Product Management Projects

Building a mobile ESL learning program for NYS New Americans

There are nearly 1 million newcomers in New York who have limited English proficiency. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous lack of English as a Second Language (ESL) resources to help these New Americans learn English. Addressing this lack of educational resources for isolated immigrants became my personal mission while working in the New York State government. My goal was to provide a new, cost-effective pathway to learning English for isolated New York New Americans upstate New York.

The Problem

Right away, I knew that the problem I was trying to address- the lack of ESL resources upstate New York- was caused by at least two factors:

  1. Geographic isolation of New Americans upstate New York
    • An estimated population of 4,487 residents with no English language skills lives in the North Country (7 northernmost counties of New York State). These New Americans live in hard to reach rural communities and in places with limited public transportation options.
    • The North Country currently have no state-run Office for New Americans (ONA) Opportunity Centers where New Americans can request language assistance and support services.
  2. Occupation of New Americans living upstate
    • In addition to geographic limitations, many of them also often work in the agricultural sector with non-traditional hours, making it difficult to attend ESOL training, even if it was available.
    • These New Americans need flexible options for formal schooling and development of job skills.

To learn more about the life of New Americans upstate, I set out to interview several farmers and their workers. After several phone calls and a few visits to the farms, I realized that there were a few constraints I haven’t thought about:

  • No access to the internet
  • No access to computers
  • No transportation (at all)
  • Limited study time (15 minutes/day)
  • Limited opportunities in the day to practice the language
  • A diversity of foreign languages (though most were Spanish speakers)

The Solution

Keeping these limitations in mind, I researched a lot of learning programs that were successful in similar contexts (i.e. remote classrooms in rural Bangladesh) to help me come up with a solution that would work. In the end, after many rounds of interviews with farmers and their workers, the solution came in the form of a basic cell phone and the platform Cell-Ed.

Cell-ED uses the power of voice tutorials – a service severely underutilized in current mobile learning efforts – with SMS text exercises and two-way communication to deliver and customize English learning content in a way that does not require the use of internet or a smartphone. This combination allowed adults, especially those in resource-limited areas, the flexibility, repetition and supplemental support they need to learn what was previously inaccessible. Cell-Ed also had extensive experience working with adult immigrant populations in geographically isolated areas in California and in Texas.

I proposed to create a pilot distance-learning ESOL training program in the North Country region of New York. The ESOL training program would use a mobile phone learning platform Cell-Ed to train 250 ESOL clients.  Where possible and needed, Cell-Ed supplemented distance learning with one-on-one tutoring.

The pilot project was announced by Governor Cuomo in April 2015 (Press Release).

“By supporting this initiative, Governor Cuomo and the Office of New Americans demonstrate their understanding of the challenges faced by New York State’s farmworkers, such as linguistic and geographic isolation,” Maggie M. Evans, Agri-Business Child Development Executive Director.


In order to successfully deliver the project to New Americans, I decided to partner with trusted organizations in the upstate communities. NY Farm Bureau, State Department of Labor State Department of Agriculture and Markets and Rural and Migrant Ministries, New York State Agri-Business Childhood Development all helped to spread the word.  I also worked with North Country farms directly to connect farm workers to the program.

Evaluation and Results

To monitor our progress towards learning outcomes of the program, I implemented a 3-prong evaluation strategy:

  1. Adoption rate
    • Avg number of modules started/student
    • Avg number of modules completed/student
    • Avg number of hours spent in program/student
    • Course completion rates
    • Time to course completion
  2. Retention rate
    • Number (and % of total) of students who took more than one course
  3. Effectiveness
    • Number of facilitator interventions per learner
    • Results of ‘before and after’ proficiency tests

In the end, the project excelled in all three sections of the KPI’s outlined above. As a result, the program has been expanded beyond the North Country region and is still a resource for New Americans today, nearly 4 years after I implemented the original pilot project.

“Cell-Ed is an excellent tool for personal growth on the job and to ease their full participation in our communities.” Noble-Moag, Director of Noblehurst Farms Inc.

“We applaud Governor Cuomo and the Office for New Americans for this creative technological initiative as a means to address the barriers that many New York immigrants face to gaining adequate English language training. This initiative provides a new opportunity for hardworking immigrants to learn English on their own terms,” said Steven Choi, executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition.

“This innovative program will assist the Latino community in accessing English language instruction at a time that works best for them. Our immigrant community is extremely hard working, holding down more than one job at a time with unconventional work schedules. Through Cell Ed, immigrants interested in increasing their English language abilities will not have to miss out on instruction by utilizing this tool that will work around their schedules. We are extremely excited to offer Cell Ed to our network of ESL service providers.” Jose Calderon, President of the Hispanic Federation.

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