Jack Mostow has spent decades researching robotics, machine learning, language technologies and human-computer interaction as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. But it has been his work of the past four years — creating and testing a tablet app that could revolutionize education in developing countries — that has been the most rewarding.
“I am hooked,” said Mostow, whose project, RoboTutor, won a $1 million grant from Global Learning XPRIZE, a contest backed by billionaire Elon Musk, two years ago. “The past four years have been the most fun of my career.”
Mostow’s RoboTutor team was one of five finalists for the $10 million top award, which was announced on May 15 at a ceremony in Los Angeles. The grand prize went to two projects that tied in their achievements: U.S. and South Korea-based KitKit School and U.K.- and Kenya-based onebillion. All finalists had produced Swahili apps that were tested in a 15-month-long independent controlled field study conducted in 170 Tanzanian villages.
“We did not win the grand prize, but the celebration as a whole was a celebration of the five finalists,” said Mostow.
The RoboTutor app provides learning sessions to a child that are adjusted to his or her proficiency level, assesses performance automatically and provides feedback and help that is tailored to the individual.
Although RoboTutor did not win the grand prize, Mostow is determined to continue to refine his project in order to help children with little or no access to live educational instruction in reading and math. The project will continue under the umbrella of the CMU’s Simon Initiative.
“There is a big world out there,” said Mostow, a Mt. Lebanon resident and member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. “The entire competition is a first step, not a last step. And it was a proof of concept to find out whether technologies can plug the kids’ gap caused by the failure of the market to provide good teachers for kids in developing countries.”
Worldwide, more than 250 million kids “are not in school,” Mostow explained. “And even many kids who are in school attend school for years without learning how to read. They may be in a class with 250 kids, or they may have teachers who don’t show up because they are not paid, or they may have teachers who show up and are well-meaning, but have never been trained in how to teach effectively. So, there is a lot of room for improvement.”
The RoboTutor team hopes to improve its app to become more effective, serve children in more countries and work in more languages, and run on other platforms, including smartphones.
“We really believe in this work and are committed to see it continue,” said Norman Bier, executive director of the Simon Initiative, in a prepared statement.
Mostow has seen data for 75% of the children who tested RoboTutor. “The big picture is, the kids who used it a lot gained a lot,” he said, noting that reading scores among the children who used the app a lot improved by a factor of five.
“The long-term goal of the visionary founder of XPRIZE is a technology-enabled world-class education for every child on the planet,” Mostow said. “Now, we will not get there in one step. That’s why there is plenty of room for all five finalists to contribute and why XPRIZE is encouraging them all to contribute. And it will take more than just the five finalists.”
More than 100 CMU students and faculty are part of the RoboTutor team, as well as additional experts and students from around the world.
Leonora Kivuva, an instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s African Studies program, provided the voice of RoboTutor. Swahili is one of Kivuva’s native tongues.
“Jack sought me out, and I fell in love with the project,” said the Kenya-born Kivuva. “I’m giving back not only to my own continent of Africa, but also giving back to the place that I came from, having had difficulty accessing education.”
Kivuva, who also runs a project that assists blind children in Kenya to access education, said she feels “blessed” to be part of the RoboTutor team.
“It became something very personal,” she said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at