By Lindsay Messoline
Maria Velarde is the head teacher and Anissa Reddick is the assistant teacher at Make the Road New York, the state’s largest immigrant organization that works with Cell-Ed through a partnership with the New York State Office for New Americans. Lindsay Messoline is an ESOL teacher and the curriculum director at Cell-Ed, a mobile learning solution for low-skilled, low-literate, low-wage workers. Cell-Ed, an Adult Literacy XPRIZE finalist, delivers instruction in bite-sized lessons to allow for learning on the go on any device with no internet or data plan needed.
Photo of Maria and Anissa by Lindsay Messoline.
Lindsay: Can you tell me about your program and the students you serve?
Maria: We have an ESOL program for basic beginners. All of our students are Spanish speakers and most are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. We focus on what they need for everyday life.
Anissa: Wednesdays are our technology days. We set up laptops and computers in the classroom. Some students choose to use Cell-Ed instead.
Lindsay: Do your students study on computers at home?
Maria: Most of our students do not have computers. Only about 10% of them could study online English courses at home.
Anissa: They’re probably not very literate when it comes to the internet. We have to tell them to create an email account and they often forget the password.
Maria: Therefore it’s more complicated for them and for us to do an online program. So I asked, What is a tool that everyone uses every day? They use a cell phone.
Lindsay: Is that why you decided to use mobile learning?
Maria: It’s easier for students to use a phone instead of a computer. Mobile learning allows students to study when they have free time, during their lunch hour or while they are doing laundry — twenty-four hours a day, every day. A lot of our students have to travel an hour to get to their job and they spend a few minutes studying on Cell-Ed. This flexibility is an advantage they really appreciate!
Lindsay: And this flexibility means they can learn without having a smartphone or internet access, which can come and go when they’re on the subway or bus. About 82% of our learners don’t actually even use our app; they use our call-in option instead.
Anissa: What I think makes Cell-Ed unique is the texting outside of the app. A lot of our students love the option of just being able to text back-and-forth and learn that way.
Lindsay: Yes, we designed Cell-Ed around what learners use most, and they all text. But what about teachers who are hesitant regarding mobile learning? Teachers sometimes tell me, “I don’t have time to do tech!” Any advice for teachers who are looking into mobile learning but might be nervous?
Maria: First, they have to try Cell-Ed and see that it’s simple and easy to use. And that is covers everyday topics.
Anissa: The only advice I’d say is to use it to give your students another option. There are a lot of really shy students. They feel more comfortable studying and practicing their pronunciation in the privacy of their own homes until they feel confident enough to come to class and read out loud. And I think they should have that option. The more opportunities students have to use English, the better.
Maria: Yes, that’s a problem for our older students.
Anissa: They’re not familiar with the internet and they feel more comfortable with the phone and text messages. One of our students, who is 62, has completed 43 hours on Cell-Ed!
Lindsay: I love that! I teach ESOL and adult basic education and one thing that always blows my mind is when content is written for children, like counting farm animals. Our adult learners need to know things like how to talk with their children’s teachers. It must be really intimidating not being able to say the basics to your children’s teachers when you see them.
Anissa: Yes! And we focus on what they need to live in the community, how to give directions or fill out job applications.
Maria: Interviews are really important.
Lindsay: Yes, when we cover job interviews on Cell-Ed, we have several modules on body language. All of our modules are 3-minutes long to fit our learners’ really busy lives. Plus, they are more effective when they’re shorter. What other topics should mobile learning solutions cover?
Maria: We have a list of master topics: community, economics, education, family, health, housing, immigration, work, and technology. Our students need to know about transportation, how to spell a name and an address, how to report an emergency, how to describe pain in the body.
Lindsay: That’s our curriculum. Another thing we’ve found when we talk to students is that pronunciation is the second thing they value most, after flexibility. To be able to listen and practice without the pressure of being graded or told, “No! That’s incorrect.”
Maria: They go back to the Cell-Ed lesson and repeat. My students tell me it really, really works with the pronunciation. They can review it anytime they need to. And they are learning grammar.
Lindsay: Yes, we were trying to do this implicit grammar, where it wasn’t, “Make a verb chart,” but everyday contextual learning. How do you use Cell-Ed?
Maria: It’s a tool that complements our regular classes.
Anissa: I don’t know how many times Maria has started a lesson, and they kind of already got it because they were practicing on Cell-Ed outside the classroom. We thought this was going to be brand new. But many of the students are already knowledgeable so it makes it better for them and for us. I can’t see any reason why any teacher wouldn’t want to try it.
Lindsay: How do you explain Cell-Ed to your students? Is it difficult?
Maria: We only have to show them the number they have to call and the PIN. If they have problems, they only have to call Pilar (Cell-Ed’s head coach). She is accessible and she responds in Spanish.
Lindsay: Pilar loves our students! She’s also a teacher so she has that passion for education. Our coaches are so important to our learners’ success. What other features do you think every mobile learning program should have?
Anissa: I would say excellent customer service. Someone they can contact right away if there’s a problem. Also some kind of FAQ page.
Lindsay: Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your time.