Lucia navigates the Los Angeles Public Transportation system every day, taking the bus from her home in South LA to Beverly Hills where she cleans houses.
She’s done this successfully for a decade, despite the fact she can’t read the bus schedule or signs indicating the bus’s destination. Instead, Lucia memorizes the color coded bus routes.
Lucia speaks English, but cannot read or write in English. She wants to learn these skills but runs up against what seems like a Catch 22: How do you signal for help when you don’t have the proper facility to do so? Conversely, how can an organization reach Lucia if she can’t see their signal?
The answer is complicated, but it starts with a simple interaction — a phone call to Lucia courtesy of Cell-Ed.
When Lucia picks up, she hears a friendly voice on the other end of the line. That’s her coach. This person is (virtually) riding alongside Lucia throughout her journey to literacy.
Lucia shifts from phone call to SMS based learning quickly, at her own pace centered around her priorities. Literacy has to be functional. Understanding why Lucia wants to learn English, and how she wants to use her new skill helps Cell-Ed support Lucia.
If she hits a snag, or needs a boost to continue on her journey, Lucia’s Cell-Ed coach is a quick text away. Giving Lucia full control of Cell-Ed’s tools is critical to her success. The medium is important as well.
“We’re trying to bridge the digital divide and opportunity divide that’s so pervasive,” says Dr. Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, Co-Founder of Cell-Ed.
The technology has to be affordable, accessible, and relevant.
Dr. Rothenberg-Aalami is building for people on the margins, the people without smartphones or regular access to internet. For those not on the margins, this problem isn’t as visible. Everyone at the game seems to have a smartphone. The party at the table next to you are all texting on smartphones. Yet one-third of the global population use basic mobile phones. When you’re serving that third of the population, apps don’t cut it.
Cell-Ed’s SMS based learning program allows them to reach a larger swath of users who don’t have smartphones, spanning that digital divide. SMS also allows them to hone in on a one-on-one learning approach, adjusting to each learner’s unique background.
This asynchronous learning method enables them to learn at their own pace, from anywhere. Whenever and wherever they can text, they can spend time learning how to read and write.
Cell-Ed’s system of individual focus, asynchronous learning, and constant encouragement has helped them equip thousands of people on the margins of society with vital skills, such as how to write a clear e-mail or download a PDF.
Their 44-hour literacy course has no app and no classroom. The whole course is done via phone call and SMS, powered by Twilio. Since launching in 2014, Cell-Ed has logged over 1 million minutes teaching learners, and 800,000 text messages exchanged.
Their method of teaching has a 75% completion rate, compared to a 20%-50% completion rate in classroom based curriculums.
A common pitfall of literacy education is the one-size-fits-all method. Pairing 30 or so adult learners in a classroom and teaching one lesson doesn’t quite work with adults. It hard to find common ground to start from given their diverse experiences and backgrounds. The solution to this problem is to not look for a common ground in the first place, but to meet the learner where they are.
“The technology has to be affordable, accessible, and relevant,” says Dr. Rothenberg-Aalami. Being relevant means being practical. It means turning hours of down time into opportunities to learn.
Lucia can now read on the bus in English. After she was introduced to Cell-Ed, she continued with their SMS program and worked with her coach. She likely knows the color coded bus lines by heart now, but if she wants to, she can take a look at the schedule and read it.