Learning Upgrade, a small business in California headed by Vinod Lobo has hit the big times by being selected as the co-winner for the grand prize in the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
The late First Lady Barbara Bush had been a great proponent of education and adult literacy and it was on her birthday in 2015 that the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE was created to challenge teams to develop mobile applications for smartphones that increase literacy skills among participating adult learners. Indeed, research has shown that 77 percent of Americans now own a smartphone so the competition aims to change the way 36 million adults with low literacy skills tackle the obstacles to achieving basic literacy – access, retention and scale.
Xprize was a study with over 10,000 learners in 3 different cities and half of them were English speakers and half were English language learners but all read at the third-grade level or below. The Learning Upgrade app and the People ForWords app facilitated the greatest increase in literacy among participating adult learners within the 12-month testing period of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. “XPRIZE is a powerful platform for impact, and we’re so proud to have been a part of this historic effort to empower adults to take their learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE.
The two co-winning teams with Governor Jeb Bush.
Vinod Lobo, CEO, Learning Upgrade did not expect such a spectacular result for his small family-owned business which had graduated to making apps only three years ago, even though it is a 20-year-old business. Lobo, whose family is originally from Goa, grew up in Bangalore till the age of 7 when the family moved to California. The love of education was sown early in life.
“Our family had a pre-school in Bangalore, so I watched my mother teaching young children as I grew up. Once in the US, we combined the skills of my mother who is a songwriter and a teacher with my work as a computer engineer, to create programs that combine music, video, and games.” The aim was always to help those struggling with reading and math, including students with special needs/dyslexia, English learners, and low-income children and adults. Lobo also worked as a tutor through high school and that convinced him of the impact of good teaching in changing lives.
Vinod Lobo and his wife Sheryin Lobo with the award.
Working on interactive computer games, be remembers the primitive times when computers were still in the early stages, CD Roms were just coming out and one could not do all the things that can be done today. “We decided to bring the power of teaching and combine it with music and computers. Our first CD Rom called
Sound it out Land was created in 1993 and after that, we produced 1000s of lessons. Finally, in 2000, I realised that everything was moving from the CD Roms to the web – there was going to be this new thing called the Internet and we started creating lessons for the web using Flash.”
It was only 3 years ago that Learning Upgrade joined the Adult Literacy XPrize and worked on its first app. “Just as we had a big transition from CD Rom to the Web, we were a little bit late to the App world but the XPrize forced us to work with apps and now most of our business is based on Apps. Those same lessons have moved from the web to smartphones, I-pads, tablets and I-phones.”
Learning Upgrade has now thousands of lessons and they keep producing more for varied subjects including Algebra, diploma prep, and advanced comprehension to meet the needs of the American school system, working mainly with elementary, middle and high schools.
"We kept experimenting and no one had combined teaching, phonics, music and games to teach adults to read,” says Lobo. "So it’s still very unique. Many would think that adults wouldn’t go for that but we’ve had over 25,000 adults use our apps in the last 12 months. They like it because it’s fun, they like the music and the format and the fact that it’s private.”
Indeed, adults are kids at heart and engagement is key to learning. Learning Upgrade fits into this new world as it is something different that teaches reading and writing as well as math, from basic to diploma. It is being used for adults in the US as well as India and people from all over the world can download the app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store, including those in India.
Asked about how the prize money will be used, Lobo says, “My family’s goal is to scale up to serve millions of families struggling with literacy and math. This prize gives us an opportunity to partner with organizations, companies, and leaders to make our app available to anyone who needs help around the world.”
The Grand prize winners, Learning Upgrade and People ForWords, will divide a $3 million purse, while each also receives a $1 million achievement prize, for having the best performance in two key demographic groups: native English speakers and English language learners.
The second phase of the initiative is the upcoming $1 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition, a 15-month competition for organizations, communities and individuals to recruit adult learners to download and use the apps developed by the two grand-prize-winning teams along with the following two finalist teams AmritaCreate of Amrita University and Cell-Ed from Oakland California.
The Learning Upgrade team photo. Top Row: Denis Lobo, Shyla Merle Lobo, Sheryin Lobo and John Banks. Bottom Row: Vinod Lobo, Drew Robinson and Ray Blavatt.
Along with Learning Upgrade and People ForWords, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed will each receive $125,000 for their participation in the Communities Competition. A total of $1 million will be awarded, with $500,000 available for teams who submit the most innovative, feasible and scalable plans, and $500,000 for teams who recruit the most adult learners to download and consistently use the learning apps.
As to the most satisfying part of this big win, Lobo says, “The XPRIZE has challenged us to create an app that can change the lives of an adult who is low-literate. The most rewarding aspect is visiting an adult education site such as the Queens Public Library in NYC or a refugee center which has hundreds of adults enrolled in the program, and meet the adults who have made large breakthroughs.”
He recalls that he was invited to UMI Learning Center, a pilot site for The Learning App, to hand out certificates to women who had completed the courses. “These were North African refugees, mostly Somali, many who could not read or write in any language,” he says. “They had used their own mobile phones to complete 2, 3, or even 4 complete courses in reading and math, some working over 100 hours on our app!”
These women shared stories with Vinod Lobo about how they would put their children to bed and then “binge learn” lesson after lesson into the evening: “ Some even talked about doing all of our courses and then taking the GED test to get a diploma. Since these women often are discouraged from learning within their families and community, the phone and our app gives them a safe way to gain literacy and math as well as the confidence to get a better job, a diploma, or go to college.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at
Lassi with Lavina.