The United States ranks high as a global economic leader but is falling behind in our own backyard with fundamental literacy skills. One company is building on the work they started more than two decades ago, to curb the bleak statistic of the 36 million low-literate adults in America, through the help of the multimillion-dollar Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
Launched on former first lady Barbara Bush’s 90th birthday in 2015, the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation challenges teams to develop mobile applications for smartphones that increase literacy skills among participating adult learners. With research showing that 77% of Americans now own a smartphone, the competition aims to dramatically change the way the United States meets the needs of adults with low literacy skills by tackling the largest obstacles to achieving basic literacy: access, retention, and scale.
In February 2019, Learning Upgrade beat out more than 100 teams from 15 countries to become one of the two grand prize winners of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. The two winners divided a $3 million purse, while each will also receive a $1 million achievement prize for having the best performance in two key demographic groups: native English speakers and English language learners. The company, founded in 1998 by educators, musicians, artists, and programmers in San Diego, designs innovative, engaging lessons to support struggling students in reading and math. Through the incorporation of songs, video, games, and educational research, the family-owned-and-operated endeavor has helped more than 1 million students make learning breakthroughs.
“This competition has proven that our smartphone app can change the lives of adult learners,” said Vinod Lobo, co-founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade. “We see this prize as a golden opportunity to scale up to serve millions of adults with anytime, anywhere instruction so they can reach their full potential.”
Adult education programs across the country are now competing in the next phase of the competition for $1 million to register the most adult learners to use apps developed by four of the finalist teams in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE, including Learning Upgrade. Each participating app demonstrated measurable literacy improvements in learners who took a pre- and post-test in a 12-month field test in 2018.
“We see the Communities Competition as a golden opportunity to scale up to serve millions of adults from every walk of life with anytime, anywhere instruction so they can reach their full potential,” Lobo said. “The competing providers are highly motivated to enroll thousands of learners into our app and win the prize. Each provider is finding creative new ways to reach adults who need learning help.”
During the competition, a total of $1 million will be awarded in two parts, with $500,000 available in milestone awards for teams that submit the most innovative, feasible, and scalable plans, and a $500,000 prize for teams that go on to recruit the most adult learners to download and use the apps through August 31, 2019. The grand prize winners will be announced in fall 2019. An independent panel of judges determined 24 teams of the 46 in the running had the best proposals and will split the $500,000 milestone award. Teams that will be using Learning Upgrade include COABE, ProLiteracy, World Education, and the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition.
“The Communities Competition is a one-of-a-kind effort to scale the impact of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE and transform lives through literacy,” said Shlomy Kattan, executive director of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. “The passion, dedication and thoughtfulness of these competing communities is critical to reaching learners from diverse geographies and backgrounds. We have an array of teams, from educational institutions, to nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies, corporations, and individuals who are all critical to our goal of empowering adult learners to take learning in their own hands.”
The Learning Upgrade app, which is available on both Android and iOS devices, provides learners access to 300 sequenced, high-interest lessons on topics including phonics, decoding, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and listening. The curriculum includes engaging songs, videos, games, and rewards that encourage all learners to achieve mastery. Each lesson provides practice activities accompanied by immediate intervention and remediation with multimedia supports. Learners can repeat lessons to mastery and earn a gold certificate when they become proficient in the College and Career Readiness Standards for that level.