Mobile Learning: Making the Digital Promise Real - Digital Promise

Mobile Learning: Making the Digital Promise Real

July 13, 2016 | By

In my work with Cell-Ed and Avasant Foundation, I have seen adult learners study basic literacy, English, citizenship, and workforce skills at all hours of the day and night. Juggling long and often irregular work schedules, they study on the bus, while waiting in lines, and on work breaks between mopping floors, milking cows, picking fruit, and caring for others.

The market for mobile education technology is vast and, more important, mostly untapped.

But for the “digital promise” of new learning technologies to be made real for those in need of basic skills, mobile instruction must be designed for their real lives and learning needs.

The Promise of Mobile

According to Pew Research Center, 92 percent of American adults own cell phones, and they are embracing their phones as learning tools. Uber has harnessed this momentum globally: over 100,000 of its drivers take 30,000 training courses on their phones each week, effectively upskilling a third of Uber’s workforce every week.

Mobile learning is also effective at reaching and teaching some of society’s hardest to serve. Research by Cell-Ed shows that low-skilled adults who studied basic literacy by calling Cell-Ed learning lines improved their reading scores by “years … [in] about four months. Without a teacher.”

I’ll never forget hearing from a new Cell-Ed student, Antonio, who had immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua two weeks earlier. As Cell-Ed’s interactive audio lessons and texts don’t require the Internet, it only took Antonio getting a cell phone and the phone number for Cell-Ed from a housemate for him to start studying. Antonio studied English from his boss’ truck between construction gigs.

Working Together Toward Mobile Solutions

Most education technology discussions in the U.S. focus on blended or extended learning to better serve the 11 percent of low-skilled adults who can attend class. I believe we can and must work together, developers and educators, to also help the other 89 percent learn by developing mobile education technologies with content and design directed specifically for them.

Developers working in partnership with adult educators, employers, unions, and community-based organizations across the globe can design courses and training with effective, relevant content for adult learners.

For instance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and their partner employers had curriculum for employment and career advancement. They asked the game developer DigiPalms and the Everett Program at U.C. Santa Cruz to collaborate on making their training program accessible through a game-based mobile app. ROC and the developers knew that by working together on “Top Server,” they would design a better product for making job upskilling both more accessible and fun.

At the same time, developers must work with adult educators to understand how to design for low-skilled adult learners. For example, every new bell and whistle added to a program might mean losing a learner if it makes the program harder to navigate and less relevant to their lives. Cell-Ed found success teaching basic literacy simply through interactive texts; learners like Antonio responded well since texting is how they most often write. We need new, creative ways to motivate adult learners, but we also need to ensure we are designing technology to increase access and learning for low-skilled adults, not limit it.

A Mobile Learning Call to Action

We need all hands on deck to reach and effectively train the 36 million adults in the U.S., and close to a billion people globally, who lack basic and career skills. Mobile learning is a critical solution for meeting these workers literally wherever they are. Let Antonio’s desire to learn despite incredible obstacles be a call to action to developers to create mobile technology tools personalized to the needs and goals of adult learners. Those who act now will have the best chance at leading this promising market.


  • Eunice Snay says:

    I’ve been watching Cell-Ed for some time now. I want to know the progress being made to develop cell phone product for the ABE students working toward their High School Equivalent such as HiSet, GED or TASC. I love the ability for students using the ability to learn right on their phones without the need for the Internet.

  • Paul Rogers says:

    Alison, I agree with your Call To Action and would urge people to think in terms of collaborating to develop and offer the kinds of programs you outlined in your article.
    The 89% of the people that you mention who are not served by regular adult classes consist of adult immigrants, usually mothers, who are low-income.
    With mobile devices we can create and offer classes for these adults in a way that will actually embody the concept of “life-long learning”.
    I offer the following:
    I “teach” a free mobile ESL course to Spanish speakers using WhatsApp study circles.
    The lessons are based on PUMAROSA.COM, my free, bilingual (Spanish/English) ESL interactive website.
    Through the WhatsApp Study Circles, I offer free Mobile Distance Learning classes to about 200 adults in the US and Latin America.
    In addition I have developed lessons on Facebook groups, a WIX site, a Wiki Spaces for Teachers site and YouTube, all of which I post on WhatsApp.
    In my opinion, to promote mobile learning in the US, we need to offer mobile classes in Distance Learning and Blended Learning programs based in the following locations:
    1. Libraries
    2. Low-income housing complexes
    3. Community centers
    4. PTAs
    5. Adult Schools
    6. Etc.
    Volunteer tutors can be recruited from the students themselves and training can be “on the job”.
    Outreach and advertising can be done through local newspapers, radios and community access television stations. Swap meets are also a very good place to “get the word out”.
    And funding can come from local businesses as well as grants from educational foundations as well as the government agencies.
    There is no doubt in my mind that online learning can and will grow and we will serve the needs of the majority of low-income people who otherwise are not able to attend classes.

    Paul Rogers

  • Branka says:

    Great article and comments so far. I find very powerful the account of how Antonio found the way to learn two weeks after arriving in the U.S..

  • Jen says:

    Thanks, Alison, for so clearly illustrating the impact of making use of the devices already in the hands of adult learners. With so many learners unable to commit to “in class” learning, opportunities like Cell-Ed are the best means by which to support them. Thanks for your work!

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