Three educational entrepreneurs won cash prizes from textbook publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt last week for their entries in the company's Global Education Challenge, a crowdsourced competition to promote educational innovation.
The worldwide competition was open to educational innovators over the age of 18. Michael Muldowney, the company's CFO, says the contest had broad guidelines to allow contestants' imaginations to run wild. Ideas and products to improve any aspect of education in any subject, both inside and outside the classroom, were considered, as long as they were adaptable to a large setting, were new ideas, and could produce measurable improvement in students.
"We were pleased with the breadth and the depth of the submissions," Muldowney says.
[Learn more about the company's iPad Algebra App.]
Pocket Tales, an online social reading game created by Yaw Aning, an entrepreneur from Indianapolis, won the grand prize of $100,000 to spend on his company and another $25,000 to donate to the K-12 school of his choice.
Aning says he spent hours playing the Number Munchers math game as a child—an early educational game that taught students basic arithmetic. He wanted to create a similarly addicting, educational game with Pocket Tales.
"I like to think of it as a work in progress for the last 20, 25 years," Aning says. Pocket Tales gives students points for reading books and answering questions online. Middle- and elementary-school students can earn online badges and compete against classmates for the highest score.
"It creates a motivation layer," he says. "You're trying to score points and level up. We're trying to motivate you to read more and more books by creating this game layer."
Muldowney says Houghton Mifflin received submissions from more than 20 countries and most U.S. states. The second prize winner, Neil Dsouza, lives in Mongolia. He proposes creating roving Internet hotspots that can be used in poverty-stricken areas with little or no Internet connectivity.
Third prize also went to a reading program. James Stubblefield's Reading Glue is an online application that allows parents to keep track of what books their children are reading. It provides parents with lesson plans, pre- and post- reading activities, and questions to improve comprehension.
The contest had a panel of high-profile judges, including former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who served under President Ronald Reagan between 1985 and 1988. He says that the wide variety of submissions, including everything from ideas to fully baked products, made the contest difficult to judge.
Houghton Mifflin asked judges to pick ideas that would be adaptable to many different educational settings, were unique, and were "fundamentally different" than existing products. Bennett says in the end, it was easy to pick the winners.
"There was no haggling; there was a lot of consensus," he says. "I looked for what I thought was interesting, original, and really had a chance of making a difference."
Houghton Mifflin will have nine months to work out a business deal with the winners, but the idea will remain the winners' property. Samuel Casey Carter, senior vice president for global corporate social responsibility, says the company will likely run the contest again in the coming years.
"Once you create this community, you have the incredible benefit of the time and money people are investing themselves," he says.