Welcome to the first entry in our “Innovators Worth Watching” series, spotlighting interesting and potentially disruptive players in higher education.

Even without knowing any English, Teresa managed to find work as a janitor in a neighboring school district, over 90 minutes away by bus. The pay wasn’t much and the long hours made her childcare situation precarious, but she was scraping by for now. A Mexican immigrant living in central Texas, Teresa knew that learning English would expand her job opportunities significantly, but she couldn’t manage regular attendance at the local library’s free ESL classes and had stopped progressing with the language.

While Teresa’s story may seem remote from many of our day-to-day circumstances, more than 36 million adults in the United States cannot read or write English above a 3rd-grade level. Less than 10 percent of these adult learners receive any educational services from incumbent education providers such as traditional institutions of higher education, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations. They also struggle to help their children develop the skills that they themselves lack, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty. This adult education gap amounts to an estimated $225 billion every year in lost workforce productivity, tax revenue loss, and crime—and costs these learners unquantifiable anxiety and pain.

Edtech startup Cell-Ed aims to tackle this education gap head-on. The company uses mobile technology—for both smartphones and feature phones—to provide a pathway to essential literacy, language, and job skills for adult learners. Cell-Ed courses are broken down into three-minute audio recordings, or “MicroLessons,” that learners access by calling a phone number. Learners then demonstrate mastery through short assessments that they receive and complete by text message, with access to live coaching by phone if they get stuck. Cell-Ed coaches monitor learner progress and reach out to encourage retention along the way.

Initial data on Cell-Ed’s methods are promising, showing relatively high retention rates and improved learner literacy levels. But is it disruptive relative to existing solutions? We put Cell-Ed to the test with our six questions for identifying potential disruption.

1. Does it target people whose only alternative is to buy nothing at all (nonconsumers) or who are overserved by existing offerings in the market?

Yes. 90 percent of adult learners are unable to access existing offerings by incumbent providers. There are, of course, many companies offering middle or advanced skills language and job training, such as Voxy, Mindflash, and Skillsoft. These companies, however, cater to high-end customers—mainly corporate employers—and are aimed at upskilling those who have long since mastered the most basic or essential skills. Companies like Rosetta Stone offer multimedia, software-based English language learning solutions, but tend to be expensive and require a computer and/or internet access. Alternatively, Cell-Ed is tapping into a market of nonconsumers and adults who would be delighted to buy a cheaper, less robust product.

2. Is the offering not as good as existing offerings as judged by historical measures of performance?

Yes. Cell-Ed does not offer face-to-face time with a teacher, either in-person or by video, as would be the case with offerings by colleges, community centers, or nonprofits. The learner experience involves less multimedia and fewer bells and whistles than corporate or enterprise solutions like Voxy or Rosetta Stone. The lack of these features may limit the learner experience in some ways, and reduces the variety of courses Cell-Ed can offer when compared to upmarket competitors, at least for the time being.

3. Is the innovation simpler to use, more convenient, or more affordable than existing offering?

Yes. Incumbent solutions tend to rely on either availability for in-person classes or access to the internet. Cell-Ed’s approach allows learners to access course modules at any time and in short time intervals, offering much needed convenience and flexibility.

4. Does the offering have a technology that enables it to improve and move upmarket?

Yes. Cell-Ed’s success depends largely on its ability to scale the coaching feature efficiently. Currently, each live coach can service upward of 1,000 learners, given the small interventions needed to help students through short learning modules. Furthermore, Cell-Ed is exploring the use of chat bots to address common questions and roadblocks, which would increase each coach’s productivity, and providing customers with course-building functionality to diversify course offerings.

5. Is the technology paired with a business model innovation that allows it to be sustainable?

TBD. Customers in the essential skills education space are extremely cost-conscious, so Cell-Ed is still actively iterating through different business model considerations to identify a sustainable, profitable innovation. Cell-Ed’s current business model is B2B2C, where Cell-Ed’s direct customers are government agencies, NGOs, and companies that buy “seats” over the duration of a contract and that, in turn, offer Cell-Ed courses to learners. Cell-Ed is currently exploring the possibility of going direct to learners and of monetizing some of its learning management system features.

6. Are existing providers motivated to ignore the new innovation and not feel threatened by it at the outset?

Yes. Government and nonprofit incumbents are not competing with Cell-Ed, but rather are inviting Cell-Ed into the space. Existing job skills providers are focused on higher skilled learners, especially in larger corporate entities that pay a premium to upskill and retain employees. They can generate higher margins with such customers than they would with lower income, low-skilled adult learners.

Cell-Ed is still a work in progress, but its first products have already had an impact and its ambitions match the scope of the education gap at hand. With a massive market of adult learners like Teresa who have aged out of the K–12 system but who lack the skills and knowledge to access traditional higher education, innovative companies like Cell-Ed have a disruptive opportunity before them, and can also do a tremendous amount of good.

Teresa began using Cell-Ed through a community initiative. After finishing an entire level of the “English on the Go” course, squeezing in MicroLessons during her commute and after her children were put to bed, she was already able to help her friends navigate phone calls with their health insurance companies. A few months later, she used Cell-Ed to help prepare to interview for a lead staff position which would provide significantly higher pay—but which required proficient English. She got the job.

NOTE: future blog posts contain updates on Cell-Ed’s progress:


  • Richard Price
    Richard Price