SVP Fast Pitch: ASU students compete with app that tackles adult illiteracy

More than 36 million adults in the United States and at least half a million adults in Arizona struggle to read.

Quick Facts:

Who: SVP Fast Pitch Arizona is a free two-month communication skills building program and competition for innovative nonprofits in Maricopa County.
What:The nine finalists (including Literacy For All Inc.) will each give a three-minute pitch about their organization. They will compete for more than $50,000 in grants and prizes.
When: 4:30-9 p.m. on March 1
Where: Scottsdale Center for the Arts
More info: Social Venture Partners


Students at Arizona State University launched Literacy For All Inc., an organization devoted to reducing the number of adults who struggle to read above a third-grade level. The group is creating an app to tackle that issue.

Recently, the nonprofit won the student category for the Social Venture Partners Arizona Fast Pitch event. The student group already won a $2,000 prize, and they will compete for more on Tuesday.

One member from the group will give the “fast pitch,” a three-minute presentation about an organization and its mission, to a panel of judges. Nine groups will compete for $50,000.

SVP Fast Pitch is a two-month skills building program that aims to help nonprofit organizations in Maricopa County.

Aziza Ismail, founder of Literacy For All, began her efforts against adult illiteracy while working on her thesis as an undergraduate student at ASU. She noticed how much her mother struggled because of her inability to read.

“My mother never had the opportunity to learn how to read and write,” Ismail said. “I know how hard it has been for her. One day, I noticed how it frustrated her, so it really struck me and got me thinking about how this problem could be resolved.

“I knew my education was important to me, and that I wouldn’t have been where I was today without literacy.”

Adults who cannot read at a “functional” level are twice as likely to be unemployed and have a 50 percent increased risk of hospitalization, according to ProLiteracy.org, an organization aiming to “create a world where every person can read and write.”

In need of a lead educational researcher, Ismail approached Earl Aguilera, a doctoral student at ASU. Aguilera is in charge of creating the educational formula and content found in the application.

“The overall goal is trying to find ways of taking the technology, and especially the digital media that is around today, and use that to enhance the current practices and structures that are built around education,” Aguilera said.

The app consists of several modules that apply to real life, including a mock job posting. The user can press words to hear audio feedback. The app also will verbally help the user progress in each learning module.

Aguilera said inherent problems exist in mobile apps because the target audience struggles to read.

“The concept of the app, no matter how intuitive and how easy to use a mobile application is, it’s still pretty text heavy,” he said. “It still relies on the fact that you are (either) technologically savvy enough to play around until you figure it out, or literate enough that you can just read through menus or go to a website and figure stuff out. Those assumptions don’t apply now to the population we’re trying to serve.”

Literacy For All has a prototype and has partnered with funding organizations including Changemaker Central at ASU and other entrepreneurship and innovation programs.

It is also one of 106 teams entered in the X Prize Competition. The winning team will receive a grand prize of $3 million, and the teams will compete for $7 million total. Judges will select semifinalists in December.

Literacy For All remains in its developmental stages, and Aguilera said most of the efforts are focused on acquiring funding and grants.

The group of eight students and two advisers hopes to stand out from other organizations tackling the same problem by going with the nonprofit model. Aguilera said they intend to offer the app for free.

Aguilera said they want to avoid the mistakes made by the popular app Luminosity, which was hit with a $2 million lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission because of false advertising. The commission’s investigation indicated that Luminosity’s claims were not supported by sufficient evidence, according to CNBC.

Literacy For All is focused on applying their educational benefits to the real world.

“You can’t make claims about what happens in the lab versus what happens in (real) life because (real) life is not the lab,” Aguilera said. “It’s not this highly controlled setting. Life is complete with obligations, family, jobs and all of these things, and once you throw those in the mix, it’s a whole different ball game.”

Aguilera said they plan to have a viable product by the end of 2016. Pilot testing would take place in Maricopa County. Ultimately, he hopes the app will become a tool for teachers and allow them to have more individualized interactions with their students.

“The idea is to not keep people on the app,” Aguilera said. “The idea is to eventually release you out into the world. Teaching is a self-defeating profession. Business is not. … We want to make ourselves obsolete as teachers, so that is the hard thing to navigate.”