Eight companies graduated last week from the Intel Education Accelerator. None are going to set the world on fire, but all are prepared to make learning just a little bit easier. I’ll tell you about a few more of them later this week, but I have to start with the product that I think was at the head of the class: WordsU.
WordsU has developed an alternate keyboard for smart phones with an autocorrect function that, instead of trying to figure out what word you are trying to type, tries to expand your vocabulary. (Alternate keyboards are apps that replace the standard keypad image that appears when you need to type on a mobile device. Most are designed to make typing faster, more intuitive, or more fun.) WordsU’s digital keyboard app will make its debut in January.
In their pitch to potential investors and journalists, WordsU founders Sam Mendelson and Allan Zhang said the company is targeting English as a second-language (ESL) learners and SAT test preppers who would otherwise use flash cards. They say their approach is better for learning because it presents vocabulary in context, and does so throughout the day. The keyboard, the founders said, works with any app, including iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat. (The company previously tried to introduce the technology through its own messaging system, but it’s a lot harder to get users to embrace an entirely new form of social media than a new keyboard.)
I think this approach is brilliant—and not only because it’s been only a matter of months since my youngest child finally finished running the pre-college testing gauntlet and the tables and countertops in my house were made free of stacks of SAT vocabulary flashcards. It’s clear that my children spend far more time messaging, texting, and snapchatting than they ever did reviewing vocabulary; I’ve been embarrassingly unsuccessful at reigning that in, and I’d feel a bit better if I thought they were learning a little something during the process. I don’t think it would completely replace those boxes of flash cards—there are just too many things that teens don’t talk about with their friends—but it certainly could help.
And, come to think of it, the app would probably bring a little something to my own text messages too. We all get lazy about word choice when we text.
Besides the more serious versions of the keyboard that teach SAT words and American idioms for language learners, WordsU is having a little fun with the technology, demonstrating Valley Girl and Cowboy variants. In one example, the app took a text message that read “I’m super excited” and came up with “thrilled” (SAT word), “chomping at the bit” (American idiom), and “like so psyched” (Valley Girl) as alternatives.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.