Cell-Ed | Startup’s Goal: Texting Your Way To Literacy
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Startup’s Goal: Texting Your Way To Literacy

Startup’s Goal: Texting Your Way To Literacy

Anne Field, FORBES


Texting as a tool to teach literacy. Such is the idea behind startup Cell-Ed. It’s tapping the vast number of people who have access to basic cell phones and, therefore, can  send text messages, using that ability to teach adults how to read.

Nearly 1 billion people world-wide are illiterate, most of them women and girls, according to Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, co-founder of the Palo  Alto-based company, who has worked for the past 20 years in the area of literacy and addressing the digital divide. “It’s stunning we have so many people in the world who can’t read,” she says. “But the basic mobile phone is one of the few tools available through which you can reach almost everyone.”

The technology, which relies on Twilio, a cloud communication platform, delivers bite-sized courses in reading via text message, plus audio, that students can work on whenever they have the time. So people who ordinarily couldn’t get to a classroom are able to work on three-minute sections, say, on their lunch break or while waiting for the kids to get out of school.

The service started as a research project in 2011 at UCLA, where researchers focused on the hardest to reach adult learners–low-income individuals unable to read in their first language. But instead of targeting people in, say, Africa, they worked in the U.S. with the Latino community in Los Angeles–specifically, Spanish speakers with less than a first grade level of education, most with no previous formal school experience.

In 2013, researchers reached out to Rothenberg-Aalami to turn the project into something bigger. A year later, she co-founded the company. The first pilot was in New York State, through the Office for New Americans, combining literacy and job skills. That was followed by a test in Texas and another working with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) .

Here’s how it works: Users can get access to the curriculum 24/7. After dialing in, they hear an audio recording of their teacher introducing the lesson. For example, users might see a text message, along with a recording on the order of, “I like football. My brother Chris doesn’t like it. He says it’s boring.” Users also would be asked to read aloud along with the recording. Then they’re asked a question–“Who doesn’t like football?”—and text the answer back. Get it right and they continue on. Answer wrong and they hear the right answer, then  a request to text it back. And so on. If students struggle more than three times with a question, the system registers that situation and a coach contacts them.

Lessons come in several varieties: non-literate Spanish speakers in Spanish, “English on the go”—bilingual lessons with language needed for daily life, and an all-English program. For people with smart phones, there’s also an app with more pictures and links to videos.

The company is now working with 20 customers; the target is anything from a union to a big corporation.

“We’re shedding light on the importance of creating an industry focusing on the needs of low-literate adults–which is the majority of the world,” says Rothenberg-Aalami.