Autonomous Learning: A Life-Changing Education Moonshot

My favorite part of life in a connected world is connecting with mission-minded, high-impact people around the globe. As such, I am excited to tell you about a recent connection and an education moonshot in autonomous learning. It is one that could change the lives of countless children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the world. This is a moonshot worth sharing and supporting.

What is an education moonshot?

An education moonshot is a bold and grand vision for a desired future condition in the education space. It starts with the equivalent of JFK’s speech to the joint congress in 1961, when he challenged a nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It was an inspiring speech, one that JFK repeated countless times over the upcoming year, but it took more than the words of an influential leader to make it a reality.

After speaking those words, there was a national rally around the challenge. The government allocated resources, and some of the best minds devoted years to making this happen. Along the way, some people even lost their lives amid the preparations and experimentation. In 1969, this vision became a reality, “a giant leap for mankind.” This is where we get the idea of a moonshot, and an education moonshot is nothing more or less than an equally compelling vision that is focused upon a social innovation in the education sector, one that represents a giant leap for humanity.

Meet Dev4X

With that in mind, allow me to introduce you toDev4X. The term “moonshot” is gaining use and attention in education, but I contend that is best reserved for the type of bold initiatives represented by Dev4X. We are not just talking about sustaining or incremental innovations, improving or refining past models and efforts. An education moonshot is a game-changer. It is doing something that has never been accomplished before. It is the type of vision that I learned about recently when I had the joy of talking with Bodo Hoenen, a social innovator and founder of Dev4X. This is an education startup largely powered by talented and committed volunteers around the world, all focused on, “Empowering all children, including the most underserved, to improve their lives and their future through learning.”

Why is this a moonshot in autonomous learning?

This isn’t just about trying to create more schools in different parts of the world. It is larger and more disruptive than that. Bodo wants to create a future where, “every child can learn anything they need, even if they don’t have access to formal schooling.” This calls for the design of hardware, a software platform, and access to learning resources (content) that lend themselves toward peer-to-peer learning, self-directed learning (or autonomous learning), and what Sugata Mitra coined as Self-organized Learning Environments.

Think of it as a social innovation that blends ideas inspired by game-based learning, the $100 laptop project (now known as the One Laptop Per Child Project) started a decade ago, self-organized learning environments, and lessons learned from Khan Academy. This is a project focused on a massive problem in education, the reality that countless children around the world have no access to teachers, quality schools, or educational opportunities. Now imagine inexpensive hardware and learning platforms that change that by allowing children to learn independently and through peer-to-peer networks.

What will young people learn from this platform? With an initial focus on literacy and numeracy, the Dev4X team is also planning to work with locals to design culturally sensitive content that focuses upon the knowledge most important to thrive and survive in a given part of the world. This is starting with projects designed for children in Liberia, rural Kenya, and serving the needs of girls in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Who will this help?

After decades of unrest in Liberia, most schools are empty shells with no resources. Books were burned and many trained teachers left the country. Even as there are efforts to rebuild an educational system, young people return to schools that are little more then empty buildings.

In parts of rural Kenya, schooling options are limited, but there is also no electricity grid or widespread access to the Internet. This means we need to build a system that doesn’t depend upon connections to the outside world, but instead builds a mesh network among all the people using the devices in given area, one that also empowers self-organized peer-to-peer learning across devices. It also needs be available in Swahili.

In places like Pakistan and Afghanistan there are efforts to increase access to education, but young girls remain largely disconnected from those opportunities. Their ability to get an education provides important opportunities for their future, but that is not a reality for many. If they are not able to attend school, then the Dev4X effort will bring learning opportunities to them.

Teachers are valuable, but as I’ve written many times before, the most critical elements in a learning experience are learners and experiences. As such, the Dev4X moonshot is focused on those two elements, inspired by an immediate need in the world. The education of one child is too important to wait on government resources and massive school reform projects. This is the start of an educational “design” experiment (informed by many experiments before it) that will show us a new way of thinking about increasing access and opportunity in a connected world.

How can I help?

As I mentioned before, Dev4X is a volunteer-powered effort, so your help is needed.

  • First, you can share this article and other information about the project (Watch and Share Bodo’s TED Talk here). In the sprit of TED, this is definitely an idea worth spreading.
  • In my conversation with Bodo, he also explained that they are still in need of more software developers, especially those experienced with Java and the Android platform.
  • Finally, look for upcoming information about a crowd-funding campaign where all of us can provide financial support to this inspirational moonshot.