According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 36 million adults in this country read at or below a third grade level — a staggering statistic. With low literacy, numeracy, and job skills, these adults are often relegated to low-skill, low-paying jobs. This translates to limited upward mobility for them and their children; children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which diminishes the worker pipeline for the future.

Although low-skilled adults have minimal access to educational opportunities, I outlined in my 2015 blog post some ways in which technology has the potential to provide critical access to quality, personalized learning experiences for this underserved population. The adult education market is one that has been ripe for technological innovation for some time.

Enter the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, launched in December 2015 to address literacy needs of low-skilled adults with technology. One hundred nine teams embarked on the $7 million challenge to develop mobile apps designed to increase literacy levels in adults.

Last month, eight semi-finalist teams advanced to the final round in the competition. The apps they developed will be field tested in Dallas, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. And while ultimately there will be a winner, the Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition has fostered some key wins already:

  1. Building Awareness — The structure and nature of the XPRIZE competition has served to raise the awareness of the grand challenge of adult literacy. It has spurred the publication of white papers, launch of incubators and conferences, as well as interest amongst journalists and advocacy groups. Additionally, the cities partnerships announced recently consists of a powerful consortium of city mayors, community-based organizations, and public education institutions including the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), City of Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education (OAE), and the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD).As Shlomy Kattan, the senior director of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE, said, “This first-of-its-kind partnership signals a deep commitment by these cities to invest in the lives of their residents by addressing adult low-literacy and the burdens it places on job growth, medical costs, and a child’s future educational success.” The commitment and the resources represented in this partnership clearly indicate how the competition structure has helped attract wide participation and spotlight not only the problem, but also potential solutions.
  2. Improving Access — For adult learners, access to learning opportunities is difficult. Many adults are unable to complete or even attend traditional in person classes due to work demands, transportation issues, or lack of child care. In fact, according to U.S. Department of Education reports, 50 percent of adult learners who sign up for a federally funded program drop out within 12 hours of their first class — and that is if they can get into a class. In many cases, adult education classes are at capacity and have long waiting lists. Mobile apps seek to fulfill the promise of anytime, anywhere learning at scale, which is a core design principle of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
  3. Continuous Improvement — A key component of the competition is the field testing of the apps with adult learners. Over the next 15 months, 12,000 learners who read English at or below a third-grade level will use one randomly assigned app from the eight semifinalists. Pre- and post-test data will be collected, as well as usage data and responses to monthly surveys and self-assessment data. This field testing will generate first-of-its-kind data from adult learners using technology. From this data, we can learn how adults access and use technology, how mobile devices affect their learning, and how mobile technology can support and supplement in-class learning. Research of this kind is minimal in adult education and is key to creating powerful, technology learning experiences that will make a difference in the lives of adult learners.

Supporting learners of ALL ages is important for sustainable economic development, national security, and a more equitable and just society. Educational opportunities for our low-skilled adults are no exception. To that end, we look forward to the results of this final phase of the XPRIZE competition!

Meet the Semifinalists!


About Karen Cator

Karen Cator is President & CEO of Digital Promise. You can follow her on Twitter at @kcator.

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