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Inspiring Partnerships: Multimillion-Dollar Global Competition Sparks Learning Innovation

Spurring Advancements in Education Technology, Georgia State Partnership Benefits Students and Educators Around the World

Imagine an app at a child’s fingertips that uses insights about how they learn to help them solve a tricky math problem or a learning platform that can help upskill workers for the new economy. These are just two of the ideas that could soon be a reality thanks to a transformative undertaking known as the Tools Competition.

The competition was started in 2020 by The Learning Agency at the height of the COVID-19 epidemic as educators switched to emergency, online education. It brings together technologists, researchers, and educators from around the world to develop innovative learning solutions. Since its first cycle, the competition has named 80 winning ideas from 35 countries.

Georgia State University is a partner in the initiative which just launched — through November 10 — its latest search for candidates to design and develop cutting-edge, creative ideas to propel education technology further.

George State University President M. Brian Blake, Ph.D., recently gave the keynote address to kick off the latest competition, which focuses on learning engineering.

“We are proud to play a role in such an innovative venture year after year,” Blake said. “As an academic partner, we are thrilled that our professors can provide support to the creative minds developing the next generation of education technology and research.”

With more than $5.5 million available to winners to develop tools that assist students in pre-K through secondary school as well as adult learners, the 2023 Tools Competition will focus on advancing teaching and learning with the goal of boosting learner outcomes.

This year, there is a particular focus on the use of artificial intelligence to enhance innovations.

Katie McCarthy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences in Georgia State’s College of Education & Human Development, is one of the faculty who helped design the competition and serves as a judge.

“This competition is unique because we work with teams to use the latest research to make sure we’re not just creating tools, but tools that are beneficial to learners and educators,” McCarthy said. “We encourage participants to think about how they can infuse research into their work. So, they’re not only providing a tool but using the data that learners are producing to tell us more about research and theory and how we can be improving long term.”

As one of the largest educational technology competitions in the world, the Tools Competition has already inspired thousands of proposals for innovative learning technologies. Judges work with teams to provide mentorship and support the design and development of their products, experiences, and research to aid teaching and learning.

McCarthy said this competition is specifically geared toward leveraging new capabilities, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, to bring new possibilities to students and teachers, and even adult learners. For example, if AI will write a student’s essay for them, how can we leverage the technology to help users continue to improve their knowledge and writing while educators incorporate the technology to expand their reach?

The current Tools Competition expects to award more than $5.5 million for educational technology innovation in learning and research. Tools can be apps, software, algorithms, or other digital technologies with the potential to scale at minimal cost. To date, the competition has named 80 winners from 35 countries.

Ben Shapiro, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences, is one of the experts from Georgia State who will work with the teams to develop their pitches and products to bring them to fruition. His expertise spans learning sciences, information visualization, and data science education.

“One of the most exciting things about the Tools Competition is the diversity of teams as well as the diversity of judges, administrators, and researchers who have helped grow the competition,” Shapiro said. “So, the teams, judges, and researchers span academic, industry, and nonprofit sectors, and have expertise ranging from learning analytics, entrepreneurship, teacher education, math education, and computer science.”

This year’s competition is supported by global philanthropic and education leaders including Schmidt Futures, Griffin Catalyst, Walton Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment, Calbright College, Axim Collaborative, Endless Network, and OpenAI.

“Each year, the competition gets bigger, and the proposals get more ambitious,” said Kristyn Manoukian, program director for The Learning Agency. “It’s incredibly inspiring work that we are proud to support with great partners like Georgia State University. It’s these collaborations and partnerships that make the Tools Competition a success.”

Nearly $10 million has already been awarded to 80 past winners to help them create learning solutions. These range from early-stage concepts to established products. By 2026, it is anticipated that these tools will impact more than 107 million learners with the goal of advancing educational equity, reducing teacher workloads, resolving skill gaps, and minimizing persistent learning issues.

As an official academic partner, Georgia State brings key technical, research, and evaluation capacity to the competition.

“There’s a reason that Georgia State is known for innovation,” said Tim Denning, Ph.D., vice president for research and economic development. “And this partnership with the Tools Competition is a compelling illustration of our commitment to promoting progress in education and remaining at the forefront of educational research.”

Along with competition organizers, McCarthy and Shapiro will guide prospective applicants through a nine-month process to bring their ideas to fruition. The competition accepts applicants at all phases of development — from ideas and early-stage products to established platforms.

“Something we really pride ourselves on is that even the teams that don’t end up winning will get feedback about how to make their idea more effective,” McCarthy said. “Ideally, the ideas will also help to make the tools more efficient, effective, and equitable. Those are the ‘big three’ that we look for.”

For more information on submitting your idea, visit https://tools-competition.org/. Abstracts are due Nov. 10. Winners will be announced in June 2024.

The Learning Agency is a mission-centered organization that combines content area expertise in education with the organizational know-how to actualize that knowledge into tangible solutions.

Featured Researchers

Kathryn McCarthy conducts basic research examining the underlying cognitive processes involved in adolescent and adult literacy, with emphasis on how these processes vary as a function of discipline and readers’ individual differences. She also conducts applied research to explore how technology-supported interventions can be leveraged to support successful learning across a variety of contexts.

Ben Rydal Shapiro conducts research that integrates approaches from the learning sciences, information visualization, and computer science to study how people learn in relation to the physical environment and to support computer and data science education in and out of schools.

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