Befluent, a complete phone-based learning system, for grins

I’ve built a couple of pretty substantial learning management systems, including what was perhaps the first web-based authoring and publishing system (one that eventually became docent.com now sumtotalsystems.com).

But the most challenging learning system I have tackled was “Befluent” a system I built a while back to test the viability of a pure audio phone-based system. The initial market I had in mind was the large numbers of earnest immigrants (like my friend Khwaja from Afghanistan) who would love to get off state welfare and get a job but whose English is holding them back. The state pays for classes, but without a regular conversation partner, class-time alone simply does not work for learning English as an adult.

My design goals were somewhat ambitious:

  • 100% phone-based deployment for students and graders
  • Fully functional learning management system, students and graders have IDs
  • Chatroom capability for students to collaborate with or without moderators
  • Multi-lingual prompts that adapt to learner (start with native language prompts, graduate to verbose, slow English prompts, then graduate to faster/shorter english prompts
  • Self-paced exercises with multiple-choice, fill-in, and essay responses
  • Graded quizzes, with helpful comments from graders
  • “Assembly line” grading, where particular questions can be assigned to particular graders

These recordings are ‘real’ — they are recorded off of actual phone
calls to a custom-developed phone learning system, not computer simulations, and not hacked-together audio files. (So the sound quality is so-so on the recordings.)

Notice the prompts seem painfully slow to native English speakers — because these are real prompts, intended for real learners.

The demo recordings are located at:

About 7 minutes and 7 MB.
This is what a student experiences
when they call into the phone number, choose a quiz (from many),
and answer different types of questions, including ‘voice answers’

About 2 minutes 30 seconds and 2 MB.
This is how a real teacher can call into the system, choose
a question to grade, then hear each student’s answers to that
question, assign a grade, and record a personal comment.
The grading could be done via internet, or phone.

About 1 minute 30 seconds.
When a student ‘calls back’ after a teacher has graded
their voice answers, the system tells them which quizzes
have graded answers. The student hears their grades,
plus whatever personal comments the teacher recorded.

Anyone with an interest in phone-based learning systems, I’d love to hear from you!

NY Times today outs me as founder of the nation’s largest street corner begging franchise

I guess I can admit it now that that damned NY Times article today “outs” me as the ultra-secretive founder of the “will work for food cardboard sign” franchise operation with over 37,000 well-heeled franchises capitalizing on street corners from coast to coast. The article applauds my innovative use of vertical manufacturing to supply durable plastic “pre-distressed, torn” signs indistinguishable from cardboard signs, and the patented “authentique homage de homeless” fragrance spray most franchisees opt to use, but is critical of our average franchise fee of $57,000, saying that “Wynn has made street corner begging the province of the well-heeled, pricing many wanna-be beggars out of the market.” I won’t apologize, however, since I think the flip side of that coin is that my organization brings a new professionalism to an industry formerly populated with less savory types. The NY Times article touches on that briefly, noting a typical beggar-franchisee has an MBA and an hourly income of $317 per hour.

My favorite quote from the article is:

Asked whether he regretted any aspects of his corner-begging-empire, Wynn wistfully sighed. “Dogs. Those damn dogs. I wish I’d been the one to realize how much money there is in renting those damn dogs to my franchisees. By the time we figured it out, that Vicks guy out east had locked up the rental-pitiful-dog market with long-term contracts. What can I say, he beat me to the punch, fair and square.”

Even before reading the NY Times article, deep inside, every time you saw one of our franchisees, you knew it was something like that.

Didn’t you?