Voice, text and teachers: The Cell-ED challenge

Ms Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami and Mr Mahad Ibrahim | Presentation (PDF)




Over a billion adults cannot read and lack a basic education in the world – two-thirds of them are women. The result lives mired in stubborn poverty and ill health: non-literate adults earn up to 70 percent less than their educated peers and their children are 50 percent more likely to die before the age of five. Cell-ED offers a new educational paradigm; one that enables the forgotten billion to build basic learning anywhere, anytime, on any mobile phone. This is achieved through three distinct, but interrelated approaches.

The first is to combine a teacher's Voice and SMS text messaging in an integrated mobile education service that fosters two-way interactivity and instant feedback. The second is the creation of a new type of course that is better suited to a mobile platform and easier for inexperienced learners to assimilate knowledge. The third is to create courses that fit the lives of adults and their needs. 

To access Cell-ED, learners simply call a mobile number to begin a course, hear a teacher's one-to-two minute lesson or ‘micro-module’, respond to text exercises and progress to course completion. This combination allows adults the flexibility, repetition and two-way communication needed to achieve basic learning. The benefit of Cell-ED's approach is that teachers can also load or modify a course for their learners based on their learning needs, to extend their classroom learning, or to adults who do not have access to a classroom. Since literacy and basic education programs reach less than 3 percent of those in need and report waiting lists of between two and three months, Cell-ED offers a much needed alternative.

Cell-ED has proven effective based on the results of a two-year randomized control trial: 75 percent of Cell-ED learners achieved basic literacy and gained equivalent to two grade levels in learning. These learners also accessed Cell-ED from five a.m. to midnight on calls averaging seven minutes in length, highlighting the need for learning on the go at any-time. Finally, based on empowerment measures, Cell-ED learners gained self-esteem, the confidence to learn more and the realization that they were not alone. With our current work with non-literate Spanish speakers in the United States, we are focusing evaluation efforts on the intersection between community-based centres, content providers (e.g. teachers, adult educators), coaching facilitators and learners who interact through Cell-ED as part of a California State-wide Initiative to provide basic adult literacy. In particular, we are assessing the problems and possibilities adult educators encounter as they extend class-based basic education and literacy courses with Cell-ED, including customizing content remotely, with farm and migrant communities. We will focus our presentation on these findings.



Ms Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami is the Chief Executive Officer of Cell-ED, a social enterprise developing cutting edge mobile services to deliver literacy and lifelong learning to adults that need a second chance and new pathway to learning. Jessica leads content, technology and outreach teams to bring Cell-ED to market in 2014. Jessica is also co-founder and Partner of the Gobee Group, a firm that innovates at the intersection of technology and social impact with an emphasis on education, health and financial services. Since 2002, Jessica has exchanged innovative technologies with underserved populations in over 40 countries. She is also a collaborating researcher with the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE) at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is Technology at the Margins: How IT Meets the Needs of Emerging Markets. She speaks English, German and Vietnamese.

Mr Mahad Ibrahim is Chief Technology Officer of Cell-ED, with the aim of brining learning anywhere, anytime on any phone for underserved adults. He oversees the development of Cell-ED's technology platform and mobile service as well as app development. Mahad is also the Co-founder and Managing Partner of the Gobee Group; he combines creativity, expertise, and experience to develop meaningful technology solutions to the world's pressing problems. He received his PhD and Master degrees in Information Science from the University of California at Berkeley and his Bachelor degree from Cornell University. He speaks Arabic, English, Portuguese and Somali.





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