Robotutor. Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

In the last year, the Carnegie Mellon spin-off RoboTutor has helped more than 2,000 students across East Africa take education into their own hands with tablet-based learning tools.

Their next target? 10,000 students.

Working with a $1 million gift from the Elon Musk-affiliated XPRIZE, a nonprofit that provides grants for public-minded and humanistic software projects, researchers worked with local partners to share their education apps in 170 rural communities across Tanzania.

The app provides basic reading, writing and math lessons, then uses artificial intelligence to assess a student’s progress and make targeted suggestions for activities and further study.

According to the company, 90 percent of its participants could not read a single word in Swahili at the start of a trial period using the app. By the end of 15 months, that number had decreased by half.

We “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 a professor emeritus at CMU’s Robotics Institute.

Professor Leonora Anyango-Kivuva, a consultant for the National Foreign Language Center and a former Swahili instructor at Pitt, provided the voice for the project.

Despite coming up short at last week’s $15 million XPRIZE award ceremony at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Los Angeles, the team’s experience in Tanzania appears to have only strengthened their ambitions in East Africa.

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon.

The company has announced that they’re in the early stages of planning and fundraising for a larger pilot project with the Ministry of Education in nearby Zambia.

Following the model of their initial pilot, the company is planning a program to educate 10,000 children across the nation in basic reading, writing and math skills. Along with the Ministry, which has promised staff and logistical support, RoboTutor will partner with the Africa-focused aid organization Anchor of Hope.

“Both organizations are perfectly situated to deploy this program,” wrote Dr. Felix Phiri, director of planning and information for the Zambian Ministry of Education. “Carnegie Mellon as a world leader in technological innovation and science, and Anchor of Hope Charities with a successful track record of deploying food and educational programmes in Zambia.”

Phiri added that if the trial is successful, the government will look to expand it to a national level.

Byron Spice, director of media relations for CMU’s School of Computer Science, tells NEXTpittsburgh that the project will cost $4 million to implement. RoboTutor has already raised $2 million.

As they move forward, the startup has pledged to keep all of their software open-source, so that it can serve young learners well beyond Africa.

“Though we didn’t win the big prize, it was an honor to participate in this grand educational effort,” Mostow said via a press release. “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.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.