Over 56 percent of the workforce reads below a sixth-grade level, and one-quarter is illiterate, according to Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, Ph.D. That’s why she created Cell-Ed, a mobile learning solution for low-skilled workers that recently raised a $1.5 million seed funding round led by Lumina Impact Ventures. The company was also named one of five finalists in the Dollar General Literacy Foundation’s $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
While it may seem strange to consider mobile learning a “basic” training modality, Rothenberg-Aalami says it’s using “something they already have in their pocket” – and it doesn’t need Wi-Fi, which can be a barrier to training for many people. Automated texting and phone calls provide literacy, English language learning and on-the-job training to frontline workers in industries such as restaurants, hospitality and health care and organizations including AT&T, the state governments of New York and Texas, the Service Employees International Union, and Stanford Medicine.
Cell-Ed launched with a two-year research study, which resulted in 75-percent completion rates and 80-percent faster skill acquisition, Rothenberg-Aalami says. The company will use its new funding to grow its course offerings and reach and continue to build its partnerships with universities and workforce assessment and training providers. “It really takes all of us coming together to bridge this gap in the market for low-skilled workers, and meeting them where they’re at is a daunting problem.”
For instance, one challenge many frontline workers face is the level at which most online courses are delivered – above the levels of their literacy and job skills. They are also often inaccessible; most of the learners served by Cell-Ed’s customers don’t even have email addresses to sign on with. Another challenge is the high demand for literacy and job skills training; “waitlists are ever-present,” Rothenberg-Aalami says, “and there are often not enough trainers to reach the frontline.”
In addition, because unemployment is so low, upskilling current employees is more important than ever. Especially with automation, mobile learning can help organizations upskill their frontline workers at scale. “We can reach 300 one day and 300,000 the next with the same platform and service,” Rothenberg-Aalami says. Because the platform uses two-way communication with automated and live coaches, it can personalize the training it offers each learner.
“What if we listened to the worker and designed for them, rather than take a curriculum that’s online or in a classroom and then just make it available over mobile phone?” asks Rothenberg-Aalami. “What if we’re mobile-first and design for the worker at that level and created a platform and solution that was constantly responsive?”
The other finalists for the XPRIZE are Amrita CREATE, an edtech initiative that provides personalized learning and adaptive assessments; AutoCognita, an app that teaches basic literacy, numeracy and life skills; Learning Upgrade, which provides mobile learning for English, reading, writing and math; and PeopleForWords, which uses a mobile adventure game to teach literacy. The running theme across finalists is that personalized and mobile learning is an important way to give low-skilled workers the tools they need to improve their lives, especially at work.
“Service workers,” according to Gallup research, “are among the least engaged in the U.S.,” with their engagement levels decreasing as levels for other job categories have increased. Training is a great way to improve engagement. In an article for Forbes, Beth Benjamin and Emma Sopadjieva point out that in addition to the direct benefits employees and organizations experience with improved engagement, communicating better with frontline workers supports a relationship in which employer and employee learn from each other.
Two-way communication using something that many workers already have – a mobile phone (with or without wireless internet or even a good data plan) is a great way to support skills development and employee engagement. It can also create an organization that listens to, and learns from, the people who know their customer best – the employees on the front lines.