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.

Do you Kahoot? Gamification for Learner Engagement

By Grazia Mora

Kahoot! can make class fun while helping teachers check for understanding. Finding ways to make our classes at Building Skills Partnership (BSP) engaging is essential as our students are immigrant janitors across California who often juggle multiple jobs, attend class tired having slept few hours, and are less comfortable with formal classroom instruction.

Through this game-based student-response tool, Sandy Cutshall, our Citizenship teacher in Mountain View, helps students practice the 100 Civics questions. Every week, she creates multiple 10-question quizzes and uses them to help students measure their readiness for the interview. With suspenseful music and instant scoreboards, Kahoot! keeps learners engaged in the activity. At the end, both the teacher and students can identify topics or questions that need further review. Our students are excited to play the game every week and enjoy reviewing what they know in a playful, competitive way.

Grazia Mora with a student.

Grazia Mora with a student.

Students with tablets

Photos courtesy of BSP.








To play Kahoot! in class, our students use tablets, and the teacher has access to a projector and an active Internet connection. These requirements have made it difficult to expand to all of BSP’s worksite classes. However with the prices for mobile projectors (that connect to cellphones) and mobile WiFi hotspots dropping daily, we may be running Kahoot! competitions in all our classes soon.

It is very easy to create quizzes on Kahoot! Teachers can create an account for free at www.getkahoot.com and create their own quiz in less than 10 minutes. To play a game, students go to a different website: http://kahoot.it and enter in the game pin.  Teachers can also use hundreds of ready made quizzes created by others and available on the public Kahoot! menu.


Sample Kahoot! civics question by Sandy Cutshall

Sample Kahoot! civics question by Sandy Cutshall

Kahoot! has recently added a picture database with Getty images for use in creating or editing quizzes. Susan Gaer, EdTech Center Partner and Kahoot! enthusiast from the Santa Ana College of Continuing Education, has her low literacy ESL students use the Getty images to create their own Kahoot! games for each other. She has posted a new YouTube video showing her students how to open a Kahoot! account. Additionally, her past Tech Tip post offers a step by step guide for using Kahoot! To witness how much fun adults learners can have on Kahoot!, check out minute 51 of Susan’s OTAN training video, “Mobile Devices in Adult Education: Mobile Apps”.

Grazia Mora is Curriculum and Digital Literacy Coordinator for Building Skills Partnership (BSP), a statewide labor-management training program between the SEIU-USWW union and leading building service employers and clients across California.

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.

Mobilizing Adult Education

By Paul Rogers

two people textingThe use of mobile devices in adult education is an important addition to the tools used by students and teachers alike. With a mobile device, especially a smartphone, at any time any student can access lessons on the Internet, through Google, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. We have come a long way since Bill Gates began to champion the use of cell phones 8 years ago.

  • Adults who work and have families can more easily attend and participate in classes, especially distance learning classes.
  • To begin with, teachers at least can use smartphones to keep students notified, to answer questions and to send assignments.
  • The free smartphone app, WhatsApp, has grown tremendously in popularity and now teachers can also create WhatsApp study groups for each class, using it to post sites, tests, audios and videos, and teacher-designed lessons.
  • In addition, teachers can create free or nearly free class websites for the students – Wikispaces for teachers and WIX are two such sites which are accessible via WhatsApp.
  • Teachers can develop a YouTube account for their own video-lessons and utilize thousands of free lessons on YouTube posted by other teachers – accessible via smartphones.
  • Facebook allows anyone to create membership groups, which a teacher can develop to include lessons, notices, etc.

A program designed around the use of technology in general and mobile devices in particular could become very popular and more interesting to students, allowing for an increase in enrollment and a lower “drop-out” rate. And, in particular, students who have difficulty enrolling in courses due to work and family obligations would have an opportunity to continue their education in distance learning programs set up to meet their needs.

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.

Panel Summary: Leveraging Trends in Blended, Distance, and Mobile Learning

On November 14, 2016 The EdTech Center at World Education hosted a panel at NCTN’s Effective Transitions in Adult Education annual conference, which is dedicated to strengthening adult education’s capacity to ensure that adult learners have access to and success in the college, occupational training and career they need to earn a family-sustaining wage. The panel, entitled Leveraging Trends in Blended, Distance, and Mobile Learning (listen to the audio recording), was moderated by IDEAL Consortium Director, Jen Vanek and included the following panelists:

  • Simona Simpson, Director of Multiple Pathways for the Providence Public School District in Rhode Island;
  • Dr. David J. Rosen, President of Newsome Associates in Jamaica Plain, MA, editor of the COABE Journal Web Scan column, moderator of the LINCS Technology and Learning community of practice, and author of Blended Learning for the Adult Education Classroom;
  • Christopher Bourret, Lead Teacher/Program Coordinator with Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI) and Tech Coach for the RI Adult Education Professional Development Center; and
  • Joe Stubblefield, Director of Educational Technology for Arizona Department of Education, Adult Education Services.


Jen Vanek opened the discussion by introducing the tension between the relatively small fraction of adults being served by adult education programs and the enormous need for adults to improve their technology skills for entry to postsecondary education and training or to enter the workforce. She invited panelists to consider how distance, blended, or mobile learning has been leveraged in their current roles. For panelist Chris Bourret, it was the use of mobile learning in his program that stood out. In his experience, most students have mobile phones, even if they don’t know how to benefit from them, and there are many ways to leverage them in the classroom – from recording or filming themselves, taking quizzes, or simply downloading things to read. In Chris’ It changes how you teach. words: “It changes how you teach and it changes how they look at learning.” The changing role of the teacher and personalized learning was a theme amongst the other panelists as well. Joe Stubblefield echoed the perspective saying that teachers needed to learn how to present themselves more as facilitators or guides and give more ownership of learning back to the students. David Rosen added that the key is “comfort, competence, and confidence in using tech for learning” for learners and teachers to best be able to problem-solve using technology. And Simona Simpson added the importance of personalized learning and instruction for equality, accessibility and differentiation.

A theme in the panel was how to support distance learners. David Rosen introduced Peer-2-Peer University (P2PU), that gives learners a way to support each other in person while taking an online course. Chris Bourret added that in Rhode Island “Learning Lounges” have been set up for students who are taking online courses to be able to work together. Joe suggested using a Learning Management System (LMS) to support distance learners as well as taking advantage of online resources such as those listed below. Panelists discussed the need for increased prep time for teachers to keep up with demand for online materials as students get increasingly engaged.

Resources to connect with distance learners:

A significant portion of the panel discussion covered blended learning. Several speakers commented on the importance of connecting online and face-to-face instruction. Joe Stubblefield described efforts to accomplish this in AZ by training over 500 instructors to roll out statewide blended learning to 13,000 students. Topics covered included: how to use the LMS, possible support resources, and how to align both online and face-to-face learning with each other and with CCR Standards. Simona Simpson cautioned attendees to ensure acceptable use policies are in place if using devices in the classroom, and that expectations and consequences are clear. Finally, Joe Stubblefield suggested experimenting with and finding the right blended learning model (e.g., station rotation, flipped classroom, lab rotation, etc.) for different classroom contexts.

Another topic discussed was how to work around the issues created by lack of access to devices or high-speed internet. Libraries were listed as one resource for loaned hot spots and even devices, but teachers may need to get creative and make use of whatever’s available including: student phones, setting up classroom access, everyoneon.org/adulted, or setting up collaborations with local businesses to use their WIFI. To learn more about issues around digital access, National Digital Inclusion Allowance (NDIA) is an organization you may be interested in following.

Professional development resources:

Listen to the audio recording of Leveraging Trends in Blended, Distance, and Mobile Learning, share a highlight or leave us your thoughts in the comments.
~ Leah Peterson, Assistant Director, EdTech Center