Inaugural White House Technology in English Conference Sets Goals for Collaboration


White House Technology in English Conference

Getting to know people at the White House Technology in English Conference. All images source: Flickr via Exchanges Photos

Attending the Inaugural White House Technology in English Conference

I was recently invited to the Inaugural meeting of the White House Technology in English Conference. It was an honor to be a member of a small group of twenty four attendees, consisting of academics, policy makers, and private and public executives, all gathered to discuss opportunities for more collaboration with each other around a common goal: helping more people communicate in English.

20824332343_deb0480451_oWhen looking at an industry, such as technology, many historical breakthroughs occurred because an ecosystem was built: Apple and its app store, or Microsoft with its deep developer programs. If this group can drive collaboration and joint initiatives we can be much stronger tackling the global challenge of English communication.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

We share common challenges. One of the things that struck me was how many great technology, product and service initiatives exist around English language learning. The problem is they are all separate, un-connected, and most of them don’t scale. Many of these solutions were very local, adhering only to local standards and local cultural expectations—and unfortunately, most were ephemeral.

The first agreement among participants, an early commitment, was to collaborate more, and invest in development projects that can be replicated and scaled.

  • Venture capitalists and private sector members who were present said they could provide their grille de lecture — key for understanding — to NGO and government representatives in order to assess project scalability when they look at funding opportunities.
  • Global private solution providers will share how they create sustainable products and solutions.
    At Pearson English Business Solutions (PEBS), we will share learning and expertise about how to build and maintain a global platform which provides outcomes for learners across the 4 continents and in over 34 countries. We will also continue to partner with government entities.
  • Public or NGO representatives committed to drive more due diligence when they execute on a project in order to leverage existing commercial investments and platforms, avoiding wheel reinvention and the waste of limited resources.

Three ways to leverage technology

After many hours of discussion, the attendees converge on three key ways we can cooperate to better leverage technology. These ideas can also be brought back to our organizations to help us remain aware that our platforms and services are a part of a large ecosystem of solutions.

Create new ways of making learning more relevant

21453934211_b576c6cf08_oAutomate the creation of learning materials using semantic technologies, and leverage free access to multi-sensory online assets.  Voxy is a great example of an app that creates reading and vocabulary exercises from existing content.  Load an online article and the service does the rest. Voxy identifies key words and creates the relevant exercises in a matter of seconds. It would take about two hours for a teacher to do this same work.

Not only does Voxy create content faster, its speed provides for an increase in the variety of exercises that align to the learner’s interest. And rather than using stale content like a textbook might, it uses articles relevant to the learner to create fresh content, increasing the motivation of a learner by leveraging his or her interests.

The speed required to develop a new learning experience is moving toward a tipping point. As I shared in a previous blog, a rhyming exercise by a Project Literacy Makethon team created its app in just four hours, using a YouTube API.

Usage data captured in the digital world can help tailor and prioritize investments. LinkedIn’s economic graph is very relevant here. Millions of resumes and associated skills inventories are searchable by city, country, continent and industry—while millions of job posts capture which roles and skills are In demand. By better understanding this demand context and its relationship to existing skills, the English language learning community can better direct funding so we deliver relevant learning experiences aligned with needs, and capable of filling gaps.

Digitalize learning to capture data within the learning experience in order to drive better outcomes

21434468302_81bd27826e_oHow many times have you heard someone say that 50% of what they learned was not relevant.
Today at Pearson English, we use data we capture to identify patterns, and we use those patterns to inform personalized learning experience. First, we guide learners along the most relevant paths. Second, we use data to help identify those most likely to prematurely exit a learning experience, so that we can help them achieve their learning objectives.

Also when you can capture multi-sensory digital assets from voice, text, and video, you can better assess progress, and ultimately if the learner reached the goal they set for themselves. It also enables personalization and improved measurement of the learning experience.

Offer more opportunities to practice English

One of the key barriers to reach our mission to have more people communicating in English is the limited opportunities for learners to apply the language. Technology breaks down geographical and communication barriers by connecting people more easily, by providing a platform to communicate and collaborate. Learning experiences need to be designed to so people can practice and apply their English skills.

At PEBS, our coaches and trainers work through Skype or other communication tools to deliver virtual classes, or one-on-one coaching sessions. This technology helps eliminate the barriers of finding quality teachers by locally sourcing across borders. We not only train the learners, but also help educate local teachers.


However, in today’s world, the application of English does not stop at learning environments. Practice can be found in activities which provide social and economic empowerment.

A few examples came up during the meeting, most notably gaming, working in the global supply chain and transaction-based e-commerce: all global experiences or processes often developed and delivered in English. The continuing adoption of Facebook or other social collaboration platforms across borders can also offer practice, and perhaps peer social motivation.

Perhaps most important, facilitating trade in English is a key driver which will motivate many adults to practice their English.

Project Literacy Makethon: Technology, Literacy and How A Diverse Group Can Deliver Real Solutions

Project Literacy helps children read

I had the chance to participate in the Project Literacy Makethon in partnership with Mashable on September 12, 2015 in San Francisco, CA. Project Literacy, a major new campaign convened by Pearson, seeks to make significant and sustainable advances in literacy over the next five years, so that all children, no matter their geography, language, race, class, or gender—can grow up to be literate adults. This event focused on building new tools, web apps, websites and data visualizations designed to make learning to read more accessible, fun and effective.

As a judge on the panel, it is always amazing to discover what a newly formed team, generally strangers prior to the event, are able to create in just six hours.

I used criteria very similar to those I apply when deciding on which social ventures will receive angel funding (see My Five Criteria for Evaluating an Investment), including:

  • Gut reaction—What was my overall first impression of this app?
  • Impact—Is the app is solving a real problem in an innovative way?
  • Innovative concept—Is the app’s concept creative, forward thinking, innovative and resourceful?
  • Usability—Is it easy to learn? Can the content be quickly navigated? Does the learner receive value early?
  • Ability to scale—Is the project the start of something bigger?
  • Execution—What was the team able to deliver in just a few hours? How well did the team work together?

All in all I was impressed by each team and how they used technology to create new possibilities.

Every team included members with very diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, and a few other common themes emerged, including:

  • Leveraging an array of multi-sensory assets in the form of video, voice or text to build part of their solution.
  • Utilizing open APIs published by leading technology companies.
  • Employing rapid prototyping skills to deliver working apps.

Here are a few examples of solutions:

  • In just under six hours the second place team, YouRhyme, had a working demo using YouTube’s API for a reading learning app that employed rhyming as an education method.
  • The Winning team, Read-Write, and the third place team, GOCabulary, both turned to Google translation APIs to deliver multi-lingual context, such as those found in India with its many local dialects, and English in the US, with its many Spanish speakers.
  • Two of the three projects designed-in the ability to map images to text to help mobile learners obtain a translation of a sign they could not read.

The big difference maker between all these great projects came from the Read-Write team who made accessibility a key project feature.

While most of the projects needed access to the Internet, through either a browser or a smart phone, the Read-Write team focused on a low-cost, low-power device that could deliver as much value as the smartphone.

Something else was special about that team as well:  they had members who were close to the target audience they were trying to help. In addition, unlike many participants at this event, they combined a rich knowledge of hardware with their software engineering expertise that enabled them to design an end-to-end solution. Team diversity, and having members who understand the target population well can be a golden bullet for success.

The event was a great reminder about the need for rapid prototyping. Teams really do not need months to get a prototype working. If they concentrate on creating a prototype early, it is so much easier to sell an idea or build a case about a proposed solution. Start-ups should always include prototyping capabilities in every product team so they can more rapidly evolve their solutions from concept to value delivery.

Project Literacy logo

Read more about Project Literary here.

Read the Mashable announcement here: Join Mashable and Project Literacy for a ‘makeathon’ to tackle illiteracy

Advice for Entrepreneurs Seeking Money from Female Angels

The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing

The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing

Advice for Entrepreneurs Seeking Money from Female Angels

Every start-up needs a leadership team that can connect to its investors, leverage these investor’s knowledge and relationships, demonstrate resourcefulness, build relationships and communicate momentum. Those five areas are key to the start-up/investor relationship. Here are a few lessons I have learned as an angel investor in women-led social ventures.

  1. Connect with your investors. If you are working with an angel investor, you are in a relationship. The angel investor expects you to know they invested based not just on a great product, idea or team, but because they have or want a relationship with the company in which they are investing. When you meet with an investor, present based on that assumption. Make eye contact. Be friendly and ask about the family. Ask about other investments. Don’t read from a script. Connect, connect, connect. Be memorable.
  2. Leverage the need to be needed. Study the profile of each angel and tell her how she can personally help you, how she can bring you value. This approach will engage them more than making them feel like they are a start-up cash machine. One great way to approach this is to have at least one question that is specific to each person ready to go, even if you don’t use it. Having that question ready will help you see your investors as investors in social capital, not just financial capital. And if you do find time to ask the question, then the investor will be impressed that you connected your question to her passion or area of expertise.
  3. Show how resourceful you are. In the early years for any start-up, you will not have everything you need to make progress. How you work around your constraints, and how tenacious you are, offer a good indication to investors that they can be confident in your abilities to drive the boat regardless of the seas you encounter.
  4. Demonstrate that you are a relationship builder. We all know success is about gathering the right team to be successful. Drawing the right people around you is an early sign that you can make your venture work. If you know you need a skill, a particular competency or vertical experience you don’t have access to, consider asking an investor about an introduction. A big part of your value is your network. I can’t encourage you enough to take advantage of that valuable resource.
  5. Share progress every time you meet with your investors. Letting investors know about progress is important. It will reinforce their confidence in your ability to execute, and it will demonstrate progress and momentum. Remember you want to make sure you are creating an authentic perception of success. If you are being successful, but not sharing, then investors will worry—and no start-up wants their investors to worry unless there is really something to worry about.