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Lessons from ShareLab: Chatterbox

In 2016 we launched the ShareLab Fund with a call for ideas that made use of collaborative digital platforms to create social impact. We selected eight pioneers who we’ve been working with closely over the last year and a half. Now the process is coming to a close and we’re starting to review the progress made and the lessons learnt. We’re going to be publishing updates as they come along and will wrap things up by collating our findings into a formal set of observations and recommendations.

Chatterbox is a startup that trains refugees as foreign language tutors and connects them with students and professionals across the UK.

Mursal Hedayat's mother arrived in the UK from Afghanistan 23 years ago; a civil engineer who spoke four languages fluently. She was keen to work but found herself becoming trapped in low-skilled work - eroding both her skills and confidence.

This experience was - and is - shared by many other talented people in the refugee community and, in August 2016, Mursal drew on this inspiration to launch Chatterbox.

In selecting Chatterbox for funding we were particularly interested in how the technical development of their platform could help them scale the service and, with it, not only their revenues but their social impact. We've enjoyed watching the team grow and to build out their offer so now there is a tailored set of language learning opportunities for individuals, for students at partner universities and also for corporate partners.

Chatterbox founder, Musrsal Hedayat

Here, founder Mursal explains more about what the Chatterbox service is and how it all works.

What is Chatterbox?

Chatterbox is a language tutoring platform powered by refugees. We deliver language lessons online and in-person, to consumers and organisations such as universities and businesses. While our clients learn, our refugee tutors earn a living and improve their employability. Through our use of technology, which includes online scheduling and Skype classrooms, we can connect refugees with learners around the world.

What problem does it solve?

The UNHCR reports there are roughly 119,000 people with refugee status living in the UK. Many have high levels of education and training, with 20% having studied up to a degree-level. However they are significantly more likely than average to be unemployed, or underemployed in low skilled work that negatively impacts their future employability.

Meanwhile, the UK and other developed economies lose billions of pounds annually because of a deficit of language skills in the labour market. Globalisation continuously raises demand for language skills. The global language learning market is growing rapidly as a result, offering rewarding work opportunities for those with language skills to teach.

Today, we are witnessing the greatest levels of forced displacement in human history and urgently need better ways to get refugees working. Our solution is to connect the immense untapped talent of refugees with the demand for their skills, starting with the $240bn language learning industry.

“It was... a chance to learn more about the education system in the UK - how things work in universities and the way of teaching and learning here. I didn't have any idea about this before. This has encouraged me to do a qualification here that will allow me to use my teaching degree from Syria in the UK.”

Hala, a former school teacher from Palestine with a degree in English Literature

Who are Chatterbox language tutors?

By partnering with agencies supporting refugees, like the Red Cross and the International Rescue Committee, we can recruit experienced educators like Hala. Hala says she had almost given up on restarting her professional life after becoming a refugee. Now she is one of our most popular tutors. She has earned more than £1,000 on our platform and stepped back into the classroom again recently, this time through a computer screen!

“The work itself is a big pleasure for me. For me Chatterbox was a good opportunity to reconnect myself with my previous career - the opportunity to work in higher education with universities is something I am really happy with. The main thing I get out of it is working with intercultural exchange with the students - sharing knowledge and experience. I enjoy learning about their culture and knowing that they are curious to learn about me.”

Persian tutor Soraya, a writer and women's rights activist with a BA in Persian Literature
Language tutor

What types of language teaching do you offer?

Before becoming a ShareLab grantee, we offered a professional conversation training service with native speaking refugees for individuals and educational institutions such as universities. It is designed to enhance students' communicative language skills and overall motivation and engagement with language learning.

“The students keep asking for more, they want more practice. We are providing them a good service. I am a teacher so I really enjoy working with the students - I help them with vocabulary and grammar and we also talk about politics and other topics. It is good to meet new people and I think that having Chatterbox as experience on my CV will help me get other teaching jobs in the UK.”

Chatterbox tutor Eric, a physical education specialist from the Republic of Congo

From the success of this conversation practice service, which now runs in five UK universities and attracts individual learners who purchase through our website, we have developed a unique style of language teaching that centres on human interaction. Backed by the ShareLab Fund, this has turned into our first complete language course in beginners Arabic. In its pilot phase, the course has a 98% retention rate and we are looking forward to adding more languages and levels in the coming months.

Chatterbox

A conversation practice session taking place

“The main benefit for me is actually talking and making the effort to have a long conversation in Hindi, even though I might not know some words or expressions, or am getting confused with something. It increases my motivation to work more.”

Chatterbox client Jens, a Hindi student at SOAS

“I am not in a position to spend a year abroad and this is the closest to it, so I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. With more practice comes an increase in confidence, which in turn boosts my motivation and I just hope that this project will grow and find more users.”

Chatterbox client Viola, a Spanish student at University of Westminster

Viola's conversation partner John, an actor, theatre director, teacher and broadcaster originally from Colombia, describes a typical conversation class: “… from my point of view it was a great moment to be an ambassador not only for Colombia but for Latin America.”

What’s the business model?

It’s quite simple - we charge clients a fee for tuition and use this to pay refugees the living wage. At the moment our tutors, who live in the UK and around the world in places like Turkey, Canada and Greece, all receive the Living Wage Foundation’s rates. In future, we will adapt this to match the local living wage where tutors are based. Individuals purchase through our website, while organisations can buy bespoke packages having also enquired through our website.

Our innovative model and focus on social impact has quickly elevated our profile in the language learning market, leading to features in many notable publications and awards like the Varkey Foundation Next Billion Edtech Prize which we won a few months ago. This has given us a massive advantage in a highly competitive and commoditised space, where other vendors struggle greatly to differentiate themselves.

Leveraging the power of our brand, as well as the surge in demand for ethical consumption among both B2C and B2B clients, we are raising a round of funding to finish our platform, grow our sales and become financially sustainable as an enterprise.

What’s next?

As well as fundraising, we are growing our team with new developers, designers, and language lovers - get in touch if we sound like your cup of tea!

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Author

Jenni Lloyd

Jenni Lloyd

Jenni Lloyd

Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab

Jenni is a Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab working on the ShareLab Fund. Prior to Nesta, Jenni founded PurposeLab - an experimental consultancy designed to explore purposeful...

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Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Head of New Operating Models

Alice leads on a portfolio of work looking at how technology is transforming communities and civic life.

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