Carnegie Mellon University
May 16, 2019

Carnegie Mellon Educational Software Slated for Pilot Project in Zambia

By Byron Spice

Byron Spice

RoboTutor LLC, a team based at Carnegie Mellon University that was a finalist in the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, has announced that its educational apps will be used to teach 10,000 children basic reading, writing and mathematical skills in the Republic of Zambia.

Two other finalists — Kitkit School from South Korea and the United States, and onebillion from Kenya and the United Kingdom — on Wednesday were named the winners in the Global Learning XPRIZE, sharing the $10 million grand prize donated by entrepreneur Elon Musk. Each team in the competition developed educational apps to run on Android tablets that would enable children ages 7-10 to teach themselves basic literacy and numeracy without the aid of an adult.

The winner was chosen based on a 15-month field test in Tanzania of the software developed by five finalists, involving more than 2,700 children in 170 villages. Before the field test, 74% of the participating children were reported as never attending school, 80% reported as never being read to at home and over 90% could not read a single word in Swahili. Following the trial, that number was cut in half.

"We salute the KitKit School and onebillion teams for their achievement. But we also are incredibly proud and delighted by the performance of RoboTutor and I can't thank enough the more than 180 people around the world who contributed to its development," said Jack Mostow, leader of the RoboTutor team and an emeritus research professor at CMU's Robotics Institute.

"Though we didn't win the big prize, it was an honor to participate in this grand educational effort," Mostow said. "At Carnegie Mellon, we like to say that we work on solutions to real-world problems; I can't think of a bigger educational challenge than the 250 million children on this planet who lack basic literacy and numeracy."

Just as RoboTutor will move forward with plans for its pilot project in Zambia, Mostow said he hoped all of the finalists will continue to develop and deploy their educational software.

"If RoboTutor— and the other finalists in this competition— can help compensate for the shortage of teachers in so many areas of this world, we will all have accomplished something great. Today marks only the beginning," he added.

In Zambia, Carnegie Mellon will partner with Anchor of Hope Charities, which serves 50,000 children in Zambia with food and shoes. The pilot study for a national education program for Zambian children has been endorsed by Zambia's Ministry of General Education. Though 10,000 children initially would be involved, hopes are to expand the program to include 8 million students in Zambia.

Mostow established RoboTutor LLC as a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon for the purpose of pursuing the Global Learning XPRIZE and licensed some learning technologies from the university.

Going forward, RoboTutor will be under the umbrella of the Simon Initiative, CMU's campus-wide effort devoted to learning engineering and an early RoboTutor sponsor.

"We really believe in this work and are committed to see it continue," said Norman Bier, executive director of the Simon Initiative. About half of the $4 million cost of the pilot project has been raised thus far, and CMU is seeking additional donors for the effort.

RoboTutor software already is part of the OpenSimon Toolkit, a suite of open-source tools, educational resources and underlying codebase that the Simon Initiative has made available to catalyze a revolution in learning and teaching.

RoboTutor is based on decades of research on human learning, including an automated Reading Tutor, developed by Mostow's Project LISTEN team, that helped children learn to read. RoboTutor employs artificial intelligence to recognize children's speech and handwriting. It includes a number of activities that children can choose that help develop reading, comprehension and numeracy skills. It assesses each child's performance, providing help when needed and adjusting the activities to match the student's skill level.

Each of the finalists prepared software in both English and Swahili. The Swahili version was used for the field test in Tanzania. The English version of RoboTutor will be used in the pilot program in Zambia.

A photo of a group of Mugeta children waving.
A group of children in Tanzania wave for a photo.

"Carnegie Mellon is all about using knowledge to solve big problems and RoboTutor fits squarely within that CMU tradition," said Tom Mitchell, interim dean of CMU's School of Computer Science. "We are optimistic that the software developed by the RoboTutor team and the other finalists will make headway against illiteracy in an age where education grows ever more important. Congratulations to the entire RoboTutor team and best of luck in implementing the software more broadly."

In addition to Mostow, leaders of the RoboTutor team included Amy Ogan, Thomas and Lydia Moran Assistant Professor of Learning Science in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), who spearheaded efforts to adapt RoboTutor to the Tanzanian culture; and Judith Uchidiuno, the project manager and a Ph.D. student in HCII.

Others include Leonora Anyango-Kivuva, a consultant for the National Foreign Language Center, a former Swahili instructor at Pitt and the voice of RoboTutor; Judy Kendall, director of Anchor of Hope Charities; Kevin DeLand, software architect and developer; and Janet Mostow, enterprise architect and RoboTutor LLC board member.

 Carnegie Mellon University is committed to educating, empowering and aligning its community around the world to address the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, which aim to create a more peaceful, prosperous planet with just and inclusive societies. Recognizing the critical contributions that universities are making through education, research and practice, CMU publicly committed to undertaking a Voluntary University Review of the Global Goals. The 17 Global Goals cover wide-ranging issues, including reducing violence, ending extreme poverty, promoting equitable education, fighting inequality and injustice, advancing economic growth and decent work, and preventing the harmful effects of climate change by 2030.

The preceding story demonstrates CMU's work toward attaining Global Goals 1 and 4.