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.

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, 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.

Lobo said, “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.