Parent-Teacher Communication Tool TalkingPoints Helps Immigrant Parents Connect with Schools
From an early age, Heejae Lim recognized her parents’ ability to speak English allowed them to engage with her school life in a way that non-English-speaking parents could not.
The parent-teacher communication divide she observed growing up in the U.K. and Korea is increasingly problematic in the U.S. as well. As the demographics of U.S. students shift, more and more students speak languages other than English at home. Not all parents can easily join the English conversation at school, and teachers, too, struggle to communicate with families who speak other languages.
To ensure that all families can effectively communicate with their children’s teachers, Lim founded TalkingPoints, a tool that translates teachers’ text messages into parents’ primary languages. Parents receive teacher communication on their phones and can respond using their own languages, which are translated into English for teachers. The tool is free for teachers and for parents who have a texting plan.
Hannah Nyren of EdTech Times sat down with Lim, now the executive director of TalkingPoints, to discuss why language diversity is increasing in students’ homes and how Lim’s educational experiences inspired her to bridge the language divide.
EdTech Times: Hello, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am interviewing the founder of Talking Points. If you would like to introduce yourself…
Heejae Lim: Hi, everyone, I’m Heejae Lim, founder and CEO of TalkingPoints.
EdTech Times: So tell me in a couple of sentences, what is TalkingPoints? What does it do?
Heejae Lim: Talking Point’s mission is to meaningfully connect teachers and parents and students, and our product is a multilingual texting platform that teachers use to communicate with parents with content and analytics, with the aim of increasing parent engagement in especially low-income and highly diverse communities.
EdTech Times: So what inspired you to start the company?
Heejae Lim: Yeah, a couple of things. First is, so, I’m originally Korean. I guess I still am Korean! My parents live in Seoul now, and I moved to the UK when I was eight. And I kind of saw the difference of levels of parent engagement between my parents, who spoke English–luckily–with other Korean parents who didn’t speak English and therefore had very limited communication with the schools.
So when I saw the difference in parent engagement and what that meant to me, and how language barriers were so common. And then when my family moved back to Korea, my mom started getting text messages from my sister’s high school, when she didn’t do her homework, when she didn’t go to school, and so on. This is ten years ago. So kind of putting those two together–
EdTech Times: Wow! I didn’t know people were doing that ten years ago.
Heejae Lim: They were in Korea, where everyone had mobile phones! So putting the two experiences together kind of made me think about parent engagement, language barriers, and text messages.
EdTech Times: That’s really cool. How long have you been around–how long has the company been around?
Heejae Lim: Talking Points officially launched last summer, so last July.
EdTech Times: Last summer. So it’s been almost a year. Tell me how you’ve come along since you first started the company.
Heejae Lim: So since last year, we’ve grown from three schools to over three hundred, which is exciting, and we’ve done that through word of mouth. This is my first conference.
EdTech Times: Wow! Everyone says that, and I’m like, “Your product must be really good if people are talking about it that much.” [laughs]
Heejae Lim: I think it’s because we’re really just meeting a need, and a growing need. So we say, you know, we’re inclusive of English- and non-English-speaking parents. And if you think about, you know, by 2030, 40% of students won’t be speaking English at home, that is nuts, right?
EdTech Times: That is nuts.
Heejae Lim: So it’s a growing need. I’m proud to say I think the usability of our product is really great. It’s intuitive, and on top of that, because we’re working actively and kind of more of a higher-touch model with teachers and schools, to increase parent engagement as an objective, and thinking about our technology tool is a way to do that. So that kind of model has been really successful.
EdTech Times: I had the chance to use your product yesterday, while you weren’t there. I have a lot of texts in Spanish on my phone right now. [laughter]
Heejae Lim: That’s funny!
EdTech Times: But it was fun!
Heejae Lim: And in terms of this school year coming, we’ve grown from a team of, I guess, one to five and still growing.
EdTech Times: So who’s on your team now; what kind of girls…
Heejae Lim: We have three engineers and one educator lead, and then one part-time advisor, more of a coaching role.
EdTech Times: Right. And what else?
Heejae Lim: Oh, we’re launching a school product. So the product has been very focused on teachers, but we realized parent engagement and communication is most successful if the whole school drops in and makes it a strategic priority. So we’re looking forward to working with those schools and districts in this upcoming academic year.
EdTech Times: That sounds really fun. I understand that you’ve been in an accelerator program. Can you tell me a little bit about what you did in the accelerator program and how this has changed where your company is going?
Heejae Lim: Yeah, it’s just starting out, so we’ve been in the accelerator program for a month. I think what’s fantastic is kind of going through the journey of starting a startup together with other companies and organizations who are part of a cohort. The mentorship and the networking opportunities that AT&T Aspire provides is really great too.
EdTech Times: I know accelerator programs are kind of a lifesaver for a lot of ed tech startups out there because otherwise you wouldn’t really know what’s next. You might have an idea, but it’s helpful to have someone who can help you, guide you, through that.
Heejae Lim: Yeah, for sure, and I think it’s really important to kind of surround yourself with people who have either seen it already or are going through the same thing to have that network of support.
I think education and education technology is a very specific industry with a lot of quirks, right? So kind of knowing the ins and outs of what that looks like is also, I think, useful.
EdTech Times: The great thing about education is we’ve all been there before; we were all students. So how do you think your experience as a student might play into your ideas and the way that you build your product for your customers?
Heejae Lim: So if I think about my experience as a student, I moved around schools a lot. So I moved from England to the UK–sorry, Korea to the UK–and then back to Korea, back to UK, and then I actually came to the US for graduate school.
So moving around and meeting a lot of people makes me really think about how can we make communities more inclusive and how do we use technology not just for learning outcomes–of course it’s for learning outcomes, that’s the end goal.
But how do we get there, and that process is really important. Hence, you know, including the ESL families who might not have a voice, low-income families who might not know the ins and outs of a US school system, and so on.
EdTech Times: Yeah, it sounds like it would be really helpful, especially for immigrant families who just came to a country where they don’t speak the language. I find that, you know, it can be a huge struggle. Especially for the teachers who want to get in touch with the parents, but it might just be frustrating on both ends.
Heejae Lim: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we met a teacher today who said 98% of her students were Hispanic.
EdTech Times: Wow, where did she-
Heejae Lim: She lived in Georgia.
EdTech Times: Georgia? I guess it’s close to Florida, so I don’t know.
Heejae Lim: I have to say the only place I’ve been in Georgia is Atlanta.
EdTech Times: And that’s not–yeah.
Heejae Lim: She was not Spanish-speaking, which seemed crazy to me. She was like, “Oh my God, this is the product that I’ve been looking for.”
EdTech Times: So how has it helped families who need to communicate with teachers? How has it helped with the teacher communication process? You were telling a story about the increasing need for tools like this because there are many parents who come from different countries.
Heejae Lim: Mmhmm, a few examples. I met a principal who runs a high school in Illinois, and there were 35 languages spoken in her school. And her school has 500 kids, so imagine the diversity. So I think a product like ours would be really useful in her school, and she was learning about it.
We’re also kind of seeing the uptake of certain languages, which is interesting to observe from an outsider, in terms of, like, influx of immigration, where do they come from. So Arabic is being used a lot more often these days in the US and Canada–the Syrian refugees and the Middle Eastern refugees coming into the US.
EdTech Times: Right, exactly. And not just Syrian refugees. There have been refugees from other places in years past.
Heejae Lim: Exactly. Yeah.
EdTech Times: So when you look for new schools to work with, do you look at statistics, data, to see who has a higher number of parents who speak English as a second language? Is there any particular method you have for finding this?
Heejae Lim: We haven’t so far because we have grown word of mouth. And it’s very much…it’s self-selective, so a lot of schools who do have a high ESL population-
EdTech Times: -seek it out.
Heejae Lim: Seek it out. And ESL teachers have, I guess, their own networks, where they share it. But to be absolutely honest with you, I think because we operate primarily through text messages, the mix of schools that we work with can range from 90% English-speaking to 70% ESL families, so it’s a really broad mix.
The value that the low-ESL-percentage schools get from [it] is they have 10 parents who they need to include in the parent-teacher communication–
EdTech Times: Right, and so they can include them, and they don’t feel left out. And there’s not something that goes under the radar.
Heejae Lim: Exactly.
EdTech Times: Yeah, that makes sense.
Heejae Lim: Exactly. Whereas the high-ESL, kind of highly diverse school–
EdTech Times: It’s like, you can’t really operate without something like that.
Heejae Lim: Exactly. Exactly.
EdTech Times: So where do you see this going in the next year or so? What do you want to work on next?
Heejae Lim: Yeah, so we really want to work on making the product really shape relationships and interactions. So the reason we started with a multimodal texting platform was so that–you know, language barriers and communication barriers and technological barriers are obviously huge.
But at the end of the day, our end goal is to drive engagement. So how do we shape our product and kind of our roadmap so that we are changing behaviors and changing perceptions and making interaction really easy but also meaningful? So around content, behaviors. So developing something along those lines would be our next year ahead.
EdTech Times: That’s cool. And how many languages do you offer?
Heejae Lim: We have ten languages currently. We’re adding many more.
EdTech Times: And you select them based on what the most common languages are?
Heejae Lim: Exactly.
EdTech Times: That’s exciting. So what languages are you adding?
Heejae Lim: We are definitely adding French. We have heard so much about French at this conference and before, mainly to do with Congolese, Sudanese populations.
EdTech Times: There are a lot of countries that speak French, more than people usually recognize.
Heejae Lim: Right, exactly. And then, you know, getting good at, getting better at other languages we currently offer. We are–I don’t want to comment on the languages, so I’m going to defer on that question.
EdTech Times: [laughter] Okay. And how would you compare your product to–I know Google Translate of course has similar software, but it’s not being used in this purpose. How would you compare your software to something like that?
Heejae Lim: Yeah, our software also builds on publicly available APIs, such as Google Translate and Bing and so on, so we select the best API available–
EdTech Times: That’s good. ‘Cause who wants to waste time reinventing the wheel?
Heejae Lim: Exactly. But then we build on top of that. We’re building our, kind of, own dictionary, so to say, which operates very much on the same principle as Google Translate, which is essentially machine learning. So we wanted to pull together the translation.
And given that there are common phrases used or education-specific lingo, we believe that we can be much better than widely used machine translation because we can be very specific about these kinds of things.
EdTech Times: That’s great. Alright, well, thank you for speaking with me today.
Heejae Lim: Thank you, Hannah.
EdTech Times: I hope you have a fun time at the last thirty minutes of this conference!
Heejae Lim: Thanks! I think I’m just gonna pack up.
EdTech Times: Drink all the water bottles.
Heejae Lim: Exactly.
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.