Albina Herrera works long days as a bus driver for the Hays School District in Kyle, Texas, a rapidly growing suburb of Austin. She speaks English well, but since coming to this country from Mexico, she never learned how to write the language. Though she has a real desire to learn, the long hours and her constantly changing work schedule make going to class nearly impossible. She needed a way to learn and practice her English during pockets of spare time on the job.
Across town, Sylvia Villasenor, who works night shifts cleaning at a large industrial bakery, has the same problem. Even if she could make a class before starting her shift, she feels she cannot focus on learning because she is just too tired.
Jon Engel, the Director of Adult Education at Community Action, Inc. of Central Texas (CA), understands the plight of these two students and the other 1,700 like them that his agency works with every year.
“We do everything we can to create classes that fit our students’ lives, but there’s only so much we can do. Even if a student does show to a class, she usually can’t practice what she learns, so she doesn’t really succeed, which means she stops coming. We needed a solution.” Jon Engel
Director of Adult Education
Community Action, Inc.
Enter Cell-Ed, a developer out of California that created an ESL curriculum that can be accessed through any basic cell phone. Students can take multiple courses, which are geared toward Spanish-speaking immigrants, by dialing a number, listening to pre-recorded lessons with accompanying text, and texting back answers. Since starting in 2014, Cell-Ed has served more than 1,000 students like Albina and Sylvia, giving them the opportunity to learn English anytime, anywhere.
In the case of Cell-Ed, the phrase “anytime, anywhere” is especially accurate. Cell-Ed is a standout digital learning tool in the adult education space because of its emphasis on mobile-ready technology that does not require Internet access.
“We find that many of our students – even though they are some of the hardest to reach in the adult education space – have cell phones, yet they don’t always have data plans. So our curriculum works for them because they are able to access the knowledge in a way that is anytime anywhere but also affordable.” Alison Ascher Webber
For this reason, Engel thinks that Cell-Ed is a “natural fit.” A product like Cell-Ed provides CA’s students with a solution that is “truly meaningful and life-changing on multiple levels,” said Engel.
Beside the language skills, Engel points to how the app also teaches students basic digital literacy skills that can be used in the workplace. When Senobia Rodriguez first started classes at the Kyle Learning Center, one of CA’s 21 centers throughout nine counties, she struggled greatly — she had never sent a text before. But once her kids showed her how to navigate the keyboard on her phone, she discovered she was carrying more than just a phone; she was carrying a powerful technology tool that could open new possibilities. In that first month, she studied for 22 hours on her own in addition to class time, and in the process, became more fluent in her English and in a digital literacy skill that many of us take for granted.
Senobia’s story is by no means unusual for the CA students who are using Cell-Ed. One of the things that Engel looks for in a digital learning tool is how it can perform more than one function in the classroom. This is because in Texas, for a product like Cell-Ed to be judged a true success, it has to teach academic skills in addition to helping agencies like CA prepare students for the workplace. Since 2014, adult education in the state has shifted from its department of education over to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
“This change has created opportunities and challenges for us,” Engel told us. One of the biggest challenges stems from how CA has had to rethink how they teach. Not only do lessons have to be academically rigorous and meaningful to their students’ lives, they also need to match the needs of employers in the region. “I look at my students,” Engel said, “who are almost all Latino and a large majority women, and I realize that they have to get better skills for the workplace – not just English, but digital literacy as well.”
One doesn’t have to look very hard to see what Engel means. Sofia Cordoba was one of the first graduates of the Cell-Ed program last summer. As a result of her hard work, she felt confident enough to apply to CA as a Teaching Assistant in one of its night classes for low-level ESL students. She is an example of how a strong adult ed program using smart technology can change lives. “Cell-Ed gave me the vocabulary and dialogue for interviewing,” Cordoba said. “And that made a big difference for me.”
Arguably, CA coupled with Cell-Ed did more than just provide her with the language skills she needed to get the job. The combination of CA’s teaching staff and its use of Cell-Ed also gave Sofia the confidence to go after a job that helps her make ends meet while also allowing her to help her own community. “Cell-Ed looks for ways to break cycles of poverty,” Ascher Webber said. And with CA, this seems to be happening in central Texas.