When we consider our role as “leaders of learning”, many of us probably think about it from the perspective of being able to make a positive impact on the learners we serve within our particular organization. But what if we shifted our focus as learning leaders to focus on the potential impact we could have on our entire industry or field by facilitating large scale learning and change?
Shlomy Kattan, Senior Director of the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, has over a decade and a half of experience in both eLearning and traditional education. In his role, he has the unique opportunity to manage large scale competitions that tackle some of the world’s Grand Challenges – something he says any organization can do despite their size or limited resources.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast Jeff talks with Shlomy about what makes the XPRIZE approach so effective, how this model pulls an industry forward even when there’s failure, and what his organization aims to accomplish with the Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
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Read the Show Notes
[00:20] – Thank you to Avilar, which as the sponsor of our upcoming Webinar, LMS Selection: Mastering the Process, Avoiding the Pitfalls is also the sponsor of this episode of the Leading Learning podcast.
[00:48] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Jeff interviews Shlomy Kattan of the XPRIZE Foundation. Also, make sure to check out our recent blog post on the topic of large scale learning and change.
[02:53] – A thank you to Seth Kahan, founder of Visionary Leadership and faculty member at the recent Leading Learning Symposium for introducing us to Shlomy through his work with Grand Challenges.
[03:39] – Introduction to Shlomy and some background information about what an XPRIZE is, how it got its start, and what the foundation does. Shlomy explains that at its core, XPRIZE is a non-profit that designs and manages large scale competitions in order to drive innovation that will benefit humanity. He shares how they got there start as a competition to privatize space flight and they have now been around for 22 years, awarded 6 prizes, and currently have 7 active competitions with 2 more that recently launched.
[06:40] – Are there particular situations/issues that lend themselves better to the XPRIZE approach better than others would? Shlomy says there are and in general, the approach works best at that intersection where there is little to no incentive for private industry to innovate and no motives in place for government to invest more heavily in any sort of technological innovation. That intersection is usually where they believe they have the best opportunity for an XPRIZE to have the most impact.
[08:10] – What is it that makes this approach so effective – is it the competition, the prize money, etc? Shlomy says the prize money matters, mainly to draw attention to the competition. But what really drives the approach are the teams. They are the ones that are creating the innovation and XPRIZE is a platform that allows them to have their success. He adds that they aren’t the only organization doing these types of competitions – a recent one was XQ and has awarded $100M to reinvent high schools. The psychology of competition is what drives the innovation and the people who compete for XPRIZE competitions are hardcore entrepreneurs who want to see change happen in the world. He also shares that the book, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight recently came out and tells the story of the first XPRIZE.
[11:24] – Have you ever seen any situations where this approach didn’t work? Have there been any significant failures that have happened under this model? Shlomy explains that at XPRIZE, the failure to win a competition actually leads to some of the most innovative discoveries. Something may not have worked for the competition but it has a huge impact on the world (he shares an example of this). Shlomy adds that the only competition that has ever “failed” was because the market moved so quickly that the market leader actually surpassed the goals of the competition before they even started. This proves the model because it shows that if you put out something that is on the cusp of impossible, it will pull the industry forward.
[15:38] – Tell us the story of how you got involved with XPRIZE and how you got your skills. Shlomy shares that pretty much everybody at the XPRIZE foundation has an eclectic background. They all come from diverse backgrounds with expertise in different functions or industries and both collectively and individually, are able to bring those to bear on to a unique instrument in order to drive innovation. As somebody with a background in education, he understands how we educate learners at all stages of life and he’s always been mixed in with how technology can be used to improve those processes/institutions. Shlomy explains how he and others have found a place to meld their wide range of expertise at XPRIZE.
[19:40] –Tell us a bit about the Adult Literacy XPRIZE and what you’re aiming to do there. Shlomy shares that most people don’t realize that almost 1 out of 6 adults in the US lacks basic literacy skills, which is closely in line with global averages. The idea for this competition came from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which has been doing work in this area for over a quarter of a century without any drastic changes on literacy rates. This prompted them to reach out to XPRIZE as it seemed like an area that could benefit from this type of competition. As a result, XPRIZE ended up launching a competition whose goal is for teams to develop mobile software that works on existing smart phones and tablets to take adults who read at or below the equivalent of a third grade level and get them to basic literacy, using nothing but the smart phone/tablet. They are awarding $6M for the teams that come up with these solutions, with an additional $1M aimed at incentivizing cities to compete by having the highest rates of distribution of the tool.
[23:52] – Where are you in the process of this competition? Are you any seeing major innovations so far? Shlomy says they are about 2 years out from awarding the prize because teams have until March 2017 to develop their solutions. After that, a panel of judges with relevant expertise will select up to 15 semi-finalists who will be put into a field test. The purpose of the field test is to get up to 12,000 people in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia to use any one of the tools so that over the course of a year, they can measure progress amongst the people who use the tools. The team that produces the greatest learning gains amongst that test population will win. The second stage of the competition for cities will be awarded in April 2019.
[25:50] – Is there any cross-pollination between the different prizes that are running at any given time (i.e. the Adult Literacy XPRIZE and the Global Learning XPRIZE?) Shlomy explains that as an organization they share resources across teams and there are 14 teams competing for both the Global Learning XPRIZE and the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. He notes that this is the first time they have seen this but it’s because the two competitions are so closely aligned and he talks about why this is. Shlomy emphasizes the teams that develop solutions for these will have such an impact on the world because they will have proven a model (for mobile learning) that, to date, we have no proof for and the implications will be profound.
[30:07] – Have you seen the XPRIZE model have the ability to translate to smaller organizations/organizations that don’t have quite the resources, but can still take the concepts to tackle a Grand Challenge and make some big change? Shlomy talks about how there are organizations of all sizes using this model to drive innovation in their particular sectors and he shares an example of this. As long as you define the goal adequately and the prize is one that can incentivize people to achieve that goal, competitions can work in all shapes and sizes. The model used is very “elegant” and there are platforms out there (i.e. HeroX – the one used by XPRIZE) that really allow smaller organizations to leverage the competition model.
[33:10] – What are your own lifelong learning habits and practices? And, given your background, do you yourself set big challenges and big rewards as part of your own personal approach to lifelong learning? Shlomy shares that by default all of us are lifelong learners and his big goal is to take the learning that happens naturally and figure out ways to channel it into something productive. He reveals that he’s constantly doing projects on the side geared towards learning more about a particular industry or how to produce something that is useful for others. By thinking of how to produce for others, it helps him commit to those things. He adds that over the past couple years, he’s been trying to learn more about the physical world in order to help him explain it to his young daughter.
[36:42] – How to connect with Shlomy and the XPRIZE Foundation:
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[39:31] – Sign off