Ottawa team makes semifinals in $15M international XPRIZE educational tech competition

Tesla founder Elon Musk is entirely funding the prize money

Ottawa-based Learn Leap Fly is among 11 semifinalists in an international competition designed to discover how technology can improve access to education for hundreds of millions of youth around the world.

The 29-person team, led by Ottawa mathematicians Kjell and Amy Wooding, has developed a tablet application that uses a combination of machine learning and storytelling-based education to teach literacy and numeracy skills when teachers and schools aren’t readily accessible.

Learn Leap Fly is the only Canadian team left in the running from a field of 198 teams that began the XPRIZE competition two years ago. At stake are prizes of $1 million for the five finalist teams and a $10-million grand prize for the eventual winner. Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal founder Elon Musk is among the financial backers of XPRIZE, which runs separate competitions to promote global literacy, water abundance, robotic space exploration and other bold endeavours. The Global Learning XPRIZE competition prize purse is entirely funded by Musk.

According to UNESCO, 250 million children around the world cannot read or write, skills that could lift more than 170 million out of poverty.

The application Learn Leap Fly is developing tells a story to children as a way to teach basic literacy through characters, activities, objects and other elements of the narrative. It’s designed to be a social experience, with many children crowded around a tablet, with an intelligent interface that adjusts the challenge in response to a student’s comprehension. The app is meant to support student learning when teachers and classrooms aren’t available.

“Obviously, teachers are always the best way to teach. But if we don’t have them, if we don’t have enough teachers and can’t build enough schools, is there something we can do to raise that literacy bar?” asks Kjell Wooding.

The team has traveled to Kenya to test its capacity for teaching in both English and Swahili, but has also seen positive results in North America in existing classrooms. Amy says one of the environments Learn Leap Fly wants to make an impact is in Canada’s Indigenous communities, as well as assisting new Canadians and refugees. In these areas and situations where educational resources are spread thinly, the app can supplement a Kindergarten teacher or educational assistant’s one-on-one instruction.

“It can make your ability to transition into a school here a lot easier,” she says.

Kjell adds that the app is culturally adaptable. It’s straightforward to mold the app’s format to familiar Indigenous stories, for example.

Learn Leap Fly’s app works on all Android devices, the Kindle Fire and will soon be ported to iOS. Google, also an XPRIZE sponsor, has provided the tablets for use in the 15-month field tests, but Amy says the the widespread availability of touch devices in countries such as Kenya is steadily increasing to the point where it may soon be a viable and accessible educational tool.

“It’s only a matter of time at this point,” she says.

Kjell and Amy are originally from western Canada, but moved to Ottawa when Amy did her PhD at McGill. Their expansive team is largely formed of a personal network of educators, mathematicians, and scientists, and includes Amy’s aunt in Kenya who had already established a home for children there.

Finalists in the XPRIZE competition will be decided in September. After that begins the 15-month field test where Learn Leap Fly and the other projects will get to test their prototypes across Tanzania and analyze their effectiveness.

After that, the grand prize winner is decided – but if Learn Leap Fly isn’t chosen, Amy and Kjell say they don’t feel like this journey has been a waste. Beyond monetary compensation, XPRIZE has brought Learn Leap Fly new connections, research potentials, and access to a global expertise.

The competition has been framed as an experiment: to find ways to incentivize solutions to big problems and assemble teams with diverse backgrounds to solve them. That has been achieved as far as the teams and organizers are concerned. Now, sponsors and teams will support one another with the goal of maximizing the global impact on education.

“It was that grand experiment that caught our attention,” Kjell says.