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Solving Adult Literacy with Mobile Technology: a Q&A with AutoCognita's Frank Ho

AutoCognita, a Solve member, is an EdTech social enterprise with a mission to help millions of low-literacy adults learn basic literacy skills and lead a better life. Today, in the US alone there are over 36 million adults who are considered functionally illiterate. Existing literacy programs around the nation cannot scale quickly enough to help them. That’s why AutoCognita took the technology route to create a scalable literacy app targeting adult learners.

What inspired you to join the Solve community?

I first came across MIT Solve through MIT’s alumni network. As an alumnus, I was excited to learn that we shared a similar goal: to help tackle some of the world's most challenging problems. The issue of adult literacy is a challenging one—there is no “poster child” for the problem. This in part explains why the issue is underserved by society and entrepreneurs alike. 

By joining Solve, I hope to bring this issue to the limelight and form a network of collaborators who can help us reach as many adult learners as possible. AutoCognita has been working hard to develop a solution, but we need a community of innovators to scale our impact.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

The best piece of advice I’ve received is to know when to listen to advice, and when not to. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s good advice for an aspiring entrepreneur. There are many who have done it before, who can share valuable experience that would take years to accumulate. We would do well to stand on the shoulders of the giants before us.

On the other hand, when building a potentially disruptive technology, there will be naysayers. Their intention is good, but they may be bound by conventional thinking. If we listened to every piece of advice along the way, we would never have built anything. Striking this delicate balance between following advice, and charting your own path, is an art that we are still learning every day.

What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs?

Setbacks are natural checkpoints in the entrepreneurial journey. Focus on what you can learn from such setbacks, and you’ll emerge stronger.

We generally don’t stop to think about setbacks and instead firmly set our sights on our goal. Having a clear goal—and believing in the importance of our mission—keeps us motivated through the ups and downs along the way.

In your experience, what's the best way to solve a problem?

Start with the basic building blocks and follow “first principles.” Just like in physics, first principles are the most fundamental of rules that govern how everything else works. To tackle a complex problem, break down the problem to its most basic blocks, and focus on solving those first.

Once you’ve tackled the basics, use these as building blocks to build increasingly complex systems. We applied such an approach to creating a modular curriculum for literacy, applying computational and design thinking to create an app that best serves our target learners. For example, we start with alphabet and phonics, as the most fundamental building blocks of literacy, then continue to build more advanced curriculum.

What role have partners played in the success of your venture? 

Partners play a critical role in our success. AutoCognita has participated in two XPRIZE competitions—we are semi-finalists in the Global Learning XPRIZE and current finalists in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. Through our participation in these competitions, we gained exposure to various stakeholders in the literacy space, helping us better understand the problem and push the boundaries of our network. 

Joining Solve will further build our network of like-minded entrepreneurs, especially those interested in the Teachers & Educators and Work of the Future Challenges.

We believe that the most effective way of finding and forming partnerships is to keep an open mind. Sometimes the best partnership could emerge through your least expected sources.

What role does technology play in driving AutoCognita's impact?

Technology is at the core of everything we do. Our goal is to use technology—in our case, a literacy app running on a smartphone—to massively scale adult literacy education. Technology is the key to delivering our literacy curriculum to all those in need, and enabling learners to acquire such skills anytime, anywhere.

What’s next for AutoCognita? 

AutoCognita is currently building a new literacy app, Click. Learn. Grow., to launch in Q1 2019. We designed our new app based on feedback received from literacy teachers, user surveys, and data collected from user tests conducted through the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. The new app expands our curriculum from the current alphabet and phonics topics to more advanced topics including vocabulary, grammar, sentence building, reading fluency, and comprehension. We also incorporated personal learning metrics, innovative pedagogy, and intuitive user experience in the app.

We believe that Solve partnerships will play a critical role in helping us bring our free literacy app to as many learners as possible, in the US and across the world. Together, we can make a difference!

Frank Ho (center) and Dana Rozier (second from right) accept the Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by former Governor Bob Wise (far left), who represented the prize's sponsor, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. (Photo: AutoCognita)


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