This mobile learning platform aims to combat the “hidden epidemic” of adult illiteracy | Apps News

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If half of the adults in America picked up this article, they’d struggle and learning to fully comprehend it. About one in seven couldn’t read it at all.

A lack of transportation and affordable childcare are typically cited as the biggest barriers for low-income workers to get ahead. But there’s another fundamental factor that is easily overlooked: A huge part of the America labor force is illiterate.

“When you talk about adult literacy, it sounds like you’re referring to a few folks who fell through the cracks, but that’s not the case at all,” says Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, the founder and CEO of Cell-Ed, a for-profit social enterprise that is making promising strides in combating the problem with a mobile learning platform targeted at low-skill workers. “It’s a hidden epidemic.”

Formally launched four years ago, Cell-Ed has had early success because it has taken great pains to design its product the right way: through rounds and rounds of testing and iterating, with the daily constraints of its cash- and time-strapped users always kept firmly in mind.

“This isn’t about the tech being glitzy,” says Kyle Athayde, state outreach coordinator at New York’s Office for New Americans, which has made Cell-Ed available to more than 1,500 immigrants over the past three years. “It’s about providing the things that people really need. They’ve made the technology human.”

Accessing Cell-Ed simply requires a phone that can text (although app– and internet-based versions are also available, as is a call-in-only option). Once plugged in, a learner is guided through a series of modules on a chosen topic, such as literacy or numeracy. Each module is made up of dozens of micro-lessons, which are delivered through a combination of audio, video, still images, and written content.


The vast majority of users, who are foreign-born, tap Cell-Ed to learn not only English as a second language but a full suite of basics: reading and writing (even in their native tongue), math, and soft skills. “Many of them have not gone past sixth grade in their home countries,” notes Laura Gonzalez-Murphy, director of immigration policy and research at New York’s Department of State.

Lessons last no longer than three minutes–perfect for someone to digest during a break at work or while waiting to pick up the kids from school. Meantime, Cell-Ed coaches are available around the clock to support a learner via messaging or a phone call.

“You see people burning through it because they love it,” Athayde says.

Luis Dominguez is among them. He arrived in the United States three years ago from Honduras and has been using Cell-Ed for about an hour a day over the past six months to learn to speak and write in English.

“I understand more,” says Dominguez, who lives on Long Island and is a painter for a construction company. “If I need something, I can ask for it.” He says that because his communication has improved, his boss increasingly trusts him to do a good job. Dominguez’s pay recently went up to $12 an hour from $9, and he’s being asked to work more–gains that he credits directly to Cell-Ed.

Cell-Ed, which last summer received a $1.5 million infusion from four impact-investing funds, charges nonprofits and government agencies an annual license fee of $50 per user (including the live coaching), with high-volume discounts that can cut the price in half. Corporate customers pay more–but still less than $10 a month. Individual learners pay nothing.


In all, Cell-Ed will serve about 30,000 people this year. By next year, however, it expects to have more than 1 million users–an explosion in growth that Rothenberg-Aalami attributes, in large part, to dozens of client organizations that are poised to start using the system at scale.

For the past few months, six Four Seasons hotels around the country have been piloting Cell-Ed with 100 Spanish-speaking housekeepers, who’ve been using the platform to learn English as well as a specially designed curriculum that reinforces the company’s culture, brand, and service standards.

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