Learning Upgrade: XPrize Semi-Finalist Leveraging Big Data

By Alison Ascher Webber

Woman using cell phone

One of the newly announced semi-finalists in the Adult Literacy XPrize competition is Learning Upgrade, a mobile app that teaches through songs, videos, games, and rewards. Learning Upgrade has helped over 1 million students make learning breakthroughs in English and math since 1998, but its focus on adult learning is new. I recently spoke with CEO, Vinod Lobo, to learn about their transition to adult education and how they are utilizing big data to provide differentiated instruction to learners.

Lobo explained that their shift to adult learning happened organically after parents of students in ESL education programs in California asked for their own access. Of 200 children enrolled in  Learning Upgrade at a migrant program in Pomona CA, parents from 160 of the families asked for their own access – to use on their phones!

Another early successful pilot with adults was with the Somali Bantu association bringing basic English literacy to Somali Bantu refugees who could not read in their native languages. A short video features their use of Learning Upgrade in computer labs, but the real excitement came when students realized they could also study on their phones anytime, anywhere. “You should have seen the excitement in their eyes!,” said Lobo when he first showed them how to access the app on their phones and clarified for them that yes, they could now study anywhere, anytime – at 6 a.m. or midnight, or even all day!

Recently the San Diego Public Library’s READ/San Diego literacy program has started enrolling learners waiting for a tutor into the Learning Upgrade app. Learners can master the fundamentals so that when they are matched to a tutor, they can make accelerated progress. Also, the tutor has access to detailed assessment data useful to tailor their instruction.

Sweetwater Adult Education in Chula Vista, California has become another champion of Learning Upgrade, where ESL instructor Lisa Wilson-Sharmann is one of many teachers using a blended model for integrating Learning Upgrade into her classes. In class, she projects lessons for the class to review and do activities together as shown in this video, while she also tracks student use on their own phones outside of class so she can provide students with individualized help as needed.

Especially exciting to me is seeing how Learning Upgrade analyzes big data from their Learning Management System (LMS) to predict certain learning challenges students may have. Explains Lobo, “A data point in addition to correct or incorrect answers that we use as an indicator of struggle is how long it takes students to complete certain questions or tasks. Having trained millions of students, we can now predict from students’ learning patterns if they might have certain challenges such as dyslexia or if English is not their first language.”

Lobo explained that this data allows Learning Upgrade to provide more customized supports to learners depending on their needs. Instead of putting students who score in a specified range on a standardized assessment into one remedial class, Learning Upgrade’s data allows their program to provide differentiated instruction.

“We’ve had 11th graders reading at the 3rd grade level have great success once they got just 15 hours of more explicit instruction on their specific gaps. These youth actually got upset wondering why they did not receive this type of instruction at an earlier age, realizing that this was all they had needed to make a huge breakthrough in their reading.”

As I follow XPrize’s field testing of mobile apps over the next year, I will be paying attention to how Learning Upgrade’s use of data for providing differentiated instruction helps learners in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Dallas make their own reading breakthroughs.

Celebrate Blended Learning on Digital Learning Day!


Digital Learning Day

Digital Learning Day started in 2012 as a way to highlight and celebrate the ways that technology is being used in K-12 education. Technology reaches all levels of education and can have a huge impact in the adult education world as well. Which tech tools would you like to celebrate this year? If you’ve used technology to extend your classroom opportunities beyond the face-to-face environment, you might have already used blended learning. Here at the EdTech Center, we’ve been spending a good amount of time thinking about best practices for blended learning.

In honor of Digital Learning Day, we will be sharing our 3-hour self-paced multimedia course, Introduction to Blended Learning, to any who wish to try it out. The course will be available from February 23 through March 2. Watch for our email on the 23rd, or mark your calendar to visit the course page next week for instructions to get started.

Introduction to Blended Learning is one of three Special Topics courses that are part of the IDEAL Consortium’s member resources. The IDEAL Consortium, a project of the EdTech Center, brings together states interested in developing distance and blended education programs to meet the online learning needs of adult learners who need to study at a distance or wish to extend learning beyond the classroom. To learn more about the benefits of IDEAL Membership and to see if your state is a member, visit http://ideal.worlded.org.

But you don’t need to wait until Digital Learning Day to get started!

  • Visit our webinar archive to listen to Blended Learning in the Adult Education Classroom. This webinar explored questions such as: What is blended learning? Why could blended learning be useful to your adult education program? What are some different approaches to adding an online learning component? Participants are introduced to a new, free, online guide to the blended learning classroom, written by webinar presenter David J. Rosen and published by Essential Education.
  • Register for a facilitated online course!
    • Blended and Project-Based Learning
      March 7 – May 2, estimated completion time: 30 hours
      Can you remember how much fun it was to do a project for school – some of my fondest grade school memories were projects. If you haven’t been using project-based learning (PBL) in your classroom, join us to refresh your understanding of project-based learning, while exploring how it could be done in the context of a blending learning approach. Combining new technology tools with project-based learning allows teachers to introduce their classes to problem-solving tasks, enhance learners’ critical thinking, and improve students’ research and communication skill, leveraging both face-to-face and online learning options. Gather together your colleagues (learning is always more fun with a partner) and
      register today!
    • Blended Learning for English Language Learners 
      April 26 – May 23, estimated completion time: 12 hours
      Explore how and when to use blended learning to enhance your work with adult English language learners (ELLs). Investigate ways educators have structured their curricula to include one or more blended learning approaches. See examples of how blended learning can be implemented using the free USA Learns website as an example. Leave the course with a draft lesson that uses blended learning in either face-to-face or distance settings.
      Register today!


Using Smartphones with WhatsApp to Teach English

By Paul Rogers

Mobile devices, especially smartphones, are replacing laptops to the point that the students of any adult education class can access lessons online immediately, without depending on a computer at home or in the computer lab. In order to have a good understanding of how a teacher could include smart phones, we need to examine specific models. In this regard, I would like to share my own experience.

Almost by accident, I started depending more on the phone beginning nearly a year ago, when my ESL website, Pumarosa, became mobile friendly. I had begun study groups on my Facebook page, which is also mobile friendly, three years earlier for people to join to access lessons. I have three major groups: songs, pronunciation, and readings – stories, poems and essays. I also put lessons, texts and my YouTube videos on my WIX page, inglesconprofepabo.com.

Often I would post a lesson from Pumarosa and the WIX page on the Facebook groups, usually to answer questions, or to submit a lesson. Then, last year, some students suggested I form WhatsApp study groups. I created three different groups – Beginning, Intermediate and a Chat group. The response was incredible! The chat group was the most popular, and actually became addictive, until I realized I was spending a great deal of time on it, and decided to leave it, making a student the Administrator.

The success I have had with the use of smartphones has led me to the conclusion that we can solve a number of vexing problems in adult education. Those students who are not able to attend classes, for example, can now be included in a program.

woman using cell phone

My Program

First, my program is totally Informal and free. There is no registration or test to take. Most of my students are older adults who live and work in various Latin American countries. Everyone can access lessons on Pumarosa and my Wix page. And everyone is a member of my WhatsApp groups.

WhatsApp is a free downloadable app that allows the user to keep in contact with other WhatsApp users. Anyone can send texts, photos, videos, and audios and also make a call to someone personally – from anywhere in the world. It is fast and easy and free.
About one year ago I started three study groups, Beginner (mostly Spanish), Intermediate (mostly English) and a Chat group (90% English). People can write in Spanish or English. Membership varies, and right now there are about 30 in each group.

When I started my WhatsApp groups, I posted my “Rules”:

  1. Be polite – No making fun of anyone.
  2. Don’t worry about mistakes.
  3. Avoid discussions of politics and religion
  4. Ask questions

Usually I just need to remind people of the rules in case conversations get too ‘personal’. A good example of what happens can be seen in a session I had just before I wrote this. Several people from the Beginners’ group began by telling me about their day, and one said he was listening to some rock and roll songs. And then we started to chat about prepositions, so I sent a link from my Wix page. An Intermediate student had a question about the pronunciation of the past tense (..d, …t,…ed), so I sent her a link to Pumarosa Intermediate. I signed off telling everybody I had to write this paper for teachers, and they all wished me well!

At times I will post a link from Pumarosa that I call “Homework”, usually a grammar lesson. Or I will ask people to record something to practice their pronunciation.
But the main focus is on people’s questions. Often the sessions are lively, but sometimes there isn’t much participation. If students are interested in inviting friends to join, they can become Administrators.

I work out of my home, as an independent teacher. This year I am going to devote some time to promoting my program through articles like this with the intention of becoming affiliated with adult education agencies that would like to try my approach in their classes, especially in a distance learning course. It seems reasonable to assume that a smartphone/WhasApp addition to any class would increase its popularity, decrease the drop-out rate and accelerate learning.

Paul Rogers has been an ESL teacher for over 25 years and developed a bilingual and phonetic course which became the basis of PUMAROSA.COM, a free website for Spanish speaking adults, beginning in 2004. Pumarosa has been available for use on smartphones for about one year and Paul has been using and promoting the site as part of his program, working as an independent teacher, unaffiliated with any school or non-profit agency. You can reach Paul at pumarosa21@yahoo.com.