Designing from the bottom up: a partnership with New York State’s Office for New Americans

Designing from the bottom up: a partnership with New York State’s Office for New Americans

The path to a powerful and enduring partnership is paved with important lessons that are worth sharing. Instead of building walls to keep people out, the State of New York welcomes newcomers by building bridges of opportunity. In April 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of a first-of-a-kind pilot program through the Office for New Americans (ONA) to provide free English-language training via a mobile phone to hundreds of immigrants in New York State. Cell-Ed, our mobile language learning company, was selected as the provider of choice to deliver literacy, English language, citizenship and essentials skills to immigrants. Fast forward to today, over 1,000 learners have benefited from Cell-Ed showing measurable results. ONA renewed Cell-Ed’s contract for another year based on the success of the pilot and has opened the program to thousands more New Yorkers through its 26 Opportunity Centers located in neighborhoods across the state and through partnerships with state agencies and community-based organizations.

ONA was established to assist newcomers in New York State who are eager to contribute to the economy and become part of New York’s diverse community and family. The Governor made history by making ONA the first state-level immigrant office created by statute in the country. New York has over 4.2 million immigrants in a state with almost 20 million residents. New American business owners generate an estimated $12.6 billion dollars in net business income contributions.

At a statewide Yogurt Summit, both farmers and farm worker advocates identified English language learning as an important barrier to growth in New York. The state is now the top yogurt producer and supplier in the nation, surpassing California. Understanding the dairy industry’s workforce needs is critical to this industry’s continued success.

How does Cell-Ed’s technology work? A learner simply calls an assigned Cell-Ed number from their cell phone, listens to a lesson, reviews the lesson received via text and texts back responses. The learner receives additional support from a live coach and moves on to the next lesson. The program is free to the learner (excluding minutes and texts billed at the rate of the users’ cell phone plan) and available 24 hours a day. No data plan or Internet access is required.

Imagine working in a remote dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York with no access to transportation to get to a classroom to study English. With Cell-Ed available free of charge, someone like Bernardo, a dairy worker could study in his own time – before he begins work, during lunch breaks and in the evenings. He said, “I like Cell-Ed because I could call any hour I had available. I work different schedules and I called 15 minutes everyday before my shift began.” Candelaria, a farm worker in the Hudson Valley shared her experience, “I do not have the energy to sit through a three-hour session in the classroom after working long days at the farm. Cell-Ed opened a new world for me, now I can speak and understand English better. I was given new responsibilities at work, I don’t need a translator to talk with my daughter’s teacher and I even helped a family find an apartment.”

Jorge I. Montalvo, Deputy Secretary of State for Economic Opportunity, responsible for creating ONA, stated that “One of the best ways to help immigrants play a productive role in the economy and become citizens is to make it easier for them to learn English.”

What contributed to the success of a partnership between a state office that assists newcomers and a social impact venture company? Cell-Ed applies design thinking methodology for agile adaptation and scaling. This nimble approach – deep listening to the customer, getting smart about the issue, rapid prototyping, iteration, implementation – gives Cell-Ed its unique competitive advantage in the education technology marketplace. Here are some key lessons:

  • Hyper-connected network and cooperation. Governor Cuomo sent a clear message of welcome and opportunity by establishing the Office for New Americans in 2012. He harnessed the power of state government from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the New York State Department of Labor to community partners like the New York Farm Bureau, Literacy Volunteers of Wyoming County, Agri-Business Child Development and Cornell Cooperative Extension to enroll farmworkers in the program and provide follow-up assistance, when necessary. Hudson Valley and New York City program partners include the New York Immigration Coalition, the Hispanic Federation and Catholic Charities.
  • Removed barriers to entry. Through a contractual agreement between ONA and Cell-Ed, courses are offered free of charge with 24-hour access; geographic isolation and lack of transportation were no longer an issue; no extra cost for equipment because the learner uses a device they already have, a basic mobile phone; and no extra cost for a data plan or Internet access because the mobile learning platform was designed for audio and SMS text.
  • Learner-first mindset. Cell-Ed designed its signature courses English-on-the-Go and Citizenship-on-the-Go from the bottom up with busy working adults in mind. Bite-sized micro-modules coupled with 24-hour access. Courses are designed with hundreds of micro-lessons that can be digested easily and are based on life skills and essential skills necessary to navigate daily life, e.g. grocery shopping, taking the bus, talking to your child’s teacher or to your doctor, asking for a raise, understanding your rights as a worker, or preparing for the citizenship exam.
  • Adaptable and portable program. Cell-Ed delivered a turnkey program to ONA, fully operational and ready to use. It is supported by a technology platform that tracks the learner’s progress and collects key data points to help customize and improve the course offerings, and provides a dashboard showing progress to partners. A new learner calls a designated phone line, enters a pin code and begins her first Cell-Ed lesson.
  • Informed by best practices in adult learning. According to a new report by Digital Promise, adults learn more effectively in bursts that allow the brain to process, retain and connect new information with existing experiences. The report cited Cell-Ed as one of several best-practice examples. Cell-Ed designed a built-in feedback and reinforcement process that encourages learners. Adults learn more with shorter lessons and become more engaged because they receive regular feedback. Cell-Ed learners showed significantly higher self-esteem scores than a control group in a traditional classroom.

Public-private partnerships sometimes get a bad rap because partners bring competing agendas, or get entangled in bureaucratic red tape and show disappointing results. The path to creating a powerful and enduring partnership is marked by collaboration, innovation and a sense of urgency. Dr. Laura González-Murphy, ONA Director, noted that “Cell-Ed has proven to be a successful state partnership in New York.”

ONA and Cell-Ed’s success demonstrates what is possible when all partners are driven by a common purpose – to ensure new Americans become full participants and contributors in New York’s booming economy. Instead of building a wall to keep people out, Governor Cuomo and the State of New York opened a gateway to welcome all newcomers. Cell-Ed is honored to be part of this effort.

photo credits: 1. General Assembly 2. 3. Anthony Delanoix