Literacy Xprize starts field tests of semifinalist apps in LA, Philadelphia and Dallas


Literacy, or rather a lack thereof, is a serious problem all over the world — believe it or not, even in our little utopia. While a touch-up of our education and support systems would probably be the best fix in the long term, we all know that’s not likely. So in the meantime we have creative private attempts to alleviate the issue: Today, a $ 7 million Xprize for literacy-improving apps enters the field testing phase.

There are 8 semifinalists that will be tested by 12,000 adult reading learners in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Dallas. After a full year of steady use, literacy gains by the users will be assessed and the finalists determined. The grand prize is $ 3M, with $ 1M sub-prizes each for best performance among native speakers and English language learners. There’s even a million bucks for the city that gets the most people to use the apps.

It’s funded by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which has been funding efforts like this since 1989.

The director of this Xprize competition, Shlomy Kattan, acknowledges the scale of the problem in a blog post:

Defining the problem as a technical one (i.e., “build an app for that”) understates the magnitude of such an undertaking. Teams competing for the Adult Literacy XPRIZE had to develop an app engaging enough that learners would continue using it, effective enough that using it translates to learning, and appropriate for a learner population that struggles with technical literacy and often uses older model phones with inconsistent internet connectivity. Each one of those problem sets is a business onto itself.

At the same time, an effective app may be one of the best ways to get basic skills to a large group of people. No one is suggesting the work stops there.

As for the apps themselves, 6 are from the US:

  • Alphabet Literacy – uses multimedia like songs and videos to improve skills.
  • Cell-Ed – on-demand micro-lessons and personal coaching, no internet necessary
  • Learning Games Studios – single- and multi-player virtual world that teaches users as they play
  • Learning Upgrade – learning through “songs, videos, games and rewards”
  • Lyriko – music game that teaches readings skills through the exploration of song lyrics
  • People for Words – an archaeology-themed learning game

And from Kerala, India and Hong Kong respectively:

  • Autocognita – focuses on boosting users’ ability to teach themselves (i.e. constructivism)
  • AmritaCREATE – “culturally appropriate” content that teaches life and reading skills

You can learn more about the teams and their approaches (and view a video like the above for each one) at the Xprize page.

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