Mursal Hedayat is the co-founder of Chatterbox, a smart online language and cultural training platform for professionals powered by refugees. Hedayat is passionate about helping businesses become forces for social good and promoting diversity in business and technology. She has been recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur, as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Leaders in Tech by The Financial Times, and as a Leading Innovator Under 35 by MIT Technology Review.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Chatterbox?
My educational background is in economics and mathematics, both of which gave me strong analytical skills and an understanding of business environments. I can see the influence of thinking of problems using economic models when I’m looking at the problem of refugee talent in terms of matching supply with demand. My studies in economics at the University of Leeds shaped my work at Chatterbox in that way. I was also a Yearhead Social Change Fellow and I studied social entrepreneurship and social innovation through consultancies at a school and with a government agency. I think this work helped me to develop skills that I used to develop social enterprises today (things like user journey mapping and business modeling).
What has been the response to Chatterbox from users?
The response to Chatterbox has been extraordinary on multiple levels. In addition to linguistic skills and knowledge, learners report increased engagement in their language learning, higher retention in their courses, and greater understanding of the depth of languages to involve all their cultures. So this service that we developed, which includes live practice with native speaking refugee coaches, has been transformational for users’ learning.
Our institutional clients also report very high levels of satisfaction with the language learning service. A poignant example is a professor from the University of Westminster who recounted a story about one of her Spanish students who had always been nervous. She attended class but never put her hand up and never really asked questions or let the teacher know how much she was struggling. The professor told us that after a couple of Chatterbox sessions, the student was transformed and started participating in class and oral practice, something that she didn’t expect from her. So the stories from our institutional clients, as this example shows, are quite phenomenal.
The response from our refugee language coaches has been heartwarming. Recently, one of our Arabic teachers, a refugee from Syria who was a kindergarten teacher, was unable to work in the UK. Then she came across Chatterbox and she was immediately able to start working as a conversational practice partner. Through her work with us she has gained financial compensation and started to rebuild her professional expertise. She was even able to join a program funded by the government to get back into teaching.These stories are what we live for as an organization.
What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
There are two broad trends that I think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead. The first is flipped or blended learning. I think that the role of the teacher in the classroom is changing. Lecturing for hours and reading off powerpoints or textbooks, or having students copy things off boards, do not highlight the skills or contributions teachers can make in a classroom. Teachers are most effective when they are having dialogue with students, problem-solving with students, and coordinating students in group activities. Flipped learning enables teachers to take on more of that active participatory role in the classroom, engaging with students rather than lecturing at them. In flipped learning, the learning takes place before and after the session with the teacher.
The second broad trend is AI, specifically machine learning. We use machine learning to support learners acquire and memorize vocabulary and grammar. Chatterbox adapts instruction to individuals and their unique needs as learners.
What are future plans for Chatterbox?
We are really excited to launch several new language curricula in our current Arabic program. We are extending it from a beginner’s course to a beginner–intermediate course. We are also launching courses in Spanish, French, and Mandarin by the end of this year. In the far off future, we are really excited about bringing different kinds of learning onto the Chatterbox platform. Our tutors are experts in their native language, but they are also experts in many other areas. For instance, some of our tutors are artists, engineers, doctors, and journalists so they can share some of their professional expertise with other people. They also have insights into different markets and different industries, which can help learners pick up international industry insights and market knowledge.
Image: Courtesy Startup Without Borders