7 Steps to Smartphone-Based Education for Refugees

7 Steps to Smartphone-Based Education for Refugees

When a San Diego nonprofit added adult education to its after-school program, its first step was to offer 24/7 access via a mobile app.  

By Vinod Lobo

Helping refugees learn English and math presents unique challenges. The learners may not be literate in any language, and they may not have access to computers, home internet, or transportation to schools for classes.

The UMI Learning Center in San Diego has found a new way to serve this population. This non-profit serves refugee and immigrant families, providing after-school programs for children. When the staff saw a need for the parents to learn math and English, they developed an innovative model that can be used by a wide variety of adult education programs.

Smartphones Only

The center has no computer lab, but almost every adult they serve has a smartphone. The staff saw smartphones as an opportunity to give each adult a path to math success. The missing piece was a curriculum that would work on smartphones, keep their attention, start with basic reading and math, and move all the way up to diploma level. After a visit to a nearby literacy program, they discovered the Learning Upgrade App, which contains 600 math lessons and 300 English reading lessons within 15 courses aligned to College & Career Readiness Standards.


The adults who visit the center daily are primarily mothers of the children served in the after-school program. The center organized the adults into a class in January 2018. The staff put on an onboarding event where each learner took out their smartphone, downloaded the app, received a username and password, and signed in for the first time. Each learner was enrolled in the first math course and English course, with the goal of moving through the first few lessons in person to build confidence.

Start with basics

The first lessons had learners identifying letters in the alphabet and counting animals and objects, moving items around the phone screen with their fingers, and putting them in the right place visually. Through songs, videos, and games with immediate remediation through voice and animation, the app helped learners to ease into the learning progressions. Because a smartphone provides a high level of privacy compared to a public computer lab, learners avoided embarrassment as they covered basics at lower levels than their children were learning at school.

Informal learning circles

As usage away from the center took off among learners, the time at the center became an informal learning circle. Parents, speaking both in English and in their native languages, were talking about what lesson they had reached, how far they were from a certificate, and their ultimate goals for the future. Learners were even talking about moving all the way through the 10 math courses to prepare for a diploma test. Given an average of 25 hours per course, this goal requiring about 250 hours of work shows how far ahead they were thinking in their conversations with others.

Learning everywhere

By dividing content into small chunks of learning—about 10 minutes per lesson—learners are able to work through lessons whenever they have a small window of time. For example, users reported completing lessons while at the laundry, in line at Walmart, at the doctor’s office, on the bus, and during breaks at work. Learners also do “binge-learning” sessions similar to Netflix binge-watching, which typically occur late in the evening after their children are asleep.

Empowering women

A key aspect of the learning community that UMI Learning Center has built is the empowerment of women. Many of their learners come from families where a women’s education is not encouraged or valued. By working on their own smartphones, the women bypass traditional barriers to learning and taking control of their own futures. Also, they set an example for their own children to follow.

Celebrating success

Just 10 weeks after onboarding their learners, the center had a celebration where certificates were distributed. More than 45 certificates were handed out, with most learners earning at least one math and one English certificate. As each learner walked up to receive their certificates, applause broke out from fellow students. Some learners had completed two math and two English certificates and done more than 100 hours of work on their smartphones in just 10 weeks!

The experience of UMI Learning Center with smartphone reading and math instruction demonstrates how adult education can transition to mobile learning. Through inclusive onboarding, creating a learning community, encouraging learning everywhere, and celebrating success, a wide variety of programs can offer their learners a path to success.

Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade, which publishes online courses and smartphone apps to teach English, reading, and math through songs, video, and games. He is the team leader for the Learning Upgrade team that is a finalist for the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE. In 1998, he brought together educators, musicians, artists, and programmers to produce innovative, engaging lessons designed to support struggling students in reading and math. Learning Upgrade has helped more than 1 million students find a new path to learning success.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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