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Prizes and Pull Mechanisms Can Boost Global Learning

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The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently requested information about "public and private actions that have the potential to accelerate the development, rigorous evaluation, and widespread adoption of high-impact learning technologies." Comments are due March 7.

The request was focused on "pull mechanisms" which can be a good way to attack an underdeveloped or inefficient market. They come in three forms:

  • Market development: aggregated demand and advance market commitments (used with great success in promoting global health);
  • Fast track: cutting through the bureaucracy with accelerated approvals and proactive incentives; and
  • Inducement prizes: rewards for successfully meeting a breakthrough challenge.

Here's a high level comparison of direct investment (push) versus pull mechanisms:

  • Investment: up front vs. on success,
  • Common mechanism: grant vs. inducement prize
  • Solution: defined up front vs. determined/created by participants
  • Mobilization: low, only selected participants vs. high, participants respond to incentives
  • Leverage: little, secondary outcome vs. significant investment by participants
  • Advocacy: traditional PR vs. competition drama with potential breakthrough

A couple months ago, I outlined four ways prizes could promote learning:

  • Design Prizes: small prizes could be used to incentivize innovative designs for new schools, new school facilities, or new systems of education.
  • Intervention Challenges : products, services, and strategies could be tested in comparable short cycle trails.
  • Data Competitions: inviting data scientists globally to work on well defined problems.
  • Geo-Competitions: invite districts, cities, or regions to compete on specific challenges over a specific period of time.

Good examples. Today USAID announced a second round of funding for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (@ReadingGCD). "The global grant and prize competition seeks innovative ideas that leverage the transformative power of technology to leapfrog existing infrastructure challenges and empower children to read."

Round 2 "seeks technology-based innovations that support improvements in basic reading skills with a focus on mother tongue instruction and reading materials, family and community engagement, and children with disabilities."

A previous round of this program has already started to produce results:

  • World Reader : San Francisco-based-company using e-readers in Ghanaian primary schools to improve child literacy and close the gender gap.
  • Planet Read : The simple idea of subtitling content in the same language as the audio, whether on TV programs, film songs, music-videos, folk songs, and movies. They are currently implementing the project in India using Bollywood films.
  • Sesame Workshop India : Elmo is helping kids to read in Bihar - one of the poorest areas in India. The program integrates proven multi-sensory approaches, Sesame Street content, and ultra-low cost tablets to improve reading skills in Hindi and English. The program also empowers teachers through useful training materials.

USAID is also awarding $100,000 prize "to the organization or individual that develops a software solution to help writers create reading materials in local languages for children in developing countries."

Prizes can be a super efficient way to attack a problem. It's good to see the White House and USAID making constructive use of pull mechanisms. Submit your comments by March 7 (or comment on this post and we'll include them).

For more on prizes see the ASAP Case Study: Prizes Can Focus & Accelerate Innovation.

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