There are 36 million adults in the United States — nearly 15% of the adult population — who read at what are called “basic” and “below-basic” levels. While these individuals struggle to use the written word in work and life, as many as 3 in 4 of them have a smartphone. That’s right in line with smartphone penetration in the overall population. Yet while the mobile EdTech market is booming, there are few adult literacy apps available, and even fewer focused on this segment of low-literate adults.
This gap represents a tremendous, yet untapped, market opportunity, and it’s why the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation is looking for the best and brightest software engineers and EdTech innovators to tackle this Grand Challenge.
Limited access to adult literacy education programs in the United States is due, in part, to a shortage of funding. But the lack of access is also structural. While existing adult literacy programs have been proven effective and have decades of research and design behind them, classes are often inconvenient for learners to attend and are not scalable. Essentially, adult education offers brick-and-mortar solutions in a digital world. With so many adults able to learn any time and anywhere, not investing heavily in technological innovation doesn’t make sense.
The developer community has the unique set of skills and creativity to step up and revolutionize this industry. This is, after all, a classic Silicon Valley problem: find a market with distribution or process inefficiencies and design a technology to make existing products more scalable or cheaper to produce.
Demand is definitely there. A recent survey by Tyton Partners, an investment bank and strategy consulting firm specializing in education, found that only 27% of respondents who work in adult education reported that their programs make use of smartphone apps. This despite “most adult education program instructors [reporting] that they are comfortable using technology and believe they have the ability to leverage technology in a professional setting.” As one respondent put it, “Adult education must be willing to paint the future with broad strokes that infuse digital formats to enhance learning.”
It’s not that the Adult Literacy community has not welcomed innovation, but it’s been difficult at times for innovators to see the market potential. After all, there are other opportunities with more obvious and immediate payoffs.
However, when you put that 36 million learner figure into context, it becomes much more attractive; it’s more than twice the size of the high school population and nearly five times the size of the pre-school aged population. It’s a huge market with few players.
The Adult Literacy XPRIZE can act as an engine in driving market change. By incentivizing innovation in this often-neglected area, our goal is to attract the best teams from around the world to come up with new and engaging ways for adults to learn. As with other XPRIZE competitions, we hope to create a vibrant community of thinkers and doers who drive revolutionary innovation in a market that has barely seen incremental change in the past two decades.
Smartphones have already changed how most of us talk to each other. Let’s have them change how the rest of us read.
Shlomy Kattan is Senior Director of the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation.