Cell-ED: Bringing Basic Literacy to Adults One Mobile Phone at a Time

Cell-ED provides the very basics of education – learning to read – via a simple mobile phone.  With some 796 million adults in the world still unable to recognize letters or words, illiteracy remains a major contributor to many of the world’s problems from poverty to maternal and child health.   Of the 796 million, 2/3 are women, revealing how illiteracy and gender inequality go hand in hand.  Cell – ED is a mobile platform for delivery of literacy using simple audio files and SMS.  Adult literacy curricula can be adapted to the Cell-ED platform through modification of content into micro-modules that include audio and text information.  To test feasibility of the system, we adapted a Spanish literacy curriculum and delivered it via feature phones to participants in Los Angeles, California, a home to an estimated 216,000 non-literate Spanish-speaking adults.  Following the pilot, we conducted a randomized controlled trial of 70 participants (36 cases, 34 wait list controls) over six months.  The Cell-ED platform proved to be a viable method to teach the fundamentals of reading using self-paced learning without a teacher.  Qualitative analyses also support that using Cell-ED boosts self-esteem and a sense of confidence to learn in general.

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D.

Susan Smalley, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-founder of Cell-ED.   She has 30+ years of experience as a scientist conducting large-scale research programs on biological differences in learning and now works on global issues of gender equality through education, advocacy, and the law.  With Cell-ED she brings her research experience and activism to the global problem of illiteracy.   The science of adult learning suggests that mobile phones are an ideal means of teaching literacy due to the inherent ‘self-paced’ learning, availability for practice, repetition, and the external reinforcement text messaging may afford.  She formed Cell-ED to tackle adult literacy particularly among women by bringing learning to them – anytime and anywhere – using feature phones.  By bringing together a team of academics, experts in mobile technology, and business leaders, Cell-ED is poised to scale basic literacy learning on feature phones.  Dr. Smalley’s experience in research - with over 100 peer-reviewed articles – and activism in gender equality – give her unique background to facilitate scaling of Cell-ED to empower women and girls globally.

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