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Dr. Katie Nielson of Voxy EnGen: “Measure the right things”

Measure the right things. We should consider the needs of immigrants, refugees, and other limited-English-proficiency learners in a practical way. We have technology that can help them get access to meaningful, efficient instruction, but we still have outdated assessment methods and proficiency requirements. Fundamentally, people are learning English because they want to do something else. […]

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Measure the right things. We should consider the needs of immigrants, refugees, and other limited-English-proficiency learners in a practical way. We have technology that can help them get access to meaningful, efficient instruction, but we still have outdated assessment methods and proficiency requirements. Fundamentally, people are learning English because they want to do something else. We should measure whether or not they can get jobs, help their children, and become active in their communities, not their scores on standardized tests.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie B. Nielson, Ph.D.,Founder and Chief Education Officer, Voxy EnGen.

Dr. Katie Nielson holds a PhD in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and over twenty years of experience in English as a second language (ESL) instruction, teacher training, and applied language research. After spending nearly a decade at Voxy, Inc. where she was able to build and patent an award-winning language learning platform for global employers, Katie’s focus at EnGen is on the hugely underserved immigrant and refugee population here at home. Katie lectures and writes about all things related to language learning and educational technology, and you can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and the Voxy Blog.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As an undergraduate student, I worked as a volunteer, teaching English to Mexican migrant workers on an apple orchard. I loved connecting with the farm workers, but I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. It was very clear that relying on inexperienced volunteers to teach was not an effective way to help these adult learners get meaningful English skills.

That volunteer job started me on the path to help change the way the U.S. thinks about language instruction. I spent fifteen years as a language teacher, researcher, and administrator, and I have spent the last decade synthesizing my work into a platform that has been used by millions of learners all over the world to improve their English skills.

Two years ago, I founded Voxy EnGen to address the critical issue of English instruction in the U.S. We know better than to rely on inexperienced volunteers as teaching staff, but that is still how many, many programs are run, and I am thrilled to be leading an organization dedicated to solving this problem.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Honestly, the most interesting stories to me are not mine, but the ones that come from our learners. One of the reasons that I do what I do is so that we can help the millions of immigrants, refugees, and limited-English-proficiency adults in the U.S. get the English skills they need to advocate for themselves, support their families, and tell their own stories.

In January, we sent out a survey to the thousands of learners we worked with in the U.S. last year. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that Voxy EnGen helped them get the English skills they needed to get a new job or a promotion. That’s a great story! And we have dozens of learners who are now able to tell their own stories in their own voices, some of which you can see here and here. One of our most powerful stories came from our partnership with Lancôme and ProLiteracy, in an initiative to empower women with limited English proficiency. In the first video, women from Lancôme’s Write Her Future Institute share how they have overcome barriers by developing basic English reading and writing skills. Our second video is a story that is equally impactful, a learner sharing how the opportunity to learn English in a Voxy EnGen program offered by her employer helped her to build confidence and advance her career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, when I was first building online language courses, I made every mistake in the book. The courses were dependent on static textbooks, they used inflexible software, and they required a hodge-podge of communication tools. I told my students in the very first online Spanish course I taught that they should all download Yahoo Messenger and contact me via personal texchat any time they wanted to practice Spanish. Needless to say, that was neither efficient nor practical. Those early mistakes helped me see how we could leverage technology to deliver more efficient learning outcomes with better designed courses, more integrated technology, and a flexible content model. They were the inspiration for the early Voxy EnGen platform, so I guess they might not have been mistakes after all.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Voxy EnGen is web- and mobile-based English-language instruction for immigrants and refugees who deserve self-sufficiency, economic mobility, civic participation — and a better quality of life. We support those who don’t feel they have a voice because they don’t speak the language, even though they are bringing unique skills, culture, and life experience to bear on our society and labor market.

While there is a national focus on reskilling and upskilling adults in the U.S. for the jobs of the future, immigrants and refugees are often precluded from these programs simply because they lack the English skills.

Astonishingly, only four percent of adult English learners in the U.S. have access to ESL instruction. Voxy EnGen is here to change this.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The University of Maryland uses Voxy EnGen not only as a provider of English-language instruction to students who need support with English, but also to their staff. The program has been especially popular with the housekeepers of residential facilities, who have been using the platform now for over a year. Among that group is Hana Tadese, who is originally from Ethiopia and came to the U.S. five years ago seeking asylum. She had previously earned a Master’s in social psychology in Ethiopia and would like to get a degree in public health.

Tadese has been using the platform to study the language content related to a variety of health care jobs and topics, with the goal of one day bringing her Master’s to bear on a career in public health. She likes the flexibility Voxy EnGen affords her, because, as she says, “I have no interest to take a class at night, but this is really good for me because I can do it any time and it’s easily accessed.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • Stop thinking about English training as an insurmountable obstacle and include pathways for English-language learners in workforce training initiatives.
  • Insist that educational technology products measure outcomes. We still tend to turn to “technology” without making sure that it can solve our problems. One of the best things that Ed Tech can do is make it easy to measure and track what happens while people are learning, and we should be analyzing that data to improve learning experiences.
  • Measure the right things. We should consider the needs of immigrants, refugees, and other limited-English-proficiency learners in a practical way. We have technology that can help them get access to meaningful, efficient instruction, but we still have outdated assessment methods and proficiency requirements. Fundamentally, people are learning English because they want to do something else. We should measure whether or not they can get jobs, help their children, and become active in their communities, not their scores on standardized tests.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I have been lucky to work under a number of wonderful leaders throughout my career, and the best ones have had three things in common.

  • First, they ask questions and pay attention: to the audience they serve, their employees, and to what is going on in the world.
  • Because they are always asking questions and paying attention, good leaders are able to act decisively and communicate clearly and effectively. This is important because good leaders are always communicating the mission and vision of their organizations.
  • Finally, good leaders are honest. They tell their stakeholders the truth, even when that truth is difficult or unpleasant.

So, to answer the question, leadership is effecting change by paying attention, continuously communicating, and telling the truth.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The hardest part about answering this question is defining “when I first started.” When I first started as a language teacher, I wish someone had told me not to spend so much time talking about grammar. Teaching people about grammar is teaching them about how the language works, not how to use it. Instead of explaining rules, focus on letting learners use the language to do something real.

When I first started as a PhD student while I was working full-time, I wish someone had told me not to take two classes each semester. Every time I took more than one class at a time, I had to take an incomplete in it, and doing the work to resolve the incomplete took much longer than it would have to just wait another semester or two to finish my coursework.

When I first started writing technical reports, academic articles, and white papers, I wish I had learned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I still struggle with this in my writing, and sometimes you just need to finish. I have learned that setting time limits for writing and sticking to them is helpful.

When I had my first son and started juggling graduate school, full-time work, and motherhood, I wish someone had told me that I would need to be constantly prioritizing the demands of each, and that it was impossible to do all three well at the same time. That is not to say that it impossible to be a good mom, a good employee, and a good student; however, spending part of the day being a good parent, part of the day being a good employee, and part of the day being a good student is much easier than, for example, bouncing a crying baby on a yoga ball while on a conference call with a statistics textbook open in front of you. That’s just not good for anyone.

Finally, when I started building what would become the Voxy EnGen platform and began explaining to a much larger audience how and why it works and what problems it can solve, I wish someone had told me that just because something makes sense in your head does not mean that it will make sense to anyone else. Messaging is really important, and taking the time to think through what you want to say and how is critical. Life is short, and people do not have a lot of time. Being able to explain your mission and vision in a few moments is key to getting your point across.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would get employers to think about offering language instruction as a benefit to their employees. We offer training in sexual harassment, training in equity and inclusion, and health and safety training. Many large employers offer educational benefits and help employees get certifications and degrees. But very few employers think about upskilling their management staff with Spanish or Chinese — giving them the language that their frontline workers speak. And just a handful of employers are thinking about offering English as a benefit to their non-native English-speaking employees. So often, language is the only barrier to inclusion, promotion, and economic mobility, and employers can be part of that solution. Why aren’t they?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The only way out is through.”

In other words, if you are doing something hard and awful, you just need to finish it, and then it’s over. And nine times out of ten, the next time you do it, it won’t be so hard. This is why I now embrace hard, scary things. They are never as terrible the second time around.

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