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English on the go

(Courtesy of Cell-Ed)

Technology

English on the go

Mobile learning apps could help workers or immigrants hone language and literacy skills

A new category of mobile learning apps seeks to help the large segment of the American labor force that struggles with literacy skills.

More than half of the workforce reads at less than the sixth-grade level, and many are illiterate, according to Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, the founder and CEO of Cell-Ed, a mobile learning platform targeting low-skill workers.

“When you talk about adult literacy, it sounds like you’re referring to a few folks who fell through the cracks, but that’s not the case at all,” she told Fast Company. “It’s a hidden epidemic.”

Cell-Ed and another application called Learning Upgrade—which teaches English and math using songs, video games, and rewards—were among five finalists for the $7 million Adult Literacy X Prize, sponsored by the Barbara Bush Foundation.

Users of the Cell-Ed app don’t need a computer or smartphone, just a phone that can text. Once logged on, they can access learning modules on subjects that include English as a second language, reading, writing, math, and more. The short “micro-lessons” last no longer than three minutes, allowing users to fit them in to work or home schedules. Cell-Ed coaches, available around the clock via text or phone, offer additional support to learners.

Several studies have backed up Cell-Ed’s approach. A 2014 assessment by the Center for Global Development found the app improved reading levels an equivalent of two to four years in a four-month period.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” said Kyle Teague, the learning and development manager at the Four Seasons in Silicon Valley—one of six Four Seasons hotels across the nation participating in a Cell-Ed pilot program with 100 Spanish-speaking housekeepers. “It has enabled them to speak with guests comfortably,” Teague told Fast Company. “There is a change in their confidence level.”

Cell-Ed charges nonprofit and government clients an annual license fee of $50 per user. For corporate clients, the cost is less than $10 per user, per month.

Courtesy of Soter Technologies

Courtesy of Soter Technologies

Smoked out

School bathrooms have long been associated with prohibited behaviors such as smoking or bullying. But the growing popularity of smoking electronic cigarettes—known as vaping—among middle- and high-school students has alarmed many school districts. Now, they are combating the trend with technology.

More than 200 U.S. and Canadian schools have installed an artificial-intelligence-based system called Fly Sense, which can detect both vaping and elevated sound levels that might indicate fighting or bullying.

Fly Sense isn’t 100 percent accurate at detecting vaping signatures, and sometimes triggers false alarms. But when school officials get a Fly Sense alert, they can investigate to determine whether the system correctly identified a vaping incident. Feedback from these events helps the system become more accurate.

Fly Sense can monitor noise levels in bathrooms or locker rooms to detect potential bullying or fighting. The system alerts administrators when noise levels exceed a certain school-determined threshold. (To protect student privacy, Fly Sense cannot identify specific voices.)

Soter Technologies, which developed Fly Sense, claims it has helped schools decrease vaping incidents by 70 percent, on average, according to IEEE Spectrum. —M.C.