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Delivering Personalized Needs-Based Learning at Scale with EnGen’s Dr. Katie Nielson

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The way we learn is no longer unilateral. So why act as if still one teacher, standing in front of a group of students lecturing them on a particular subject is the best way for them to learn a second language? Instead of teaching simple words or phrases such as bike, or car, what if the focus was on developing the skills that actually help people advance their careers? 

“The old way of teaching, where you teach the same thing to everybody — teacher in front of the room, using a textbook that gets purchased — no one thinks that’s a good way of doing it. Good teachers actually go out and try to find supplemental materials that were interesting to their students. They look for news articles, or short stories, or something, but they can’t take all that content and curate it and deliver it to learners. It’s impossible for humans to do that. However, machines are really good at doing that. When I realized that was the very best way to teach learners, I decided to try to use computers for what technology can do best, to let people do what teachers do best.”

That’s Dr. Katie Nielson, who earned her PhD in the school of languages from the University of Maryland in 2013, where her research focused on technology-mediated language training. Katie has dedicated her career to making language learning more accessible and now, as the CEO and founder of Voxy EnGen, she’s using technology to deliver high-quality needs-based instruction to immigrants and refugees.

On this episode of IT Visionaries Katie, dives into why the way we teach language in the states is a broken process and how to fix it. She also explains how her platform is delivering personalized learning at scale to those that need it most. Enjoy!

Main Takeaways

  • If There’s A Problem, Fix it: When you’re developing a solution to a problem, you have to think about how your solution can be applied across different verticals. This means taking time to research the various options you have when it comes to getting your product to market, but also thinking about what your unique identifier is.
  • A Barrier to Success: English is often what holds workers back from succeeding at their jobs. Instead of non-English speakers having to go to class in order to advance their linguistic skills, they should be able to do that on their own time with a program that teaches them the basics, but real-world scenarios based on their jobs to help them  improve.
  • Setting a Baseline: When you’re developing any kind of algorithm or personalized experience, the first thing you have to identify and establish is a baseline for your measurement. This is how you identify the areas where someone needs to grow, but it also can be used as a tool to identify how far a user has come with your program.

For a more in-depth look at this episode, check out the article below.


Article 

The way we learn is no longer unilateral. So why act as if still acting as if one teacher, standing in front of a group of students lecturing them on a particular subject is the best way for them to learn? Instead of teaching simple words or phrases such as bike, or car, what if the focus was on developing the skills that actually help people advance their careers? 

“The old way of teaching, where you teach the same thing to everybody — teacher in front of the room, using a textbook that gets purchased — no one thinks that’s a good way of doing it. Good teachers actually go out and try to find supplemental materials that were interesting to their students. They look for news articles, or short stories, or something, but they can’t take all that content and curate it and deliver it to learners. It’s impossible for humans to do that. However, machines are really good at doing that. When I realized that was the very best way to teach learners, I decided to try to use computers for what technology can do best, to let people do what teachers do best.”

That’s Dr. Katie Nielson, who earned her PhD in the school of languages from the University of Maryland in 2013, where her research focused on technology-mediated language training. Katie has dedicated her career to making language learning more accessible and now, as the CEO and founder of Voxy EnGen, she’s using technology to deliver high-quality needs-based instruction to immigrants and refugees.

On this episode of IT Visionaries Katie, dives into why the way we teach language in the states is a broken process and how to fix it. She also explains how her platform is delivering personalized learning at scale to those that need it most.

Dr. Nielsen was 20 years old and a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia when she first taught English. During that time, she realized something that would alter her life. She loved teaching, but she believed the way she was being told to teach was ineffective.

“I realized I had no idea what I was doing,” Dr. Nielson said. “I spoke English and I spoke Spanish because I was a Spanish major, and I was the person who was supposed to help these poor guys who worked all day in the field learn English at night. That was the solution to teaching them English. It seemed preposterous to me.”

That epiphany would set the wheels in motion for Dr. Nielson’s career. She would finish her undergraduate degree at UVA before embarking on a career in academia, researching effective ways that technology could be deployed to actually help people develop the language skills needed to advance their careers. 

“There’s a massive disconnect between research and practice,” Dr. Nielsen said. “I was doing this work and getting these degrees and trying to get better at teaching languages, but I realized that there is a role for technology. We don’t want to replace humans. We always will need people, but we can make their jobs much easier if we use technology to solve some of their problems.”

So she developed EnGen, a mobile platform that is used to teach English to immigrants and refugees all over the United States. And while there are platforms such as Duolingo, which helps users learn new languages, EnGen is designed to help users level up their skills to advance their careers.

“It’s personalized, it’s adaptive, and It’s based on decades of research on how to use technology for language learning and how we can use mobile technology to deliver effective outcomes at scale,” Dr. Nielsen said.

Dr. Nielson strongly believes that a new teaching model is needed to help people that didn’t grow up with English as their first-language improve on their developing linguistic skills.

“Instead of going to a church basement or a high school at night to take free ESL classes where everyone learns the words for what you say at the zoo, this is a platform that learners can access on their phones anytime, anywhere, to get them the English they need to do their jobs better,” she said. “This can be used to help them get a new job, understand what their boss is saying, and understand the stuff that comes home in their kids’ backpacks. And they can do it without having to go into a physical classroom.”

During the ideation phase of EnGen, Dr. Nielson received 10 patents on the EnGen platform, one of those patents includes a keyword identifier, which can pinpoint things such as important keywords that the user inputs to develop personalized lesson plans for them. According to Dr. Nielson, this ability has helped her develop thousands of personalized lesson plans because it can self-identify the skills a user needs to improve upon based on those responses. 

“We can really personalize instruction at scale,” she said. “This is what good teachers do. If you have a one-on-one situation, and you have a tutor teaching you a new language, they can personalize what they’re giving you and find you resources that you like and ask questions based on how you’re performing, but we can also use the computer to do that, which why I built the platform to do this.”

Dr. Nielson’s platform is embedded with APIs that utilize Google translate, which allows the user to use the device in their native language, making it accessible to hundreds of thousands of individuals. Dr. Nielson said this is important because your first language dictates how you learn multiple languages.

Dr. Nielson closed the show by stating that EnGen’s goal is to be a source for users who want to improve their careers, but she stressed that she wants companies to be the driving force behind how consumers find her product.

“My whole mission is to help employers think about up-skilling their frontline workers,” she said. “Employers offer health benefits. They offer all sorts of workplace benefits, but they don’t usually think about offering English as a benefit, but you have many employers in this country who have thousands of workers who have very limited English skills. If they could get some English at work through a mobile platform to improve their English skills in the workplace, they could be eligible for promotions and advancements with the same employer. Employers would be able to develop talent pipelines and promote their workers from within. It’s about helping people because English is often the only thing that’s holding them back.” 

To hear more from Dr. Nielson on how english can be used to close the talent gap, check out the full episode of IT Visionaries!

 


To hear the entire discussion, tune into IT Visionaries here

Episode 301