My Story

Daniel Esbensen
For over 30 years, passionately developing scalable, innovative software applications to deliver powerful technology solutions.

Touch Technologies, Inc (TTI)

Touch Technologies, Inc. (TTI) was founded in 1982 by Daniel Esbensen, Allen Roske, Deborah Robinson-Varney & Debbie LaPlace to develop highly scalable software applications and to deliver powerful technology solutions for use in business and education.

Touch Technologies quickly became known for its unique and extensible software development solutions which were custom designed for Fortune 500 companies.  

Clients include Hewlett Packard, AT&T, CitiCorp, American Express, Michelin, Continental Insurance, Bankers Trust, Ben & Jerry's, Computer Associates, General Motors, General Electric, Ford, Lego Systems, Lockheed Martin, Nasa, NutriSweet, Pfizer, United Airlines, The US Airforce, Bosch, Boeing, Dupont, EDS, RJ Reynolds, U.S. Food and Drug Association among many others.


TTI is an experienced technology portfolio company specializing in software development, intellectual property and equitable exchange of ownership (equity).

As an award-winning global technology provider, TTI has been developing and deploying commercial software applications and technology solutions for over 30 years.

TTI's core capabilities lie in internet software application programming, specialized technology development, rapid prototyping, intellectual property innovation as well as data analysis and code performance optimization.

Touch Technologies employs a vast technology portfolio which serves its customers and its affiliates and subsidiary companies. 

The Story of LEARN!

By Daniel Esbensen

LEARN! is solving the Literacy Challenge

LEARN! is what we call our company that is solving children’s learning challenges with revolutionary technology, pedagogy and passion.

Our formal name is LearnOnMobile.  We will be providing a number of educational services—starting with Thor, which focuses on reading.

Thor is an innovative, nontraditional approach to literacy.  It has a proven track record of success, teaching elementary school children to read.

Thor is based on a lifetime of work by my father, Thorwald Esbensen.  He was a classroom teacher, administrator, and early developer of computer-based learning.  In the late 1970’s, his company, MicroEd, was the largest educational software company in America.

Thorwald identified the central cause of illiteracy as the inability to decode letters into words, and words into sounds.

Traditionally, reading is taught through a mix of decoding (“m-a-n” sounds like “man”) and comprehension (picture of a man). Children typically are called upon to learn these two different processes at the same time.  Often they cannot reach comprehension because they’ve failed to master decoding.

This was my dad’s breakthrough insight:  Most of reading is not a comprehension problem, it’s a decoding problem. He started working on the problem in the 1960s, and identified the solution in 1992.  He then spent the next 10 years creating and testing it.

The early results proved him right, and he continued perfecting his breakthrough technology into his elder years.   My dad passed away a few years ago.  He was 88.

His technology was discovered, understood, and re-ignited by Douglas Makepeace in 2016.  Its new name, Thor, is in honor of my dad. Douglas Makepeace is now CEO and I am CTO of this company that will be transforming learning.

I’ll tell the story of how Douglas and I got together in the most unlikely circumstances -- to revive my dad’s educational innovations. But first let me tell you what we are doing.


LEARNing in East Palo Alto, California and Hyderabad, India

We have two pilot projects in areas where the need for literacy is extreme:  One in an after-school program at a church in East Palo Alto, California and the other in an orphanage in Hyderabad, India.

We were told by the church that in East Palo Alto, on average fewer than 20 percent of elementary school children are literate, and fewer than 20 percent of their parents are literate in English. Right next to wealthy Silicon Valley, East Palo Alto residents live in poverty. At one of the larger schools in East Palo Alto, 30 percent of the children are living in cars or RVs. Others live in apartments that house many families. One of the schools has installed washers and dryers so parents can get clothes washed for the kids.

For these young people, the ability to read will be the critical skill for escaping poverty, and finding successful work. We plan to expand from East Palo Alto to other U.S. cities, like New York, where there are many neighborhoods that suffer from high rates of poverty and illiteracy.

In Hyderabad, India we have a pilot project at an orphanage with children ages 5 to 12. This is a key population we want to reach. There are millions of orphans in India who could have more of a chance in life if they learned English.

English is the predominant language in universities there, and in business, science and government.  India has five prominent local languages, yet all of them combined comprise less than ½ of 1 percent of what’s on the Internet.

In India, the ability to read English makes a huge difference in academic achievement, and the opportunity to earn money. This is true for many other countries as well.


One Vision, Many Lives

Our CEO Douglas Makepeace has a vision that, within five years, Thor will have helped 100 million people learn to read, in places and circumstances where they do not have this opportunity.  Thor offers an effective, nontraditional approach.

We anticipate partnerships with other educational companies, with governments, and with nonprofits, led by people who recognize that reading is essential and current approaches are not working. There are tens of thousands of apps that teach writing and conversation and comprehension.  Yet, the literacy rate is still terrible.

The wheels of change are slow within the public education system.  But we will be able to demonstrate Thor’s effectiveness through after-school programs, in orphanages, and in other places that are free to adopt new learning methods.

We are gathering data through standardized tests, as well as anecdotal evidence of how we are changing lives.

One of my favorite stories is from my dad’s early days of testing his program, in the early 1990’s. There was a third-grade student who had a learning disability and was reading at the 25th percentile, well below average.  After going through the program, his scores shot way up to the 95th percentile. The next year he won the school Spelling Bee. He also became an avid reader and frequent visitor to the library, consuming all different kinds of books. He went from no reading at all to reading all the time. One of those books described the Heimlich maneuver. Because he could read that book, he averted a crisis at home. His mother was choking and unable to breathe and he was able to save her life with the Heimlich maneuver.

We envision the world changing for the better as once isolated individuals become more connected with information and with one another—because they have learned to read English – the primary language of the Internet!


Pedagogy, Mastery and Mobility

The pedagogical leap in understanding how people to learn to read—first by decoding then by comprehension—was my dad’s major innovation. Integrating this pedagogy into technology was based on three additional theories:  Students should always learn at their own pace; they should master one step before moving onto the next; and they should only see correct answers.

When my dad began this work in the late 1970’s, computer-based learning was still new, and provided a way for each student to learn at their own pace, as though each had a separate teacher.  As students move through the steps, they get continual feedback about how they are doing, but they never see or hear anything “wrong”; they only see and hear correct answers – keystroke by keystroke. The system also enables something called Mastery Learning.  Mastery Learning is a general theory that means you never let students move ahead until they are 100 percent accomplished on the previous material.  In most classrooms, if students get a 70 and above, they can move on to the next step—this helps teachers who need the whole class to move in synch. But with computer-based individualized learning, each individual can achieve mastery -- at their own pace.

Today, our students can use hand-held devices for Thor, enabling them to study anytime, anyplace. If they spend 15 minutes a day, most can raise their reading level from 50%  to over 85% in one school semester.


The Unlikely Pre-History of LEARN!

The history of LEARN! is the story of intersections between people with complimentary passions.  I was a very early computer programmer when my dad was an educator.  He and I were working on parallel tracks back in the 1970s. In 1974, I developed a programming language that was designed to create courseware to help people who were dyslexic to get good grades on their spelling tests. How it worked: Students would enter their spelling words, then the computer would show them the word, cover it up, show them the word, cover it up, ask them to spell the word and as they tried to spell the word, it would look at each keystroke to either echo the character if correct or it would make a beep sound if it was incorrect. When they finished typing in the word, no matter how many missteps they made, it would always look perfect.  They never saw it wrong, they only saw it right. Looking back, I probably picked up the philosophy from my dad that students should not get reinforcement of errors.  I was actually one of his text subjects when I was 7 years old. Fast forward a decade and I was creating my own courseware. The program made a difference—dyslexic students could become good spellers.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my dad was also working on something in parallel to help with reading. It was a series of programs that worked on word and sentence decoding for young learners. My dad had a theory that if someone can spell a word, they can read the word. It makes sense:  If you can spell it you can read it.  Also, by typing on a keyboard, as opposed to saying the word, there are some tactile and multi-sensory things happening--your eyes on the keyboard, your fingers moving, your brain is processing and it becomes a more integrated learning experience.

Then in the early 1980s, I designed a more sophisticated programming language called CLAS that was designed to create computerized courseware to help my dad with online learning.  Back then, one hour of delivered courseware took 150 hours to develop..  So, it took a professional courseware developer 300 hours to produce a 2-hour course. I was looking at ways to make this process more efficient, and ultimately we got the time down to five hours of development for every hour of the course.

So my dad implemented his reading system in the CLAS programming language. It is a simple programming language to learn. It incorporated spoken voice, audio tones, font sizes and colors. He started implementing his reading system in 1992 and it took him years to do all of the recordings, and courseware development—ultimately there would be thousands of carefully crafted lessons, and over 21,000 sound files.

He quickly discovered that he would need to work outside traditional educational institutions. For his program to be adopted, first the teacher had to want to use it, then the principal had to be behind it, then it had to be allowed by the school district authorities. The layers of approval were so challenging to overcome in public schools that he decided to go to Parochial schools that had more autonomy and were more open to innovation.

The schools had a limited number of computers, so my dad and I came up with the idea that, if they agreed to use his reading software--which at the time were on Mac computers— we would donate a Learning Lab with 5 to 10 computers.  We would build the Labs and install the computers, then the teachers would have the children use them for 15 minutes a day.

We gave three classes “before” tests at the beginning of a school year, and “after” tests at the end.  The average test scores at the beginning were under 60.  They were almost 90 by the end.

My dad’s theory turned out to be correct: Students should de-code letters into correct sounds before they embark on comprehension. He had identified the problem and then developed the solution — a comprehensive self-pace system.

You start with very simple sentences:  A man ran.  This contains only four letters.  Then the list of phrases grows longer: a man ran a tan van—building on the same letter sounds.  Then the endings change: e-n, and i-n; then there are compound endings and beginnings.


The LEARN! Revival

After my dad passed away, I kept all his work. I had no specific plan to do anything with it. I knew the education business was a very hard business.  I had no interest in going into that business at all--until a fortuitous evening in Palo Alto.

We met when Douglas invited me and some friends to an event. Afterwards, I gave him a ride home. I knew little about him except that he had come here from New York.  We had a 20-minute conversation.

I tend to ask people, “What’s your passion?”  I asked Douglas.  He said he had moved to Palo Alto to reinvent education.  Most of the leaders in educational technology are next door, in Mountain View.  He told me about his great heroes, who had given so much to the world: Bach, Darwin, Edison, and later Warren Buffett.  They had all developed their powers by reading everything written in their field.

He said, “I want to let everyone in the world read like my heroes.”  

So I said, “Well, here’s what my dad wanted to do…”  I told him everything my Dad did. I told him the technology issues—like switching from Java to Javascript.  We both quickly realized that we were a perfect fit!  We started working together in January 2016.  

There were a lot of issues that could have been prohibitively expensive. We wanted my dad’s voice to sound better in the sound files. He had not used a professional recording studio, so we needed to have these 21,000 sound files improved. That could have cost a fortune -- but we lucked out. I’d recently helped out a sound engineer on another project as a pro bono favor, and he offered to help us in exchange.  That lowered the cost to less than $1000.

We also came into the project at a good time in terms of equipment.  We first decided to focus on Amazon Fire tablets. At less than $50 each, with nice resolution, colors and sound, they were very inexpensive compared to iPads and other tablets. We donated those to our initial students. Then I came across super inexpensive smart phones. They are very small – a 4 or 4/1/2 screen, with a retail price of typically $20. During Black Friday and Cyber Monday, some of these phones were as little as $5.  They were very affordable.  They are so inexpensive, because almost everyone who buys one, then buys a recurring cell-phone plan.  But, in our case, we do not need the cell-phone plan, we just need to use it as a smartphone connected to the Internet.

Now we have our pilots under way and in another six months we’ll have some good data.

Douglas wants to teach a billion people to read English better.  Whatever technically needs to happen, I’m there to work on that. But the technology is not the hard part.  The hard part is to get Thor out to those billion people.  Douglas is devoted to it.  The more he tells people and the more it’s written up, the more it reinforces that he will have an impact. He knows it’s hard and that it’s very political.  Because of my dad, a lot is already done.


Creating Community

The technology and learning methods are critical, but these cannot work without social support. Our work is, in part, a social movement--getting the buy-in and engagement of not only children but also their parents. One of our colleagues, Joy Mountford, is helping us set up a launch party where kids and parents invited. We’re giving matching T-shirts for parents and kids and creating ongoing rewards for diligence in their work. We believe that community support will be key to the success and ultimately to the global diffusion of Thor!

Over a billion people of all ages need to read English better.  We just need to let them know that they can use Thor on their Android devices, for ten cents per week.