The evolving classroom: Lessons go virtual
Former teachers Eric Westendorf and Alix Guerrier, co-founders of LearnZillion, say the TeachFest event is a way for award-winning teachers to spread their knowledge beyond their classrooms.
June 27th, 2012
06:08 AM ET

The evolving classroom: Lessons go virtual

by Rick Bastien, CNN

(CNN) On any given Sunday night, your child’s teacher might face this problem: How do you come up with a lesson plan for 20 or more students for an entire week when all your students are learning at a different pace?

Mike is great at reading but needs help in math. Katie excels in science but struggles with writing. They both need to pass the same state tests. And with states picking up new high standards for education, there isn’t always a precedent of how to teach. Even with textbooks and years of experience, the best teachers can struggle to find new ways of teaching complex subjects, especially when each student learns differently.

This is a problem that Eric Westendorf and Alix Guerrier are determined to solve. The two former teachers co-founded, a social venture that provides free lessons for students, all in organized YouTube-style videos.

The formula is simple: Videos have to be about five minutes long, illustrated by hand and voiced by a real teacher. The product simulates a real-classroom effect —it’s like your favorite teacher drawing the math lesson on the chalkboard, except that you can play it over and over if you don’t quite understand it. At the end, you take a brief quiz. But as it turns out, this resource is mostly utilized by teachers looking for new ways to teach the topics with which their students are struggling .

In other words, teachers need help from other teachers. Jonathan Krasnov, Learnzillion’s publicist notes, “Even great teachers don’t teach everything great.”

Westendorf was the principal of E.L. Haynes, a charter school in Washington, D.C., when he came up with the idea.

He told CNN, “We started using it because we came across the Khan Academy site.  We liked this idea of instruction being captured and delivered to students. Then we said, ‘What if it could be based on the Common Core Standards,  [which mostU.S.states have now adopted] , so that it is aligned with what students need? … It was out of these ‘what ifs’ that I came up with a prototype.”

Westendorf plans for LearnZillion to eventually make profit by selling services to school districts, such as lessons tailored to the needs of the school. But he says that the lessons posted online will always be free.

CNN attended LearnZillion’s first TeachFest , recently held in Atlanta. Westendorf and Guerrier recruited more than 100 “Dream Team” teachers to help build up their database of lessons. The teachers get paid $100 for each lesson created. But the chance to reach more students is the biggest reward for many teachers to whom CNN talked.

Mike Lewis, a fifth-grade teacher from Cohasset, Massachusetts, says his interest in the “ability to replicate yourself and your lessons using video” is what led him to LearnZillion. The slogan for TeachFest was “scale your impact.”

The idea is not new. has thousands of lessons, and unlike LearnZillion, Khan Academy is a nonprofit. Both receive funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation donated $300,000 just for TeachFest.

Even Bill Gates acknowledges that the idea of the virtual classroom hasn’t quite gone viral yet. During last month’s Innovation in Education summit, the Microsoft CEO noted the example of Edx, a  partnership between The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University that provides free online courses.

“The actual usage of things like MIT open courseware is mind-blowing for one reason: Basically no one uses it. … There’s no market for people at home at night saying, ‘How do those wave equations work?’ ”

He pointed out that online lessons won’t dramatically change how schools teach, noting that “there have been as many failures as successes.”

Gates seems to understand it takes time for the technology to evolve.  An idea like Khan Academy begins to flourish, and LearnZillion tweaks and tailors the formula to direct it at teachers.

When asked about the successes and failures the Gates Foundation has sponsored, a spokeswoman told CNN in an e-mail, “We are looking for early-stage innovators, and expect that some will succeed and others won’t. When innovations produce great results, they should get plenty of traction to be sustainable over the long run. When some of our investments don’t make it, we’re committed to learning from them and sharing the knowledge broadly.”

CNN education contributor Dr.Steve Perry says that online resources for students and teachers are critical.

“We have passed the place where the local third-grade teacher is equipped with enough knowledge or skills to support her 24 students. She needs to be able to meet their diverse needs.”

He explained why not every classroom has welcomed this kind of technology.

“There are lots of reasons that the Internet has been limited in our brick and mortar schools. Few are good. Most have to do with the threat that they present to the way in which organized labor has established who can and can't be a ‘teacher.’ Sal Khan has four million distinct students a month, yet he couldn't be a teacher in an American public school because he's not a 'certified teacher.' ”  Khan was a hedge fund manager before he started Khan Academy.

Jacquelyn Vivalo is dedicated to using technology in her classroom.

She teaches fifth grade at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School, and her students use a variety of online programs on their tablets in class. She says online courses are key for her students because they’re still learning English. Students  can review LearnZillion lessons to ensure they understand the language and the content, which helps English language learners. Vivalo might be ahead of the curve, technologically. She says she also uses programs such as and, but she became interested in creating lessons for LearnZillion because of the focus on state education standards.

Vivalo sees all this as part of a greater trend, a move toward more classroom integration with lessons available on the Web.

“Teachers and administrators need to be exposed to it and trained with it and have time to get comfortable with it. Once that happens, you can use technology to cater to your students’ needs.”

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soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. jr

    Being able to capture education on videos with websites like LearnZillion, Khan Academy, and really benefits students.

    July 1, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  2. adf

    dude I use mit courseware all the time...

    June 29, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  3. 145lewis

    The heart of what drew me to the Learnzillion project was the ability to bring high-quality instruction to a wider audience. The TeachFest conference was wildly successful in part because it enabled our community to engage with each other about the components of great teaching. I left with a greater perspective of student, teacher, and district needs far beyond my own.

    I would like to take a moment to address the comment made by Dr. Steve Perry regarding why not every classroom welcomes this technology. Dr. Perry atributes most of the reasons to technology's threat to organized labor. In my experience, I have never seen a teacher's recalcitrance hinge upon union issues. The only reasons I've ever heard teacher's reject new methodologies or tools is because of the way they have been implemented.

    For example, as a teacher my students are expected to achieve proficiency with the standards. "Well, I taught it so it's their fault if they didn't learn it," is not an acceptable excuse. Ever. If our students don't understand content, it is our responsibility to deliver it in a manner that meets the learning needs of every single student. Which, as you point out, is a tall order.

    Therefore, similar expectations lie in the hands of administration to responsibly implement new initiatives. "Well, we purchased the materials/services, I don't know why they're not being used," is equally unacceptable. What really really need to do is shift the story from why-it's-not-working to how-do-we-make-it-work. Every time a program has been evaluated by teachers and administration, training has been provided, and implementation is overseen; it has worked out. When programs are dumped on us and we're told to "make it work." It doesn't. And I have a hard time faulting the unionized labor for that.

    When I checked out Kahn Academy around its inception my first thought was, "That's a great idea but it's just lecture." Some which went on for 30-45 minutes. When I stumbled on Learnzillion, my first thought was, "Now this is what I'm talking about." Lessons were clear and focused, instruction was built upon visual representations of the concept, and measures of understanding were direct.

    I'm probably in the neighborhood of 15 hours for my first lesson and I haven't even begun to record it. I know it's not just about sharing knowledge. Anybody can do that. I wouldn't be able craft the type of lesson that's going to meet the needs of my students without my training. Children don't just deserve an explanation, they deserve the very best explanation.

    And that's what you'll see from Learnzillion, trained teachers crafting the very best of the best lessons. Once the new site is up and running August 28th, I'm going to bet that Dr. Perry will have a difficult time finding any resistance. Especially if the focus from administration is on, "How do we make this work?"

    June 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm |