with two comments: a contrarian view and literacy as fire.


The rules require that the five finalists, each of whom receives $1 million dollars and a chance at the $10 million grand prize, place their software source code in open source. This requirement is unusual in XPRIZE competitions. I think that it creates problems. Here is what the guidelines say:

An essential component of the Competition design is a commitment not only to open source software solutions, but also to an open source development process. In order to maximize the potential for the growth of this solution beyond XPRIZE, the Finalist Entries will be released under permissive licenses allowing both commercial and non-commercial use.

Software must be released on the Apache License, 2.0. Content and assets must be licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY (4.0) license. In essence, all work must be made available to anyone anywhere for free. Anyone can use the sources to build a copy and load it onto tablets without paying any fee at all. 

I view this aspect as skewing the marketplace for learning technology. What if an entrepreneur already has developed a superior literacy solution using angel investment or a grant but has not released it yet? What about the real entrepreneurs who do it all with no outside money like Steve Jobs did? The company, whether for profit or not for profit, will be faced with two choices: abandon the business or step up their efforts to outdo the XPRIZE teams before their competition is complete. Neither outcome is desirable. The former loses for the world what may be the best hope for global literacy. The latter makes the XPRIZE competition useless.

Entrepreneurs seek money and the excitement of creating change through business. For the really driven innovators, open source will be anathema. Where’s the business model here?

Whatever situation with respect to entrepreneurs, this competition also will result in massive sales of some version of Android tablet. Matt Keller, of the XPRIZE Foundation, suggests that the price of those tablets may reach $10 by the end of the competition. With a potential market of 300 million students, that’s a vast number of sales of tablets. Even if they are shared among five students each, 60 million tablets will be sold. If the profit to the manufacturer is only two dollars per tablet, the hardware people stand to make $120 million from this competition, assuming it succeeds.

This approach unfairly penalizes software creators but not hardware companies.

In addition, due to the rules requiring that the grand prize only be awarded if at least one solution achieves a doubling of literacy over a control group, it is possible that no grand prize will be awarded. In this event, the five finalists must be content with their $1 million prize and with giving up all rights to their software and content, including their innovations and inventions.


It is also possible that a great many entrepreneurs who might compete will not want to give away the work of two-to-four years of their lives with minimal, one-time compensation. A small team of six would each receive less than $100K per annum for their 18-month development effort. The heart of entrepreneurship is building a company. Companies must have revenue to survive. Unless they can monetize this effort, the entrepreneurial company will die. The absolutely best idea for learning literacy may never be seen because entrepreneurs will not join the effort under these guidelines. If the XPRIZE people have something in mind for rewarding highly creative innovation in learning other than the prize itself, they should mention this in their guidelines.

Another issue is that the open source approach only works well under limited circumstances. From all of the successes so far, it seems that the market for open-source software must be broad. Open source in vertical markets appears to be rare. Subject-specific learning is a narrow market. Can open-source software thrive in such a market? I don’t think so unless there is a means to monetize it.

True, software does not have many of the costs associated with hardware. COGS is negligible, and distribution costs almost nothing. However, the cost of software creation is huge and that cost must be amortized. In addition, the costs of maintenance and support tend to be large. According to experts, the cost of maintaining software over its lifetime far exceeds the cost of creating it. If the open-source process is not robust, then maintenance will fail, and the software will decline into a useless state. If, instead, a modest but adequate revenue comes from developing the software, then the company that owns it will have a strong incentive to maintain it and prevent competitors from overtaking it in the market.

As the recent ShellShock virus implies, even such an open-source success as Linux did not have as good a process as most thought. If Linux can have such a glaring security hole despite the hundreds who have worked on it, then you have to wonder about the quality of open source in general.

Finally, the open source concept appears to run counter to the XPRIZE Foundation’s stated goals. Here are some quotes from XPRIZE material:

We believe that you get what you incentivize.

By shifting risk from sponsors to competitors, prizes attract investments of capital and time from motivated participants.

An XPRIZE should give birth to a new industry or transform/revitalize an existing one, with long-lasting benefits.

In a vertical market, open source will not support these ideals.

Making the impossible possible means engaging all of the talent out there, not just the altruists.

Some will argue that using an open-source approach supports the desire for widest possible distribution and for incorporating improvements from a large group of skilled contributors who are excited about improving global literacy. Neither of these goals, wide distribution nor continuing contributions, requires that the software be free. Let the free market work.


The guidelines require that the software teach English no matter what the native language of the area where teaching is taking place. This approach flies in the face of the goal of achieving maximum literacy for several reasons. Importantly, reading comes after speaking in the natural learning process. Teaching reading, and by implication speaking and hearing, in a new language when you cannot yet read in your native language has to be a very difficult task.

The XPRIZE people give five reasons for making this choice:

a. “Conducting the Competition in one common language creates a uniform basis upon which to compare Team Entries.”

There will be six cohorts, one for each of the five finalists and one control. All that is necessary for a fair comparison is that villages be found in groups of six that have a common language and culture. It will be a better test of the power of the solutions if they must function in more than one language for the purposes of the test.

b. “English is a language of global communication, and many developing-country governments have committed to it as a goal.”

This reason/excuse is more about English chauvinism than literacy. With Google Translate, you don’t have to know English to communicate in writing with speakers of over 100 languages. Some governments may have “committed” to it, but when will they do it and will they change their minds as better translation means come into play?

c. “Many Heads of state support English as the language for long-term national productivity and competitiveness.”

It is not even clear what this statement means. It is hardly a reason to impose English upon illiterate village children. How long is “long-term”? How many are “Many heads of state”?

d. “Learning to read and write in English will have immediate local and social value, as well as long-term economic value through as a passport to 21st century skills.”

This also smacks of English chauvinism. Even if true, the path to English literacy must lie through native-language literacy first. What is the “immediate local and social value”? Being able to read your own native language should take priority. How is English a “passport to 21st century skills” when you can translate it to your native language in moments?

e. “Early experiences in using computer-aided learning have shown that children are able to learn basic skills in English regardless of their local language.”

This statement does not address the literacy of those who learn the basic skills in English. I cannot imagine anyone questioning whether children will learn to read more readily in their native language than to do so in a foreign language. Children who have mastered the basics of reading can then move to learning to speak and read a foreign language.

The reading judging process requires things like letter-name knowledge and phonemic awareness. The same letter can have very different sounds in different languages. Indeed, the same letter or letters can have different sounds in English. The mini-classic “Meihem in ce Klasrum” demonstrated the strangeness of English spelling long ago. Even George Bernard Shaw tried to fix the mess that is English spelling.


Many languages do not use the Roman alphabet. Some do not use letters at all. Many do not read left to right. How will learning English help these children be literate in their own languages?

I do not see an overriding reason to impose English on 300 million children and many millions more each year. The only reason seems to be the unstated issue with judging the contest. It may be difficult to find judges fluent in Swahili, for example. English is easy in this regard.

This challenge is not supposed to be easy on the teams or the judges. It is supposed to work for the children. Children will learn literacy best in their native language. Once established, their literacy can be expanded to include English if they, their families, and/or their society so choose.

Teaching them English, especially in some countries, may be perceived as yet another attempt to inject Western culture into societies across the world. It may be perceived as something even more insidious. This is yet another reason to avoid injecting English into these countries.


Only 10% of the points in the final competition comes from teaching students to write. Among the skills of speaking, reading, writing, and arithmetic (or numeracy), writing usually comes last in the order of learning. Writing requires the development of fine motor skills that are not required for the others. The skills for writing are very different from those of reading.

With only ten percent of the final score, were I running a team, I would ignore writing and concentrate on scoring high on the other two. I wouldn’t get a zero on writing in the testing because many students will work on writing without tutoring. It is only a matter of copying and kind of like sketching. I could win because I hadn’t wasted my team’s valuable 18-month development period attempting too much.


The entire contest will take place on Android platforms and will not require solutions to function on any other platform such as iOS (iPad) or Windows (MS Surface). I can understand the pressure to make a single platform for the contest, but I do not understand not penalizing those who choose a single platform solution.

The platforms available will shift. The capabilities of those platforms will change. Any solution that is not platform agnostic has the potential to become useless as technology advances. Part of the contest should require testing, at least internally, on several platforms as well as a statement by each team that their solution is platform agnostic.


Should we be doing this at all, given the advances in technology?

This solution to illiteracy depends heavily on technology, the technology of tablets, servers, and software. Yet, we see amazing things today happening in the area of natural language and technology. Google translates over 100 languages into as many different languages. Voice synthesis has reached the point where the voices are recognizable across a great many languages. Even voice recognition has made great strides.

More powerful computers at lower prices necessarily means that these capabilities will advance. Will they soon reach the point of a paradigm shift? Right now, you can take text on a web page, translate it into any of over 100 languages, and have it read to you in many of those languages. In simple terms, no one has to read anymore — at least if the content is on the Internet.

There’s still the matter of signs and other incidental reading material. Here again, you can point your device at the sign, use OCR to turn it into text, use translation as necessary, and have it spoken to you. Programs that bundle these steps into a single tap will appear.

Is reading reaching the point that arithmetic reached when pocket calculators became common and cheap? Will we soon be able to have reading and writing done for us? Will the written word then begin to vanish?

While there are strong forces opposing such a future, no one can say for certain that it will not happen. Will five years be sufficient? Five years is a generation in computer technology. Imagine that suddenly all of those ten-dollar tablets being sent to illiterate children in mostly sub-Saharan villages have translation, speech synthesis, and voice recognition in the local language available. How many children will put the effort into learning to read when all they have to do is press a button instead?

This future may never materialize. Nevertheless, I think that anyone considering putting these powerful technological tools into the hands of millions of children should be thinking long and hard about this issue.


Just like fire, which can be used to create or to destroy, literacy also has a two-edged nature. Once you can read, you become more available for proselytizing. The printed page can deliver wonderful insights into the world or dangerous lies that seduce the unwary.

For this reason, no literacy program should leave out critical thinking skills. Simply handing children a tool such as literacy does not make sense without instructions for using it well. It’s akin to allowing children to play with matches. The guidelines mention this aspect but do not address it directly:

Literacy opens the mind of a child to a lifetime of critical and creative thinking.

… millions of children… never develop the creative and critical thinking skills necessary to achieve their full potential.

Critical thinking skills should be tested as part of the challenge and should be a requirement for the teams. These skills can be incorporated into the literacy learning seamlessly so that the newly literate children have an advantage over those who have achieved literacy in the past.

One Response

  1. Harry, I like the way you’re taking on powerful issues head-on. Lots of room for discussion. For example, open source. Let’s not forget that the internet and the web are open source, as are most browsers. When you focus on the “open” in open source, you realize that it’s simply a practical way to turn development and maintenance over to a larger community. Thus, no one person or group is carrying the whole burden. By sharing, the load becomes manageable and the program continues to evolve and branch. The business model here is mutual gain, continued innovation, public and private good, and sustainability. Re English as a lingua franca: It’s already a fact. People the world over turn to it when their native languages are mutually unintelligible. For example, in films with international casts from Korea and Japan, English becomes the default language. English is also the official language for international aviation. The other side of the coin is that fluency in English opens the doors for personal advancement in non-English-speaking countries. English is also a gateway to a wide range of information and learning opportunities. Google Translate is extremely primitive, and it’s inadequate as a replacement for fluency in English. Finally, language isn’t an either/or — English or your native tongue. Students can continue to use and grown in the latter while mastering the former. A lot of ways to manage this, e.g., using English as a means to access information online and using the native language as a means to discuss it. Thus, on these two points, open source and English, I have to agree with XPRIZE.

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