California launches innovative distance education pilot for TANF, SNAP participants

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, September 17, 2020

A new policy development in California reflects one of National Skills Coalition’s key recommendations for an inclusive economic recovery. In July, state officials launched a project providing digital upskilling opportunities for state residents who currently receive certain public benefits. The pilot is providing online learning and coaching assistance through the Cell-Ed mobile learning platform.

Participants in the pilot project come from one of several programs overseen by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). They include CalFresh, the state’s SNAP Employment and Training program; CalWorks, its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program; and its Refugee Resettlement Program.

The new California policy reflects a step toward NSC’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery policy agenda item #6, Digital access and learning for all working people at home and on the job. In particular, NSC has called for eliminating barriers by making high-quality, equitable, and inclusive digital learning available to all workers.

National Skills Coalition spoke with Jennifer Hernandez of CDSS and Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami of Cell-Ed to learn more about the initiative.


Why take this approach now?

“We wanted to provide a mechanism to support low-income Californians who want to use this pandemic time to build their skills for future employment,” says Jennifer Hernandez of CDSS. The state understands that families are facing numerous economic and social stressors, she adds, and they don’t see this effort as a panacea. Still, it’s an important piece of the puzzle, especially as many in-person education and training services are limited or even unavailable due to public health restrictions.

The state’s contract with the Cell-Ed mobile learning platform also achieves two other goals: It frees up county welfare office staff from some of the onerous participation tracking that they would otherwise need to handle for public assistance participants, and it provides county officials with an easy, built-in tool for sharing updates about office hours or other program logistics with their clients.


How does the mobile learning platform work?

Cell-Ed is a voluntary program that enables adults to acquire essential skills via distance learning on a mobile device. Courses are pre-recorded and developed by content experts with expertise in adult education and mobile learning. Participants can access mini-lessons through text messages (if they have a low-tech feature phone), telephone audio, or a more robust application (if they have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer).

Participants can also access support from bilingual coaches, who are available at any time via live chat through the application or through text messaging. Coaches can assist participants step-by-step through course content and are available for any questions.

Available courses include:

  • English on the Go (offered from Levels 1 through 6)
    • Spanish-to-English bridging
    • Basic Literacy:
      • Math for Daily Life
      • Reading & Writing
      • Social Studies
      • Work Ready Skills
      • U.S. Citizenship & Civics Courses
      • Covid-19 Best Practices and Preventative Measures (offered in English, Spanish, and French, with more languages to come)


What support is the state providing to local officials?

“This is an optional program from the state level: We are encouraging county welfare offices to take advantage of it, but it’s not mandatory,” says Hernandez. The CDSS partnership with Cell-Ed is providing full access for free to all counties through June 2021. Counties can enroll an unlimited number of eligible participants. To date, 37 of the state’s 58 counties have signed on, representing a broad diversity of geographic regions.

CDSS has taken several steps to support wide adoption of the pilot:

  • Issuing a July 1 policy guidance document to local officials. This All-County Information Notice, ACIN I-55-20, was titled Distance Learning Via Cell-Ed For California Work Opportunity And Responsibility To Kids (CalWORKs), Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA), CalFresh Employment and Training (E&T), and Trafficking and Crime Victims Assistance Program (TCVAP) Participants
  • Providing professional development to county officials, staff, and community-based providers on effective use of the Cell-Ed platform
  • Identifying a modest amount of additional state funding that can be used to purchase loaner devices for participants who lack a smartphone or computer


Why choose Cell-Ed as a partner?

The organization had a proven track record of working with adult learners who mirrored CDSS’ participants, says Hernandez. That includes people who are low-income, have often worked in the service industry or other entry-level jobs, and may have limited foundational skills (such as reading, math, spoken English, or digital literacy).

In addition, says Cell Ed’s Rothenberg-Aalami, her company offers a nimble pedagogy that can be adapted for smart phones, tablet computers, and even lower-tech flip phones. This allows participants to engage in education even if they cannot afford a full-featured computer or if they are sharing a smartphone or computer with multiple other family members – a common situation in families with K-12 students who are learning at home during the pandemic.

Another consideration was the ability to provide connections from Cell-Ed online learning to other adult education and workforce development opportunities. “We want to make sure that as SNAP and TANF recipients build their skills, they can easily transition to high school equivalency classes or earn industry-recognized credentials,” says Hernandez. “To do that, we have to be really intentional about how Cell-Ed connects to the existing infrastructure of providers and services funded by WIOA and California Adult Education Program dollars.”

(For more on Cell-Ed’s model, see NSC’s recent Amplifying Impact brief on innovative programs that combine English language and digital skill building.)


What should policymakers and advocates keep in mind when considering similar efforts?

  • “Make sure you have a clear, specific understanding of how your agency and participants will benefit,” says Hernandez. She points out that Cell-Ed’s platform provides a customized data dashboard and other tools that can help public officials understand who is logging in to the tool, how it is being used, and whether participants are meeting federal or state “work participation rate” metrics or similar mandates.
  • In addition to the learning modules themselves, Hernandez adds, the platform’s survey and communications tools have simplified county offices’ task of getting timely updates out to participants. She recommends that policymakers think expansively about the types of tools they need and whether a particular platform can provide them.
  • Making participation voluntary for both local officials and individual program participants is vital. “We wanted this to be seen as an appealing opportunity, not another ‘must do,’” says Hernandez. “Deferring to local officials allowed them to determine what they had the bandwidth to take on. And making the program optional for participants ensured that we weren’t layering on another expectation during a pandemic when families are facing numerous other demands.”
  • “Don’t limit your thinking to the mobile tool itself,” adds Rothenberg-Aalami. “CDSS was smart in that they specifically contracted with Cell-Ed to include live coaches to provide technical assistance, encouragement, and professional development. This allowed public officials and staff to get the practical support they needed to understand the tool themselves, and encourage their participants to try it out.” Without that support, she adds, it would be hard to scale up adoption.
  • Perhaps most importantly: “If policymakers and service providers can’t envision the end user, they end up designing for themselves,” explains Rothenberg-Aalami. In other words, if decisionmakers are accustomed to having affordable high-speed internet access at home and work, as well as an up-to-date digital device with an unlimited data plan, they may end up selecting distance learning options that are inaccessible to the people they serve.* It’s crucial to have partners at the table who have on-the-ground expertise, whether as service providers or participants themselves.

*(In contrast, another recent example identified by NSC is a mobile-learning pilot in a different location that failed to specify that its learning platform should be accessible to people with limited data plans. The result was a graphics-heavy application that hogged so much data that many potential users weren’t able to take advantage of it.)