Interview | Eric Westendorf: How Much Can You LearnZillion?

It’s pretty genius. LearnZillion provides a new model for delivering instruction: they curate short, focused video lessons created by top teachers around the country. “We put these lessons on a platform that makes it easy for students, teachers, and parents to get what they need,” says LearnZillion Founder Eric Westendorf. “Every lesson is top quality and can be viewed over and over again on any device.” Before LearnZillion, Eric was a principal and chief academic officer at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.; the school was known locally and nationally for outstanding results and programs. Prior to that Eric taught for seven years in North Carolina, New York and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Here, Eric talks about (among other things) flipping classrooms, what he really thinks of Khan Academy, his approach to high school, what he learned from a college classmate—and how he will take $900,000 and turn it into much, much more.

Victor: Tell me about LearnZillion—how does it work and what are some examples of it in action?

Eric: Here are some of the ways it can be used today:

Teachers…

“Flip” the classroom—students do lessons for homework and spend class time on projects

Improve small group instruction during class

Provide extra tutoring outside of school

Grade homework automatically

Challenge students who are ahead of grade level

Learn how to teacher better lessons by watching video lessons taught by top teachers

Schools/Districts/Administrators…

Track student progress across the school or district

Help teachers turn student data into targeted instructional action

Support teachers in transitioning to the new Common Core standards

Highlight best practices across the district (“I wish I could clone that great 4th grade teacher.”)

Create greater parent engagement and support

Parents…

Understand what their child needs to learn

Track their child’s progress

Brush up on content/skills they may have forgotten

Help their child with homework

Better coordinate support with their child’s teacher

Victor: Okay, that’s fine—but let’s back it up somewhat: What’s the vision for the company? 

Eric: We believe that students should get what they need when they need it. Teachers should be able to personalize instruction effortlessly and focus on planning projects, debates, and labs, where students apply what they learn from their lessons. Parents should see what their child needs to know, understand where their child stands, and have the tools to help their child move forward.

Victor: Where did the idea for the company come from?

Eric: We started LearnZillion at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., where I was a principal and the Chief Academic Officer. We started it because we wanted to solve a problem. We knew what lessons our students needed but we didn’t have enough time to teach each student the right lesson. To create more time, and to share best practices across classrooms, E.L. Haynes’ teachers began to capture their expertise on screencasts. We posted them on a homemade website and coupled them with a short quiz to help us track student progress.

Soon the idea grew.

What if teachers from across the country could contribute to the site? What if new teachers could learn the new Common Core standards from the wisdom of experienced teachers? What if students could get a playlist of lessons that matched their needs? What if, over time, the video lessons got stronger and stronger, as more teachers contributed and the data showed which lessons had the biggest impact?

Victor: Why did you go the for-profit route instead of becoming a nonprofit?

Eric: Our mission is to make a significant difference in the lives of students, parents, and teachers. Interestingly, we realized we were more likely to accomplish this as a for profit, which you don’t usually hear. There were a few reasons. First, we thought it would be easier to bring a for profit to scale, reaching more students. Second, we knew that as a for-profit it would be easier to recruit the tech talent we would need to get the job done.  Finally, we had a philosophical reason. There is no means by which teachers can tap into capitalism to claim the value they create in society. We wanted to create that means.  We’re interested in a profit sharing model, where each year we reward a handful of teachers who have most significantly moved student learning.

Victor: What makes you different than Khan Academy? 

Eric: We love Khan Academy. The guy is amazing. Not only is he brilliant but he has blazed a way for an entire new model of instructional delivery. We wanted to take that—the insights that Khan has provided—and open it up. We were interested in tapping into the expertise of amazing teachers around the country; teachers who currently impact 20-30 lives a year. We were also really interested in making a site tailored to the needs of the K-12 teacher.

Victor: What sort of traction have you gotten to date?

Eric: We have close to $600K in revenues from pilot customers and close to $300K in grants. We are currently raising an angel round of funding, which will help us iterate on features that matters most to teachers.

Victor: What are your biggest challenges and/or potential roadblocks that you foresee? 

Eric: Our biggest challenge is getting the word out. The traditional district procurement process makes early traction difficult. The sales cycles are long, the decision making is complex, and you usually need a champion on the inside. That’s not a scalable sales model. We’re interested in appealing to teachers and parents who love the product because it makes their lives easier.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped inform your current approach?

Eric: I remember bumping into a college classmate named Jason Duckworth at the end of my freshman year. We were talking about summer employment. I was headed back to my hometown to work at the local summer camp. This guy was going to work on an Indian Reservation and then was going to make $10K selling ice cream in Albuquerque. I realized that he was thinking about his educational experiences totally differently. He was entrepreneurial. When my daughter was born, I told my wife that I hoped her educational experience would support her in thinking that way. Now, with LearnZillion, I can see that happening. When Zula (my daughter) goes to high school, she won’t go to learn lessons. She will go to apply lessons. She’ll participate in projects, labs, and internships. In fact, she will be able to craft experiences that help her integrate the core skills she learns on her own through tools like LearnZillion into the things she’s passionate about. That wasn’t possible when I was in high school.

Victor: What are your thoughts on the future of education?

Eric: I hope LearnZillion changes the way we do school. For students, no more sitting through one-size-fits-all lessons; they should get what they need when they need it. For teachers, no more teaching one lesson and racing around trying to address each student’s needs. They should be able to assign a playlist of lessons to their students; then focus on using class-time for projects, debates, and field trips, where students apply what they learn from their lessons. For parents, no more living in the dark with no idea of what’s going on in their child’s classroom. Parents should be able to see what their child needs to know, understand where their child stands, and use LearnZillion to help their child move forward.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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