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Carnegie Mellon Software Intends To Teach Kids Without Teachers

A team of volunteers at Carnegie Mellon University is tackling the challenge of creating tablet software that can teach children without teachers to read, write and do basic math. If they come up with something truly effective, they may get a million dollars and the chance to take their solution to East Africa to try it out there with kids aged 7-10 as part of the XPrize for Global Learning.

Currently, the competition has 198 teams registered to vie in a competition that asks them to come up with open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves the basics within 18 months. The winning team will gain $10 million.

RobotTutor, the Carnegie Mellon team, is being led by Jack Mostow, a research professor emeritus in the Robotics Institute. "The lack of formal schooling is a truly immense problem in many parts of the world," Mostow said in a statement. "If we can develop educational technology to fill that gap, we can significantly improve the lives of the 250 million children who today can't read, write, or do basic math."

Students and post-doctoral researchers alike have volunteered to help create the software.

"Part of the appeal is the possibility of having an impact on society," said Ran Liu, a post-doctoral researcher in the institution's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Department of Psychology. Part of the appeal for her has to do with the size of the challenge. "A lot of my research involves small iterations to improve a curriculum, but not designing a curriculum from scratch," she added. "It's just not like anything else I've been involved in."

To test the software under development, the team has turned to a population of children it has close at hand: students at the Children's School, the university's laboratory school for kids aged three to five. Although they're younger than the target population, Mostow acknowledged, their responses will still help determine whether the curriculum designs are going in the right direction.

The team is also working with experts in Swahili and faculty members who study cultural differences in learning, as well as the founder of a school in Tanzania.

"I'm excited as I can be about this project and the students are too," Mostow said. "This is the most excited I've been in years."

The teams have until November 2016 to finalize their solutions. Five finalists will be chosen for the next stage: a field test in at least 100 African villages in 2017 and 2018.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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