‘Opportunity of a lifetime’ both for discovery, educational outreach to developing countries

‘Opportunity of a lifetime’ both for discovery, educational outreach to developing countries

Last December, Jack Mostow, a research professor emeritus in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, received an email that began: “I am a 13-year-old college student.”

That phrase alone was enough to catch the interest of Mostow, he said.  

The young author of the email, Vishnu Rajan Tejus, an online college student from California, was seeking collaboration with Mostow on a project to develop software for improving math literacy for underprivileged children. Tejus was hoping to build upon software that Mostow had helped develop called Project LISTEN, a computerized “reading tutor” with listening capabilities that helps students with pronunciation. Tejus was interested in partnering with Mostow and entering their work in a multimillion dollar global competition.

Fast forward a few months and Mostow, who has devoted the last quarter-century to researching and developing tools to help educate children, has put together the CMURoboTutor team — which includes Tejus as well as more than two dozen CMU students — to create educational technology for children in developing countries who do not have access to teachers.

The Global Learning XPRIZE, announced last year by XPRIZE — a nonprofit organization that hosts public competitions to encourage technological development that could benefit humankind — will award $10 million to the team whose open source software proves best able to help children learn basic literacy and numeracy skills during a field test in East Africa. There are 198 teams from 40 nations that have registered, including Mostow’s.

The educational solutions developed by this prize will enable children to learn autonomously, and all projects created by contest finalists will be open-sourced for public access.

This could be a game-changer in worldwide education, reaching children who otherwise would be unable to be reached, according to Mostow, who hopes the work of his team can “show that affordable technology can close the educational gap for kids in developing countries that do not have access to quality instruction.”

And there are certain advantages to being tutored by a computer in addition to accessibility, he added.

“Kids relate differently to the reading tutor than to a teacher,” he said. “It is a less threatening audience.”

The software will be so user-friendly that children will not even need to have a teacher instructing them on how to use it. “That’s what’s revolutionary about it,” he said.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is funded by a group of donors including the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Econet Foundation, Scott Hassan, the Merkin Family Foundation, John Raymonds, the Anthony Robbins Foundation and Suzanne West.

“Part of the appeal is the possibility of having an impact on society,” according to Ran Liu, a post-doctoral researcher in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Department of Psychology who is participating in the project.

But she is also intrigued by the immensity of the challenge.

“A lot of my research involves small iterations to improve a curriculum, but not designing a curriculum from scratch,” Liu explained. “It’s just not like anything else I’ve been involved in.”

One challenge the team faces is finding an appropriate group of children with whom to test the educational software, Mostow said, because their target group is 7- to 10-year-olds who do not have access to teachers.

“We don’t have an ideal proxy for that population,” he explained. “It’s hard to find American kids who have no access to formal schooling.”

The team is therefore currently testing its software at CMU’s Children’s School, which provides early childhood education for children ages 3 to 5. While preschool-age children are at a different developmental level than the target population, their responses will help determine if the curriculum designs are valid, Mostow said.

The team is also anticipating testing the software in Tanzania, when team member Joash Gambarage, who is originally from Tanzania, travels there for an upcoming visit.

Competing teams have until November 2016 to develop their projects. A panel will select five finalists in 2017, with each of those teams receiving $1 million as they prepare for a field test in at least 100 African villages in 2017-2018.

The CMURoboTutor team has received a gift of $250,000 from an anonymous donor, Mostow said, that will enable them to complete the initial development of the software package; it is seeking funding for additional components.

Mostow, who retired from CMU just last summer, is now back “gladly” working full time on CMURoboTutor.

“I’ve invested over a quarter-century of my life on Project LISTEN,” said the Mt. Lebanon resident who moonlights during the High Holidays as the cantorial soloist at Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pa. “The question was, what to do with it next? I didn’t spend a quarter-century of my life to have it sit on a shelf. Now there is the opportunity to have it used on a global scale, and it is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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