Literacy is a deceptive statistic in America. As we covered earlier, though the U.S. appears to top the charts in literacy rates globally—the numbers don’t account for low literacy. This is a topic ripe for social innovation.

Knowji, an App for Literacy

The need for new ways to address literacy was not lost on the founders of the mobile app Knowji, Emmie and Nick Thomas. They began researching literacy in America and learned the stark statistics of effects of non-literacy and low literacy from the Digest of Education Statistics and National Institute for Literacy, and were not just alarmed—they were moved to action.
Emmie and Nick have taken an active role as social entrepreneurs to develop a comprehensive, gamified app that gives users multiple ways to learn new words. Illustrations give a visual cue, recorded audio provides another way to learn, and new words are provided with context, synonyms and “collocations” (i.e. examples of common phrases that utilize the word.)But this app is not like reading a dictionary—users are introduced to characters and led through various games and exercises to test their knowledge. It is a way not only to learn basic words but to continue expanding vocabulary with advanced words.
Innov8Social had a chance to sit down with Emmie Thomas, one of Knowji’s co-founders to learn about the app she helped create and the inspiration behind Knowji.You can check out the multiple Knowji offerings in Apple’s mobile App Store and try out the free trial version which has samples of the other offerings.

Meet Emmie

Emmie is passionate about literacy, in part because as a first-generation American, she has lived its reality.  After her family’s  Emmie Thomasmove to the U.S. she saw and experienced the challenges of building her own vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy. Her efforts paid off and she completed her undergraduate education at NYU in Business and Finance. She pursued a career in asset management, technology development, mobile sales, and business development for nearly two decades before setting her sights on something much closer to heart and central to her identity.
After hearing a commencement speech by Bill Gates in July 7, 2007 calling graduates to take action to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, Emmie began researching resources for developing and furthering literacy in English. She found existing tools to be linear and, on the whole, outdated. With emerging technology such as smartphone apps and tablets, she felt like there were better, more-tactile ways to learn and to teach.
Emmie, and her husband Nick Thomas–Knowji co-founder and CTO– set out to pursue a big idea. They wanted to make literacy learning fun, educational, and comprehensive through a series of apps that engaged users by introducing compelling characters, establishing storylines, and using data-driven techniques to achieve true learning.

Literacy as a Spectrum, Not a Checkbox

When we sat down to discuss the interview questions, Emmie introduced an interesting concept.She mentioned that through her research she had found literacy to be a spectrum rather than a checkbox. Though we feel compelled to adhere to statistics that gauge literacy as percentage points, in reality, she noted that there are levels and grades of literacy. People might pass the basic definition of literacy but may actually be competently illiterate—they may be able to read and write, but have a minimal level of comprehension so as not to be able to read and understand a set of directions, a contract, or a newspaper article. Emmie observed that these individuals often fall through the cracks of the education system and may never have access to tools and learning techniques increase and expand their comprehension to a functional level.

Read the Interview

Q1 | Innov8Social: What drew you to create education and literacy apps?

A1 | Emmie Thomas, Co-Founder & CEO of Knowji:

Sure, I would like to begin by establishing what most people perceive when they think of the word “literacy” or “illiteracy”. We think of someone who cannot read or write at all, someone poorly educated. If we think of literacy in that context, the percentage of Americans who suffer from this is relatively small. However, if you include those who can read and write English in America but perform at the lowest level of literacy skills, approximately one in four American adults are functionally illiterate. Their literacy level is too low to perform basic functions in the workplace like paying bills, understanding legal and financial documents and using technology.
The effect this has on those people and society as a whole is staggering, and we feel that there is a real opportunity to make a difference. To date, we have published a set of 12 Apple iOS apps to help move people beyond functional illiteracy and all the way to advanced literacy such as teaching words for the SAT and GRE. Now we’re in the process of building more content for future apps. In particular, we are developing content to help people, specifically ESL/ELL people who are below functional illiteracy level in English.

Q2 | Innov8Social: Tell us a little about how Knowji started and its mission?

A2 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

It was really a confluence of two events that gave birth to the idea of Knowji. Firstly, I was considering going to grad school at the time and found myself struggling to build my vocabulary for the GRE exam. I had thousands of words to learn and I was struggling to remember them all, and I found myself unnecessarily wasting a lot of time and effort in studying. At the same time, I was at an inflection point in my life where I felt a strong need to find work that was meaningful and fulfilling. This led me to explore and research different ideas, and out of that I found those ideas around education were the most compelling and fulfilling to me. I think the reason for this is because my family value education so highly. Education is the ticket to opportunity, to freedom, and it’s a great equalizer. My parents came to America specifically so their children would have the opportunity to go to college.

So the combination of these two events led me to the idea of starting a company that could work on problems in education. The reason we honed in on verbal development is because of the struggles I personally experienced and witnessed growing up in New York City. These are problems people often live with all their lives. However, with the right learning tools, these are problems that can easily be addressed. That’s the opportunity we’re excited about. I know since I started using Knowji myself, I have found myself to be a better communicator and writer. In today’s online and social world, having the ability to communicate well is crucial to success.

Our mission is to leverage technology and innovative content to bring affordable high quality education to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Q3 | Innov8Social: What drew you to create education apps?

A3 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

In addition to what I said earlier, I feel strongly about empowering people in a way that is sustainable. Since I was a small child growing up in New York City, I’ve often pondered the question of how we can help lift people out of poverty, and thus reduce violence and suffering in homes and communities. I still think about this question, almost every day, and the solution that most resonates with me is this famous quote, “you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. You teach a man to fish, you feed him a lifetime.”

Q4 | Innov8Social: Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for the meeting place of technology + education?

A4 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

This is a great question. We see four opportunities: Self-paced learning, adaptive and customized learning, distance learning, and mobile learning.

a) Self paced learning. Today technology can empower people to learn at their own pace. We see this in the results from people using our apps. Some of our users take two to three times longer to learn a word than others. In a traditional classroom, all students at the same age are under pressure to learn at the same pace. What if instead learning was self-paced? Students could self study while teachers are freed up to spend their time helping students through difficult problems.

b) Adaptive Learning. This is an area of opportunity that takes learning to a whole new level. Computers can aid in learning in ways that are humanly impossible to do. For instance, a computer can perform complex mathematical algorithms that generate a personalized curriculum tailored to the exact needs of each student. It can track an unlimited number of answers and behaviors from each student year after year, and at any time crunch all that data instantaneously to figure out the best lesson at that precise moment for a student’s learning style or ability. So a computer can perform tasks in scope and dimension that are humanly impossible, and therefore in the domain of education, become an amazingly powerful personal tutor in a way that was never before possible. I should add, we don’t for a moment imagine this usurping teachers in the classroom, but we certainly see it as an incredibly powerful tool to augment classroom teaching, and further empower students.

Our apps are a version of this personalized adaptive learning, though on a smaller scale. Based on a student’s interactions, our app presents words that the student is struggling with more frequently than other words. The app also calculates an optimal time when the student should drill each word so as to maximize their memory retention of the words. We’ve really just begun in terms of the complexity of our adaptive learning algorithm. Yet despite that, our apps are already helping people learn and remember hundreds of words in just a few weeks.

c) Distance Learning. Teachers and professors are no longer required to be physically located in the same classroom as their students. High quality education is now available to millions if not billions of people across the globe – either for free or at a substantially reduced rate. We’re already seeing this with companies like Khan Academy, Uadacity, and universities like MIT and Stanford that are spearheading this change.

d) Mobile Learning. With a mobile device, anyone can learn any time and anywhere. This is a very exciting opportunity when you consider that one in five adults on the planet cannot read or write. That’s 1.5 billion people. What if we could equip every child with a mobile device like an iPod Touch or an iPad that doesn’t require a persistent Internet connection? They could receive education even if they have to work to support their family. Studying a few minutes every day could empower a child to become literate, and who knows, that could open up for them the possibility one day of college.

Q5 | Innov8Social: What trends in education technology excite you?

A5 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

If I had to pick one, I would pick mobile learning. However, I think the fusion of trends I mentioned is what makes it an extremely exciting time to be working in this area.

Q5 | Innov8Social: What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs starting out in the education technology sector?

A6 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

 

  • Always pick a problem/solution space that you are already intimately familiar with. I think it is really hard building something great if you don’t intimately understand the problems of your users or customers.
  • Have someone on the team who knows how to market and network in your target market. So for instance, selling to K12 schools has been a challenge for us because no one on our team had the connection or experience selling into K12 schools. We’ve had to build those connections as we go along. That takes a long time.
  • Finally, be very committed to your cause because this will help you stay on course when the going gets tough. And it will get tough!

 

Q7 | Innov8Social: Social entrepreneurship comes in different flavors. There are non-profits and for-profit companies. Why did you not choose to make Knowji a non-profit entity since it has such a social mission?

A7 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

We thought through this question carefully when we started the company, and our decision ultimately came from a two important principles. First we want to be a self-sustaining organization, one that doesn’t require us to seek donations. Secondly, we aspire to be a company that will one day inspire other companies to do good and do well at the same time.

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