Eliminating Worldwide Illiteracy with Electronic Tablets but Without School Teachers?

This blog will take a one-week early summer break and come back in June on a new, three-day, Monday-Wednesday-Friday summer schedule.  Look for a new post on Monday, June 3.

Diane Ravitch made the announcement yesterday morning on her blog:  A U.S. philanthropy has awarded $10 million in prize money to two companies—Kitkit School and Onebillion—for developing and testing out in Tanzania an electronic tablet program for teacherless education.  “You knew this was coming, didn’t you?” writes Ravitch.

First it was Bridge International Academies, the for-profit, international private school venture underwritten by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other philanthropists and operating in Kenya, Liberia, Uganda and India. At Bridge Academies, students must pay tuition, teachers in the schools must continually recruit new students, and teachers must present scripted curricula delivered to them electronically from a central site.  Critics have pointed out that by employing less educated teachers who merely present scripted lessons, colonialist efforts like this one are undermining the development of a strong profession of well qualified school teachers in the locations of such experiments.

This week the news is not about scripted curricula delivered to teachers in the Global South. This week’s XPRIZE is for newly developed, programmed tablets to do the job of the teachers.

Philanthropy News Digest describes the challenge XPRIZE presented to several tech developers when it asked them to come up with teacherless teaching: “Launched in 2014 with support from the Merkin Family, Dick & Betsy DeVos Family, and Tony Robbins foundations, Elon Musk, and other funders, the Global Learning XPRIZE challenged innovators to develop scalable solutions that enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and math skills within fifteen months.  Each of the five finalists received $1 million to field test their solutions in Tanzania, where three thousand children learned on tablets donated by Google that were preloaded with one of the five solutions. The two winning organizations will share the $10 million grand prize for enabling the greatest proficiency gains in reading, writing, and math.”

Ironically one of the philanthropies which underwrote the initiative is the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Our U.S. Secretary of Education has been funding experiments in eliminating the teacher from the field of education.

A year ago in a press release, XPRIZE described its four-year partnership with UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In the press release describing UNESCO’s role in the four-year field testing of its teacherless teaching initiative, XPRIZE explained: “We found (a) 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!’…  (F)or 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.”

Last year’s XPRIZE press release continues, describing the four-year pilot, whose purpose was “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.”

Philanthropy News Digest‘s recent report on the new prize winners explains that the open source software is available in Swahili and English on GitHubPhilanthropy News Digest also describes the claims XPRIZE makes for the software programmed on the Google tablets which were given to the children who participated in the Tanzanian pilot program: “According to the foundation, 74 percent of the children participating in the field test had never attended school, 80 percent had never been read to at home, and more than 90 percent could not read a single word in Swahili.  After fifteen months of field testing, the final figure was cut in half, while all five solutions proved to be effective in terms of teaching math skills to girls and boys.”

EdSurge describes the prize winners, Kitkit School based in Berkeley, California and Onebillion, based in London: “Kitkit offers a game-based learning program on tablets to help children learn independently. The app offers a library of books and videos and 2,400 learning activities across 22 sessions covering math and reading. It is developed by Enuma, which also develops Todo Math, an app for children in pre-K to second grade with over 700 math activities. Onebillion makes a solar-powered tablet, along with the Onecourse app that houses activities for reading, writing and math, plus a library of over 300 stories. It claims to have reached over 100,000 children worldwide through partnerships with organizations like the University of Oxford and the Cambodian Children’s Fund.”

While one does not want to leap to a condemnation of new electronic educational tools, there are a lot of questions that arise as one begins to think about all this. In impoverished communities, will families be expected to buy the tablets and how long will they last? Will families want their children to spend a lot of time working with a tablet or are there other expectations for children? Who is going to make a profit from the sale of the tablets and software? Is the curriculum culturally shaped for the children who will be using it? Will advertising accompany the lessons, luring children to covet a world of material products they cannot afford? Will these tablets be promoted to poor children as a cheap substitute for schooling?

None of this week’s announcements hyping the XPRIZE explores the moral implications of powerful, big-money, venture philanthropists dabbling in the Global South and promoting such “save-the-world” projects. The best caution I’ve recently read is in Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s fictional account of Aimee—a Madonna-like celebrity performer who has founded a school in The Gambia. The book’s narrator, a young woman who merely works as Aimee’s assistant, has developed some qualms about the hypocrisy of the project in which, merely by working for her boss, she has allowed herself to become involved:

“Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for the souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in this world, she continued, adjusting the incline on her running machine until I, who walked on the neighboring one, seemed to be watching her dash up the side of Kilimanjaro, well, then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see.  By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.  It was a moral category but also an economic one.  And if you followed the logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness—or potential for goodness—a person possessed.”