By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
A former Bellingham teacher could soon have the opportunity to help teach thousands of people around the world, all at once. Dana Rozier, a longtime Bellingham resident, is part of a company that has a shot at a multimillion dollar prize in a global technology competition.
AutoCognita is a semifinalist for two different X Prize competitions. Both competitions are aimed at encouraging teams to build technology to advance education.
The Global Learning X Prize comes with a $10 million grand prize and five $1 million finalist prizes for the teams that produce the best software to teach children in developing countries to read, write and do basic math. The Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy X Prize will award $7 million in prize money to the finalists who create the best software to teach American adults to read and write in English.
AutoCognita is the first team in the history of the X Prize to become semifinalists in two separate prizes.
Rozier got involved with AutoCognita when she decided she wanted to do some kind of work that would have an impact on a global scale.
She had spent 25 years teaching.
“I’d wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in the third grade,” she said. “I think I was born to teach and write.”
She spent most of her teaching career in Whatcom County where she designed curriculum and taught third through sixth graders at the Ferndale School District.
She was inspired to get involved with the X Prize when she read a book by Peter Diamandis, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the competition.
“I just decided I would like to be involved in something global,” she said. She looked up the organization and found the two competitions for literacy.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it, this is my life goal,’” Rozier said. “It’s everything that I’m passionate about.”
Although she had lots of experience teaching, she had no experience coding or building software, so she started looking to join a team that had already got started. She found AutoCognita, a team started by Frank Ho, who lives in Hong Kong. Already on the team were Pazu Lai and Chun Chi. They had lots of experience with technology and programming, but needed someone to design the actual content — they needed a teacher.
It was a perfect fit, and Rozier joined the team two years ago.
As the next phase of the adult literacy competition, all eight semifinalists will have their tech tested by low-literate adults in the U.S. They’ll use the programs for a year, and be tested on their literacy skills both before and after the trial period. The winner will be announced in January 2019.
In September, the finalists in the global learning prize will be announced. The finalists’ programs will be deployed in at least 100 different villages in developing nations, and be used by children who have limited access to schooling. Children will use the programs for 18 months, and whichever program works best to teach reading, writing and arithmetic will win the $10 million grand prize. The winner will be announced in April 2019.
“It’s such an exciting thing to be a part of because it’s universal literacy,” Rozier said. “We’re all coming together to help solve this literacy crisis.”
More than 36 million adults in the U.S. aren’t literate in English, according to the X Prize competition website.
“There’s just not enough teachers and classroom space for that many adults,” Rozier said.
Technology can be one solution.
Rozier has also been working with the Whatcom Literacy Council. She brought her app there for beta testing and feedback from staff.
“I really respect her,” Katherine Freimund, council executive director, said, “because she really said, ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do this well.’”
The council trains volunteers to teach literacy both to adults who are learning English as a second language and to those who speak English as a first language.
It also runs small group classes and supports other literacy programs in the county.
Between 6 and 10 percent of people in the county have low-level of literacy, Freimund said. Not being able to read or write in English can affect almost every aspect of their life. They can’t get local news. They may not be able to communicate with their landlord. They may not be able to get a good job, or move up in their current position.
The council uses any tool it can get to help people learn.
“As teachers, you do whatever you can,” Freimund said. “I think apps are a wonderful of example of things that make learning fun and accessible.”
The AutoCognita app has a simple design, not pointedly aimed at either children or adults. AutoCognita is different because it’s more comprehensive than a lot of the other learning apps out there, Rozier said.
A lot of programs assume some kind of basic knowledge going in, or they only cover part of the curriculum that AutoCognita does.
“There’s not an app that teaches you from zero to the end of second grade skills,” she said.
An app has some drawbacks, of course.
When she was in the classroom, Rozier could ask a student to read aloud and tell immediately whether they could do it, or needed a little extra help. An app can’t really do that.
“It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s more scalable than humans,” she said. “You’re never going to replace teachers, but technology can be a good support system.”