Teaching Adult Literacy: One Cell Phone at a Time

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Teaching Adult Literacy: One Cell Phone at a Time

Los Angeles, United StatesBeverly HIlls, United States
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

796 million adults lack basic literacy skills, 2/3 are women. Cell-Ed utilizes the ubiquitous nature of feature phones to distribute basic literacy thereby helping to solve this epidemic.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

There are roughly 796 million adults who lack basic literacy skills, 2/3 of whom are women. 75 million children, the next generation of adults, continue to go without education. Numerous barriers prevent attainment of basic education, including poverty, gender inequality, and conflict. At the same time mobile phone ownership continues to grow exponentially, reaching over 5 billion users in 2011. Despite wide-spread mobile phone access, the majority of users in developing countries do not have SMART phones or access to Internet based technology. By 2015, still half of all phones in use will be feature phones. Mobile learning on feature phones has the capacity to reach the millions of illiterate adults unable to access classroom learning or Internet-based technology.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Cell-ED utilizes the ubiquitous nature of mobile phones to distribute basic literacy skills to adults, particularly women, who never had the opportunity to learn how to read. We have created a mobile phone platform, using audio and SMS, to bring basic literacy to learners anytime, anywhere and in any language. We chose to use feature phone's SMS and audio technology because the majority of adults who cannot read do not have SMART phones or Internet technology due to cost, lack of access, and/or fear. Cell-ED provides an easy to use alternative for adults who can’t get to a classroom or a computer. Adults learn literacy through a simple feature phone by listening, looking at a SMS lesson, and texting themselves. Education is literally in the palm of their hand. Research shows when you educate an adult particularly a women, they are more likely to send their children to school. In order to solve the global education gap we need to break the cycle with adults, especially mothers.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Cell-ED delivers basic literacy directly to a user’s mobile phone. Students call the Cell-ED number and the program begins either at the beginning or at the place they stopped at last time of use. A series of 1-3 minute micro-modules or "mini lessons" are delivered, gradually walking a student through an introductory basic literacy curriculum. Each module consists of an audio piece, a SMS, and then a request for the student to send back a SMS to test understanding. If correct, the student moves on to the next module. If incorrect, the module is repeated. The modules progress in difficulty from very elemental components such as letter recognition, to word and sentence formation, and to text composition. Adult literacy curricula in any language can be formatted into these micro-modules for delivery over mobile phones. All parameters of the program are customizable. Through a robust reporting section, an educator can watch student’s progress through modules, trouble shoot, identify errors in the curriculum, and/or encourage continued practice; however, it is important to note no educator is needed for participation. We have adapted a widely used Spanish literacy curriculum to Cell-ED (there are 2 million illiterate Spanish-speaking adults in the US), piloted it in a small sample, and are conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate its efficacy. Preliminary data show that users moved from an age equivalent level of a 6 year old to a 10 year old reading level compared to negligible change among controls.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

To our knowledge, there are no widespread multi-language adult literacy mobile platforms in operation. M-Learning initiatives do exist however they do not teach basic adult literacy. Instead the focus is teaching English, literacy retention, and/or children’s education. Furthermore, most programs utilize Internet-based technologies for education. As mobile operating systems continue to decrease in cost, our target audience may have the option of using Internet-based learning materials, yet, even by 2015 it is estimated that half of all mobile users will still be using feature phones. In the U.S. this technology is already feasible yet not utilized by our current students. From our experience, it appears that literacy itself may very well be a precursor to Internet usage.

Founding Story

Through their careers in education, science, and global media and a commitment to helping humanity Kevin and Susan, our founders, wanted to increase access to education and reduce gender inequality. It was during a philanthropic mission to Sub-Saharan Africa and India, where the founders realized the far reach of cell phones and the vast problem of adult illiteracy. Cell-ED arose from their insight that a mobile phone was an ideal tool to reach this underserved (and often forgotten) population. From the slums of Mumbai or rural villages of Malawi, they saw inadequate education (schools, materials, teachers) but the presence of feature phones. They set out to use this 'old school' technology to bring the elements of reading to everyone. The impact of literacy on other global problems is clear: a literate parent has improved maternal health care, reduced risk for HIV/AIDs, better wage earning and thus reduced poverty, and is more likely to send their own children to school.
About You
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name


Organization Country

, CA, Beverly HIlls, Los Angeles County

Country where this project is creating social impact

, CA, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County

Age of Innovator

Over 34

Gender of Innovator


How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

Has the organization received awards or honors? Please tell us about them

Cell-ED received certificates of recognition and appreciation for our work in the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights and in South Los Angeles.

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How long have you been in operation?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Which of the following best describes the barrier(s) your innovation addresses? Choose up to two

Access, Equity.

Social Impact
What solution(s) does your initiative address to better the lives of girls and women by leveraging technology? (select all applicable)

Access to technology, Access to education/training, Access to economic opportunity.

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

A proof of concept phase has been completed. An RCT is underway. Results of the pilot and RCT already demonstrate the positive impact of Cell-ED. We found in the feasibility study an 80% adherence rate to the mobile literacy 'class' versus the 20% adherence rate found in most traditional adult literacy classes. This suggests that mobile learning will be a powerful means of reaching adults who cannot attend classrooms for learning. Second, our preliminary data from the first set of cases and controls in our RCT support efficacy of the Cell-ED program. We found a change in literacy level from 6 years to 10 years in the Cell-ED group compared to a negligible change in a wait list control sample. Although results are preliminary (only a third of the sample is as yet complete), findings support likely efficacy of Cell-ED to teach literacy. Lastly, participants rate Cell-ED highly and endorse their own increased empowerment and desire for continued education from its use.

What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?

By the end of 2013 we will have completed a rigorous scientific evaluation of the efficacy of Cell-ED’s platform. The results of the RCT will provide the first scientific investigation of teaching literacy (from scratch) using mobile phones without teacher involvement. We anticipate several peer-reviewed papers will result from our research and provide investigators and developers of mobile teaching vital information on mobile phone learning. In 2013, we will complete an evaluation of the business model and scaling strategy for Cell-ED with the help of Linksbridge, an outside consulting firm. In 2014-2015, we will expand Cell-ED usage to large numbers of Spanish speaking communities in the U.S., and begin to explore launching to communities outside the U.S.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

In general, adherence and retention is problematic in teaching adult literacy. Roughly 20% of adults drop out of literacy courses. Cell-ED's strategy attempts to counter this through the platform's design and use of mobile phones. The combination of both provides individualized learning, repetition, practice, and extrinsic motivation that have been shown to be crucial to adult learning. We have an ~80% adherence rate in our work. The other barriers are getting Cell-ED to customers (marketing) and costs of airtime (particularly outside developed countries). In the U.S., unlimited talk/text plans eliminate the cost issue for many and marketing strategies are already being initiated (e.g. MetroPCS ran a click to call advertisement) but additional marketing is needed.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Learners in the evaluation study complete the program. Cell-Ed use spreads by word of mouth.

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Task 1

Complete the randomized control trial (RCT) of 70 Spanish speaking adults (35 case, 35 controls) and publications.

Task 2

Initiate and complete Linksbridge analysis (4 month process beginning 12/12).

Task 3

Identify stakeholders and funds for scaling Cell-ED based on Linksbridge analysis.

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Expand Cell-ED access in the U.S. and beyond.

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Task 1

Expand and market Cell-ED use in the U.S. (with Metro PCS and others).

Task 2

Identify communities outside the U.S. to test Cell-ED (e.g. Nicaragua or Guatemala).

Task 3

Identify scaling strategy beyond Spanish-language populations.

Tell us about your partnerships

Our scientific research is in collaboration with scientists at Oxford, Tufts, and UCLA. For concept development we compiled a group of advisors in the fields of technology, education, foreign policy, and international business. We are currently working with Comic Relief and the co-founders are involved with Gordon and Sarah Brown's high level panel on education. Cell-ED has also been in conversation with private companies (i.e. Nokia and Metro PCS), government organizations (i.e. State Department) and other entities (i.e. Omidyar and GSMA Development Fund) who have all expressed interest.

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