App-to-Speed Learning Circles in Public Libraries

By David J. Rosen, Ed.D

A learning circle is a staff- or volunteer-led group whose members all share an interest in learning about the same subject or topic. It’s a non-formal, organized study circle that includes an online course or other online learning resources. Learning circles typically meet once a week, face-to-face, for 90 minutes to two hours, and participants also do online learning. They meet for a set number of weeks, typically ranging from four to 12. The main, but not only, host of learning circles in communities in the U.S. is public libraries. This article is about how, through offering learning circles, libraries can help low-literate and immigrant community members quickly and effectively learn to use free or low-cost apps to improve their basic skills or, for immigrants, to improve their English language skills. At the end is a list of links to articles about learning circles in libraries, and to a study of library learning circles.

In the U.S. we now have a large number of free or inexpensive online learning applications (apps) designed for smartphones. Many of these have been part of an international competition known as the Adult Literacy XPRIZE sponsored by the Barbara Bush Foundation and with funding from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The goal of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE has been to incentivize developers to build effective learning apps for immigrant English language adult learners and for low-literate native English-speaking adults. There are now five finalist apps, and an upcoming national “communities competition” designed to get the word out about the winning app(s); there are also three more apps that were semi-finalists — a list of which is included later in this article — and dozens more apps that were completed as part of the competition. Most low-literate and immigrant adults who regularly use smartphones do not know these apps exist, how to use them effectively for their learning, or how to get support for using them. Public libraries that offer App-to-Speed Learning Circles can meet those needs. The goal is to help low-literate adults, or immigrants who need to learn English, feel comfortable and competent in using an adult basic skills app to improve their English reading and writing skills. They may need more than a particular app has to offer, but the app can help, and the learning circle may also help them to become aware of local literacy or English language learning programs in the community, or offered directly or in partnership by the public library.

Preparing to offer an App-to-Speed learning circle in your public library

There are two key roles in setting up and offering this kind of learning circle: 1) the library director or volunteer coordinator, and 2) the learning circle facilitator. Here’s a description of these roles:

The role of the library director or volunteer coordinator:

  • Learn about learning circles. P2PU, a not-for-profit organization, and the major sponsor of learning circles in the U.S. and in other countries can help with that. Its website, has many materials describing what learning circles are, how they are being used, as well as links to short YouTube learning circle videos. Most learning circles are held in public libraries, but some are also in adult English language programs located in community-based organizations or public schools.
  • Market the App to Speed learning circle to be held at the library, and recruit low-literate or immigrant adults for it.  Reach out to community basic skills programs that serve adults who need to improve their English language or basic reading and writing skills. Offer these adult basic skills learners an opportunity to learn how to use their smartphone while they wait to enroll in a class or, once enrolled, to supplement their classroom learning.

The National Literacy Directory of adult basic skills organizations in communities across the U.S., a searchable database of over 7,000 local adult basic skills and English language programs, high school equivalency preparation programs and exam testing centers, can help public libraries find adult basic skills learners to recruit for an App to Speed learning circle. Some of these adult learners, especially immigrants, may be on waiting lists for English language classes or tutors and might use an app on their smartphone to improve their skills while they wait; some may already be enrolled in classes, or working with a literacy tutor, and want to supplement that with learning on their smartphone.

Many adult learners enrolled in English or adult basic skills classes already have smartphones but don’t know they can use – or know how to use – them for learning. A public library could offer a short-term learning circle to help them download free or low-cost learning apps, learn how to use them well and, equally important, help them build an online or face-to-face support group with others in their community who are also using the same app(s). Few of these programs offer a short-term learning experience on how to use smartphones apps for adult basic skills learning.

Of course, libraries can also promote an App to Speed learning circle in other ways: they can post flyers in the library and, through social media and emails, send digital flyers to key community organizations. For example, a library could reach out to its network of organizations that serve immigrants in the community: social services, religious organizations, or law firms serving immigrants. Flyers might be in learners’ first languages that some immigrants can read, as well as in English. They might be posted on bulletin boards in religious organizations, laundromats, hair salons and barber shops, food markets, social service agencies, and in other organizations that immigrants and low-literate native English language speakers typically visit.

  • Choose an app. Toward the end of this article is an annotated list of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE eight semi-finalist apps. Those with an * are finalists. There are many more apps, of course, that can be found on Google Play, or in the Apple App Store, or through an Internet search. However, it is important to take into account which operating system(s) your learning circle participants will use. All the XPRIZE adult literacy apps will operate on android phones, but only a few will operate on iPhones, so it might be best to choose an app that will work on Android phones.
  • Become familiar with how to use the Learning Management System of the app so, if you wish, you can look at participant progress. This is also useful for the learning circle facilitator (see this role below) to know how each person is doing, to offer help, encourage usage, or acknowledge participants’ learning with certificates.
  • Recruit and train a (volunteer) learning circle facilitator. This person is not necessarily a literacy or English language teacher, but must be comfortable and competent in using smartphones, particularly android phones since most learners will have this kind, and because most apps are designed to run on android phones. Although a facilitator could be a library staff member, especially in the first learning circles offered, it could be a Friends of the Library volunteer, or a volunteer from a community computing center, a nearby college or university, or from elsewhere. Training would involve helping the facilitator understand what a learning circle is, what the goals for this particular learning circle are, downloading and going through lessons from the chosen basic skills or English for immigrants app, and learning how to help learners, who will all be using the same app, to support each other in the weekly face-to-face meeting, and possibly online using a free app such as WhatsApp.
  • Set a time frame, schedule the day and time of the learning circle and length of the learning circle meetings. Although learning circles are usually four to 12 weeks in length, there is no prescribed number of weeks. Perhaps your first app-to-speed learning circle might be six weeks, and subsequent ones could be longer if needed. Typically a weekly meeting is 90 minutes to two hours including some group activities, some use of the learning app, feedback on how the app learning is going, and probably peers and facilitator sharing tips for using the app. Goals of the learning circle might be: to help learners feel comfortable and competent in using the app on their mobile phone; to feel comfortable with each other as peers interested in improving their literacy, numeracy or English language skills; and to feel comfortable in using a social media app so they can stay in touch between meetings. Once they are comfortable and confident in using the app, and the learning circle has formally ended, learning circle members may wish to continue to meet in the library regularly or from time to time on their own.

The Role of learning circle facilitator (possibly also with the library director or volunteer coordinator)

  • Participate in training to learn about how to facilitate a learning circle and, in this case, also learn how to download the app, how the app lessons are organized and delivered and, if there is one, how the app’s learning management system works.
  • Interview potential learning circle participants. The purposes of the interview are: 1) to make sure potential participants understand what a learning circle is and how it differs from a class; 2) to make sure participants have regular daily access to a smartphone and understand that they are expected to come to a weekly, face-to-face meeting with others who will be using the same smartphone literacy or English language app; 3) to be sure participants understand when and where the meetings occur; and 4) to collect information about the make and model of each person’s smartphone, or at least determine that it is an Android phone since many of the apps will only run on that operating system, not on Apple’s IOS. Collecting their smartphone make and model information will also help facilitators encourage learners who use the same kind of smartphone to help each other with technical issues. This is a good example of the importance of building among learning circle members a community that offers peer support.
  • Onboard learners to the app. In a blog article about the app, Learning Upgrade, onboarding is described this way: “ …each learner took out her smartphone, downloaded the app, received her username and password, and signed in for the first time. The center had a good Wi-Fi router to facilitate downloading the app and playing the lessons. The goal was to move each learner through the first few lessons in person to build confidence. Each learner was enrolled in the first math course and English course….As usage away from the center took off among learners, the time at the center became an informal learning circle. Women speaking both in English and in their native languages were talking about what lesson they had reached, the songs and games, how far they were from a certificate, and their ultimate goals for the future.”
  • Offer the learning circle, and each week keep a log of opportunities, challenges, and questions. In the first meeting, as part of the onboarding, the facilitator may try to determine if all or most participants use a social media app such as WhatsApp or Facebook. If so, the facilitator could help them to set up a private online group where they can easily get in touch, and share challenges and opportunities in using the app. The facilitator might also ask if they use text messaging and, if so, ask each one for their cell phone number. Using an app such as Remind, the facilitator could send them a weekly text message reminder of the meeting. (Gathering this phone number might, instead, be part of the interview.) If the learning circle is set up through P2PU, there is an online log on their dashboard that facilitators can use.
  • Provide Individual or group support for adult learners in the face-to-face meeting who may need a significant amount of support before they are up to app speed.
  • Offer learning circle completers a certificate or micro-credential Adult learners often want recognition for their learning efforts. A learning circle attendance certificate that could be framed and displayed at home is often appreciated. Some apps also offer micro-credentials and/or certificates within the app.

This article is a broad-stroke picture of what might be involved in creating an app-to-speed learning circle in your public library. For further information about learning circles, go to If you offer, or plan to offer, an app-to-speed learning circle, or if you want to discuss them, please let me know.

David J. Rosen, Ed.D is the President of Newsome Associates in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the moderator of Integrating Technology, a LINCS adult basic skills educators community of practice sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. He is a co-founder and Steering Committee member of the Open Door Collective and a member of its Public Libraries and Adult Basic Skills, and Digital Inclusion issues groups.

Adult Literacy XPRIZE Semifinalist Apps (Note: the five apps with an * are finalists.)

Alphabet Literacy

“allows users to explore multimedia content for improving their literacy skills. Users can interact with articles, songs, videos, and more within the app.”

Alphabet Website.

On Google Play at

* AmritaCREATE  “personalized learning app along with engaging, culturally appropriate e-content linked to life skills.”

On Google Play at

* AutoCognita  “applies the constructivist learning approach to engage learners through action.  Low-literacy adults effectively acquire basic literacy, numeracy and life skills through a comprehensive curriculum and sound pedagogy.”

AutoCognita Website

On Google Play at


* Cell-Ed “A messaging app uniquely designed for no- to low literate learners is available on any mobile device – no internet, teacher, or classroom required. Text messaging micro-lessons are complemented by audio/video/picture lessons and a live coach. Learners earn certificates and more. Originally designed for basic literacy learners, Cell-Ed offers English language learning, bridge and workforce programs for adult learners.”

Cell-Ed website

Cell-Ed YouTube Video

On Google Play at

And in the App Store (Apple).


*Learning Upgrade “With the Learning Upgrade app, adults can make reading breakthroughs on their own phones. The engaging lessons filled with songs, video, and games move adults step-by-step from the fundamentals to advanced comprehension.  Learning happens everywhere: on the bus, during breaks at work, or while waiting for a child at school. Adults earn five certificates as they progress through 300 sequenced lessons.  The program prepares adults for success at work, earning a diploma, or taking more advanced classes.”


Website                                                                                        On Google Play at               

and in the App Store (Apple).


Lyriko “a music game designed to build language skills while exploring song lyrics.”

Lyriko website .

App on Google Play at  and  possibly in the App store.


* PeopleFOR WORDS Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis  “a mobile adventure game for Android devices, helps low-literate adults improve their English reading skills. Based on an archeological adventure storyline, the initial gameplay revolves around crafting phonemes, onset-rime patterns, and sight words to “decode” a mysterious language from a lost civilization.”

People For Words Website

App on Google Play at

Xenos Isle “an evidence-based mobile learning game that combines a virtual world, scaffolded missions, and single and multiplayer gameplay to rapidly increase adult learners’ English language and literacy skills for increased civic engagement and enhancing career pathways. Xenos Isle is platform and operating system agnostic, making it available on phones and tablets as well as on computers. Mobile delivery and 24/7 access on any device make it easier for learners to use—at work, at home, and even during their commute. Being digital, Xenos is cost-effective and scalable, and can readily be customized for industry-specific content.“

Learning Games Studios Website

On Google Play at  May also be available at the Apple App store.


Articles and Studies about Learning Circles in Public Libraries

Thanks for the list below to Gwenn Weaver, Chair of the Open Door Collective Digital Inclusion Issues Group, and to her and other Open Door Collective members for a review of an early draft: Peter Waite, Drew Pizzolato, Jean Demas, and Kristin Lahurd.

Blog Posts

Web Junction blog 1

Web Junction blog 2

IMLS grant-funded projects

Kansas City PL

KC prelim proposal narrative

Kansas City PL National Leadership Grant from IMLS

Providence PL IMLS grant

Public library learning circle activities

Cambridge, MA PL

Chicago, IL PL (LJ article)

City of Wichita, KS PL

Cleveland Heights, OH

Learning Circles in Detroit, MI

Providence, RI PL

San Jose, CA PL

Topeka &n Shawnee County Public Library Learning Together,” January 30, 2018. Retrieved July 2, 2018 from

Other info on learning circles in libraries

“Online Learning: Why Libraries Could Be the Key to MOOCs’ Success,”April 25 2016. Retrieved 7.2.2018 from

“The Learning Circle experience: Findings from the P2PU participant survey”. January 2018 TASCHA Retrieved 7.2.2018 from

One Response to “App-to-Speed Learning Circles in Public Libraries”

  1. 01/22/19 The New Digital Divide: Internet and Literacy for All - Says:

    […] World Education (English Now! learning circles pilot project and national scale up program) Additional articles on the World Education Ed Tech Center blog: App to Speed Learning Circles in Public Libraries […]

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