Technology Is the Key to Exponential Growth Towards Learning for All

By Matt Keller, Senior Director, Global Learning XPRIZE; Michael Dunford, Country Director (Tanzania), World Food Programme (WFP); Zulmira Rodrigues, Country Director (Tanzania) UNESCO

Children are the most precious resource of any nation's future, and literacy is one of the single most important skills for human beings to develop if they are to thrive as individuals and global citizens. Literacy opens the mind of a child to a lifetime of critical and creative thinking. The development of such forms of thought in a society fuels discovery, productivity, and innovation, which in turn, drive economic and social development. 

The United Nations has dedicated Sustainable Development Goal Four to the guarantee of equitable education and lifelong learning for all precisely because millions of children never learn to read, never learn basic math, and never develop the creative and critical thinking skills necessary to achieve their full potential. Through its Sustainable Development Goals, The UN sees literacy and education as foundational for any real and lasting change to occur in any community or in any country regardless of geography.

According to UNESCO, 263 million children, adolescents, and youth around the world are currently not in school. This total covers 61 million children of primary school age, 60 million of lower secondary school age, and includes the first- ever estimate of those of upper secondary school age at 142 million. And this figure is far lower than the reality on the ground where children who go to school one or two days per month are counted as "enrolled."

Equally troubling is that the poor quality of many available schools means roughly 150 million children who are currently attending these institutions are not even learning basic reading, writing, or counting. Others drop out before reaching fourth grade. All told, a staggering 250 million primary-school-aged children are failing to learn basic skills, even though half of them have spent at least four years in school. The UN estimates that the annual cost of this failure is a stunning USD $129 billion.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and UNESCO have seen this failure repeatedly over the years. While WFP has done the hard work of feeding tens of millions of children around the world through its school-feeding program, and has seen firsthand the benefits of learning and its effect on economic and personal development, it has also seen far too many children come to school for a meal, but who are unable to maximize the learning opportunity.  And while WFP has been engaged in working with small farmers to produce increased crop yields, access to markets, and larger, more regular incomes, the job is made much harder because many of the people served by these programs can't read or write a word.

For its part, UNESCO has long studied the deleterious effects of illiteracy on economic and personal development around the world and has been a champion of pushing new, open-sourced ideas designed to bring literacy to more people across the globe. 

We collectively believe that technology holds the promise to transform the learning environment for children in even the poorest, most remote parts of the world. While there has been a rush to introduce technology in classrooms in wealthy communities, scant effort has been made to focus technology on where it is needed most--rural villages of Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere where there is a crying need for new approaches to learning.

XPRIZE, UNESCO and WFP believe that there is enormous untapped potential for computer-based learning to transform the educational opportunities of these children. This is why we are working together on XPRIZE's most ambitious prize to date: The $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE. The Global Learning XPRIZE is an incentive-based competition challenging 140 teams from 35 countries around the world to create open-source software-based solutions designed to bring children from illiteracy to literacy in reading, writing, and math on their own and with each other in less than18 months.

And we won't be satisfied with just incremental gains. We believe that technology offers the promise of an exponential leap forward in both how quickly and to what extent we can reach the world's most vulnerable learners, which will translate into how quickly and to what extent we can achieve Sustainable Development Goal Number Four: Equitable Quality Education for All. While it is important to keep building schools and training teachers, we must be bold in seeking out new, technology-based approaches that will unleash the unlimited human potential that resides in the heart and soul of every child on Earth.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or, officially, "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"). The SDGs represent an historic agreement -- a wide-ranging roadmap to sustainability covering 17 goals and 169 targets -- but stakeholders must also be held accountable for their commitments. To see all the posts in the series, visit here.

Visit XPRIZE at; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+; and get our newsletter to stay informed.