Q&A with Adult Literacy App CEO Vinod Lobo
Posted by Jennifer Vecchiarelli on May 16, 2019 in categoryStories from the FieldcategoryNewscategoryAdvocacy

Q&A with Adult Literacy App CEO Vinod Lobo

The Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition is a national contest for communities and organizations across the country to empower adults with low literacy skills to download and use free, effective, convenient, and private mobile learning apps.

As one of the community teams, ProLiteracy is currently working to recruit the most adult learners to download and use the apps, which are now available for download with our unique team code, 1155. Learners must use the code when downloading one of the four available apps.

We want to share a behind-the-scenes look at one of those apps, Learning Upgrade. Learning Upgrade was one of the grand prize winners of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition. The app is also offered as a New Readers Press digital solution for adult literacy programs. Below is a Q&A with Vinod Lobo, the CEO of Learning Upgrade.

Q: Why did you want to develop an app for literacy?

A: Learning Upgrade developed a collection of successful web-based literacy lessons used by over 1 million students.  We realized that many low-income, low literacy adults did not have access to computers or internet at home, and had limited time with computers at literacy centers.  Moving our lessons to our new app allowed us to expand access to every adult with a smartphone, so they could learn anytime, anywhere.

Q: How did you come to get involved with the XPRIZE Literacy competition?

A: We saw a blog post about the competition, and immediately thought this would help us in our journey to move our lessons from web to app.  We signed up while simultaneously starting our app development.  Over time we were pulled in more and more by the gravity and excitement of the competition, to where we were determined to create an app that would measurably improve literacy in the XPRIZE field test.

Q: Do you have a personal connection to or know anyone who struggles with or has overcome low literacy?

A: One of our early deployments of the app was at a refugee center called UMI Learning Center in San Diego.  I visited for a certificate ceremony only 2 months after they started using the app, and ended up handing out over 40 certificates!  This was a life-changing experience, as I realized both the great need for literacy and math learning and the power of a smartphone-based app to change their lives.  The center had no computers, and the learners had no computers at home. Some of the refugee mothers told me they stayed up after their children went to bed and completed lesson after lesson on their phones.  We still work closely with this center. You can see a video of their experiences here:

Q: Tell us a little about your formative background, which might not be common knowledge. Did you have an atypical path to where you are today?

A: My family has always been involved in music and education.  My mother was a teacher and a professional songwriter.  We decided to combine my computer engineering and business background with her music and education talent to create interactive programs to teach reading and math.  Now 1,000 lessons later, we are still creating new lessons that combine songs, videos, and games!

Q: What does literacy mean to you?

-  How does literacy and adult education empower individuals?

-  How can it make the world a better place?

A: After observing adult learners at a variety of provider sites, I can say that achieving literacy and numeracy completely transforms people’s lives.  I have seen many people break down in tears describing their lives before learning to read, or before earning a high school diploma.  This is so much more than getting a better job or being able to go to college.  It affects every aspect of their lives from relationships with family and friends to self-confidence as they go out shopping, visit doctors, or talk with their children’s teachers.

Q: Do you think there are any pre-conceptions / mis-conceptions about low literacy?

- Any ideas on how to reframe them?

The general public often think that because we have public schools, everyone should automatically learn how to read and earn a diploma. I often explain to people that there are three large blocks to learning in our society: 

1)    Special needs blocks to learning, like dyslexia

2)    English language issues for English learners

3)    Socio-economic issues that block learning, like poverty

Through adult literacy programs, we can help people overcome these blocks and find learning success.

Q: How do you think communities at large can raise awareness of adult literacy and the benefits of programs, apps, etc. that are available to adult learners?

A: Now that the Adult Literacy XPRIZE has shown that apps can improve literacy, the big challenge is how to expand access to the apps through community awareness.  In my experience, the key is working with the organizations and companies where low literacy adults spend their time.  This means workplaces, community centers, churches, libraries, public housing, etc.  Each of these can become a provider even if they have no literacy experience, just by providing app access and encouragement to learners.

Q: What does success look like to you?

For the competition,

for literacy nationwide,

or for individual adult learners, or people who might be apprehensive to get started?

Learning Upgrade’s mission is simple: Help millions of people find learning success.  So success for us means expanding access to our lessons to everyone who needs help.  We are engaged in outreach and partnerships now so that in the near future, we can reach large numbers of people with our literacy lessons.

Do you have any interesting tie-ins or open-ended optimism to share?

To everyone working in literacy, I invite you to collaborate with us.  We are finding that a blend of different approaches including classroom

Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition


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