Curriculum Developer LearnZillion Earns Teachers’ Trust, $13m Investment

NGLC Grantee Takes On Big Players in K-12 Education Publishing Industry

September was an eventful month for NGLC grantee LearnZillion; the DC-based SaaS start-up secured $13m from several investors in its most recent round of funding.
 
I caught up with LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf to learn more.
 
“What is exciting about the funding is that we feel like a sea change has taken place. Traditional publishers have dominated the curriculum market and in some ways, what this fundraising represents is a recognition that the traditional model isn’t going to be the long-term one.”
 
What drives him is what sets LearnZillion apart: building online products that ‘make great teaching easier’ by tightly aligning curriculum, assessments and professional development resources. The company primarily focuses on a K-8 math curriculum, but has plans to expand its offerings further into English language arts, social studies, and science.
 
Westendorf underscored that making open curriculum digital-based content available for teachers opens up opportunities to support the quality education that every student deserves.
 
“Offering something more empowering and supportive to teachers is a great way for us to create social value and disrupt a market most people would agree is overdue for change and innovation.”
 
Most of the time, entrepreneurs are driving forward based on vision alone—but that vision can change, or require a change in order to be successful (as it often does when businesses pivot). I wanted to know if he’d witnessed any changes that surprised him since NGLC first invested in LearnZillion back in 2011.
 
“It’s amazing how much has changed. What has remained the same is our mission and focus on providing the education that students deserve—our DNA around championing teachers. But our strategy and the way we realize that mission and reason for being has definitely evolved.”
 
He explained that initially, the LearnZillion team had a strong hypothesis that video was really powerful; that part of the perceived technology benefit in school was video. All the while, the main problem they wanted to solve was teachers feeling that they were constantly reinventing the wheel.
 
The company remains video-centric, but sees it as the ‘heart of a complete digital curriculum to meet students’ needs’.
 
“Four years ago, I wouldn’t have said we’re going to become the world’s first cloud-based curriculum. It wasn’t clear we would move that way. We came to that by watching our users--our teachers--and by seeing how they came up with innovative pedagogical ways to use videos, both in teaching students and in training other teachers. Now videos aren't just used to give clear explanations--they're used to launch discussions, debate, and active learning experiences, which needs to be at the heart of any curriculum."
 

And that user base has grown significantly. From an initial cohort of a couple of dozen teachers, LearnZillion spread through word of mouth. They now have nearly one million K-8 teachers registered, spanning a broad range of ages, locations, and schools. And the company’s ‘Dream Team’—a highly engaged focus group, of sorts—now boasts a membership of 800+ and a very competitive application process. Educators from charter schools, as well as public, private and international schools have applied to participate and share feedback with the company and one another.
 
What began as a desire to develop the highest quality product for teachers has turned into a community-building professional development experience for teachers. As a former teacher and principal, Westendorf couldn’t be happier about that.
 
Soon, LearnZillion will host another TeachFest, the annual gathering for its Dream Team, which offers teachers a chance to share lessons learned, challenges and encouragement face-to-face. Westendorf describes TeachFest as a place where ‘fun and hard work are connected.’ It’s this focus on relationship building that continues to pave the way for LearnZillion’s growth among its target audience, which it also happens to consider among its most strategic advisors.

Eric incubated LearnZillion at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, in Washington, D.C., where he was Chief Academic Officer and principal. While he was principal, E.L. Haynes posted three-year student achievement gains of 50 percentage points in math and 26 percentage points in reading. To learn more, visit LearnZillion. Follow him on Twitter @ericwestendorf.



 

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