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 LearnZillion.com, 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. KhanAcademy.org 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 readinga-z.com and betterlesson.com, 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.”