Scripta Varia

Global Learning

Matt Keller
Senior Director, Global Learning XPRIZE, USA

Miguel Brechner is my former colleague of six years so I feel very honoured following him here and some is relevant, I am talking about education. I think it is included in this for obvious reasons, which is that the right to education is acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. This is an amalgamation of the language, but I think it is very powerful and important to talk about it here today and be very clear as to what the nature of this right is, and that “education shall be directed to the full development of human personality”. And, “shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”, so it is foundational to much of what we discuss here today. And the reason for bringing it up and, I will add in addition that SDG 4, as Jeff Sachs pointed out, goes beyond that and talks about quality education. Quality education, as opposed to simply access to bare minimum education, which is a very important step forward, I think, in the UN’s history. So, that Universal Declaration in Article 26, adopted in 1948, is foundational to, I think, a lot of this discussion in that today, access to that fundamental right, that fundamental human right, that we all acknowledge is dependent in large part on a child’s ability to connect. And that statement becomes important when it is juxtaposed against the numbers that we see here. And the numbers that we see are that 60 million children do not have access to primary school. Those numbers go up wildly when you talk about secondary school students. About 263 million children, according to UNESCO, of all ages, are not enrolled in school.

So there’s that. And,then there are 200 million or so children who go to school and leave without ever having learned to read or write a word, according to UNESCO, which is a stunning, stunning number. And one has to ask the question, “why is that?”, which to me represents a stunning market failure in a sense. And the reason for that is that many children, both primary and secondary age, go to schools that are ill-equipped, where teachers are ill-trained and are not ready to impart what needs to be imparted for a child to learn even basic reading. And even to get to universal primary education, just primary education, you need another 3.2 million teachers by 2030 in order to achieve that goal which is not possible, which is not going to happen, because that scale is too much, the rate of training teachers and building schools is too slow and I am not saying that one should not do that and, of course, countries need to that, it is their obligation to do that, to provide that fundamental right to all children, but it is not happening at a rate that can be achieved by that year, by that targeted year. And so that leads us to the question of technology and access but also, in one further point, I just spent a lot of time in the last few months, in the last few years, in remote Tanzania on a project I will tell you a little bit about in a minute. But it is this illusion of enrolment, when countries say that “we have got 90% of the children enrolled in school”, 100% of the children in India, for example, or 99%, are enrolled in school, 93% in Tanzania. But this photo of this girl, not long ago, a few weeks ago, I walked with her from school to her home which was 8.5 km walk, a really long way. She goes to school once a week and she obviously does not get there very often, but she is enrolled in school. She is enrolled in that school, and that counts in the country’s total. And it gives us this illusion that children are being reached, that they are being taught, that they are having access to some kind of learning environment that means anything, when the reality is that it often means nothing. In fact, it means less than nothing because we think it means something.

So, how does technology play a role in this? Nicholas Negroponte and Miguel Brechner will appreciate this photograph. In the last couple of years of “One Laptop Per Child” we always talked about, what if you really could give kids something and walk away? Could they actually learn how to read and do basic mathematics and do all of these things on their own? Could they begin to learn to read on their own if they had access to the right technology? And this photograph is taken in one of the two villages that we were in in Ethiopia, very remote, very poor obviously, very illiterate, in fact 100% illiteracy. And we worked with some serious people in the world of literacy, we were with Marianne Wolf from Tufts University and MIT and “One Laptop Per Child”. We used basic off-the-shelf applications, there was no connectivity, there was no access to great content and the applications that we used were not very good and the children did not speak English and the applications were in English. So we were, in a sense, setting ourselves up for failure. But what we found was that after a while, after a very short while, the children began to organise and self-organise learning environments where they began to recite the alphabet, sound out letters and eventually some of the children began to read words and correlate words with pictures on the tablet itself, which was really a stunning thing to watch. It was not really quantified, we did not write about it but we got some coverage on it and people began to believe that this was actually possible.

When we first announced this, people said “you are crazy”, technology alone cannot solve that problem that I alluded to earlier of access to poor quality education. It cannot do it by itself, there is no machine, there is no technology, there is no software smart enough to talk to children in a way in which they can learn. So that got some notoriety and that has now led to what we are doing now, Antonio Battro asked me to talk about what we are doing now, which is we are running a project in remote Tanzania, it is called the Global Learning XPRIZE, where we have asked teams from around the world to design software and content in Swahili and English, designed for children to teach themselves how to read, write and do basic mathematics on their own and with each other. So, over the course of two years those teams have designed specifically to bring out the autodidact in that child. Can you really prove that children can learn how to read on their own, can you prove beyond a reasonable doubt, irrefutably, irrefragably that children with no other literate adult in the community can teach themselves the fundamentals that will lead to a lifetime of greater success?

And so we had 700 teams compete from 55 countries around the world, we were down to the top 5, we gave each of those teams a prize purse of a million dollars and require them to open-source both their code and their content, and we are about to distribute those tablets with those applications on them to 4,000 children in 200 remote villages in eastern Tanzania. We baseline the children, 90% of them cannot recognise a letter in Swahili, so the baseline is 0, and these children are enrolled in school. And so, we will go back in 15 months and test the children and find out where they are. So, the point of this is that if we can prove this, if we can demonstrate the utilization of technology in a profoundly different way, which is self-learning even in the poorest parts of the world, the case for connectivity, the case for technology, becomes that much stronger. If we can prove this, then how can we not argue for access to the internet, which will lead to self-learning worldwide? I think that is a fundamental question that we have to ask ourselves. If connectivity and access to the right technology leads to greater literacy, how can we not do this? Thank you.

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