LearnZillion Going After District Curriculum Business, Aims to Compete With Big Publishers

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LearnZillion, a provider of free lessons and videos for educators, has begun selling a new commercial curriculum to school districts, in a move to compete with publishers and at least one provider of “open” educational resources.

To date, LearnZillion has focused on providing supplemental lessons, offered at no cost other than what schools pay for support services associated with the material, such as professional development.

With the change, teachers and others will still have access to all of that free English/language arts and math content. But now the company will begin offering full-course curriculum as an “enterprise” product to K-12 systems, coupling its material with professional development, print and digital delivery, and other support.

What LearnZillion has focused on until now is trying to help teachers make sense of rich, but potentially overwhelming curriculum through supplementary materials, so they can better use those resources in the classroom.

The goal, so far, has been to help educators with “the Sunday night problem,” said Eric Westendorf, the company’s CEO, in an interview.

“A teacher says, ‘I’m supposed to cover these standards in my class tomorrow, and for whatever reason, I’m not using my curriculum, maybe it’s too dense, I don’t understand it—let me find something that will work with my students that is bite-sized and high-quality.’”

LearnZillion is also known for partnering with the state of Louisiana a few years ago to create teacher-friendly, digital resources based on curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The company currently offers the lessons it helped Louisiana officials build for free, and they will remain free, Westendorf said.

The new offering that LearnZillion is marketing to school districts is based on full-course curriculum originally developed by other sources, which LearnZillion will attempt to help K-12 systems implement and enhance with scope-and-sequence supports, pacing, assessment, and other features.

The original authors of the new LearnZillion district curricula are Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education, two providers of “open” educational resources—free, shareable materials that have been taken up by many educators around the country. LearnZillion’s district-level products based on Illustrative Mathematics for grades 6-8 are already on the market, as is a separate English/language arts curriculum for grades 6-8. For the 2019-2020 academic year, LearnZillion plans to release district-focused products based on EL Education’s K-5 English/language arts curriculum, and based on Illustrative Mathematics curricula in algebra 1 and 2 and geometry, Westendorf said.

LearnZillion plans to keep adding other curricula until it has reached all core subjects across grades K-12, he said.

Encouraging Commercial Spin-offs

The Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education curricula were created on open educational resource licenses known as “CCBY,” which allows those materials to be freely shared, altered, and repurposed—including for commercial reasons, as long as the organizations that created the materials are given attribution.

Illustrative Mathematics CEO Lisa O’Masta said that LearnZillion’s and other commercial providers’ use of her materials is something that is not only allowed by the open, CCBY license—but that she actively encourages those commercial spin-offs.

Because of the open licensing, O’Masta said she has told companies “you don’t even need to talk to me to use our materials.”

If other commercial companies take the curriculum and develop new products, Illustrative Mathematics asks only that they do not stray from the sequence and other core elements of the curriculum in ways that would weaken its effectiveness, O’Masta said in an interview. From those deals, Illustrative Mathematics seeks to develop revenue sources and royalty agreements with organizations using its curriculum that will sustain its operations, so that it does not have to rely on outside funders such as philanthropies, she added.

What O’Masta said she wants is for districts to recognize the value in Illustrative Mathematics’ open-resource curriculum—and then make their own, individual decisions about the surrounding support product and services, including PD or print and digital delivery, that they want to be layered on top of it. Those products and services could be provided by LearnZillion or other organizations, she said.

The goal is for districts to “not have to compromise on curriculum,” O’Masta said. “They can eliminate that as criteria, and focus on the other, user components they want…We’re actively seeking partners that are in line with our mission.”

Shifting Partnerships

With the exception of the Louisiana materials, the resources LearnZillion has built to this point are not “open” educational materials, said Westendorf. In practical terms, however, many teachers share and remix lessons and videos as they would open resources, and LearnZillion encourages that activity, he said.

Westendorf argues LearnZillion’s district offering reflects a “new value chain that is evolving” in the K-12 market.

The first part of the value chain, he said, is the actual writers of the curriculum—such as Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education. The next part is the curriculum “provider,” like LearnZillion, which seeks to take the pure curriculum and transform it to make the curriculum easier for full districts to implement. The third part of the chain is professional development; LearnZillion is partnering with PD providers to support districts.

LearnZillion wants to compete with big commercial providers of curriculum for contracts, Westendorf said. But it is also likely to battle with Open Up Resources, which also uses curriculum by Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education, and has itself sought to wrest district contracts from commercial publishers. Open Up Resources offers curriculum for free, but charges districts for printed materials, classroom kits, and PD—arguing that districts get a cheaper and superior product to commercial alternatives.

An Open Up Resources official declined to comment on comparisons between its products and LearnZillion’s. But Open Up Resources has recently taken a number of steps to expand its footprint in K-12 districts and the options available for educators to use its curriculum. Those include a venture with Microsoft to integrate Open Up Resources’ material within Microsoft 365 for Education, a change that will give teachers and students greater power to collaborate with the material and annotate and customize it to their needs.

As those changes play out, Illustrative Mathematics’ relationship with Open Up Resources is changing.

Open Up Resources has helped Illustrative Mathematics refine various aspects of its curriculum and improve its reach in districts, O’Masta said. While Open Up Resources will continue to be a “distribution partner” for Illustrative Mathematics, the two organizations reached a “mutual decision” that they will separate their brands, in marketing and offering their products to schools, she said.

Karen Vaites of Open Up Resources said her organization will still provide Illustrative Mathematics with help, such as quality assurance for portions of its curriculum, and feedback from teachers. But the two sides have agreed to change their business relationship.

“After experiencing some educator confusion about the different options for using the curriculum, it made sense to lead with the Open Up Resources brand,” Vaites said in an e-mail. “We continue to proudly note that Illustrative Mathematics is the author of the curriculum, on our website and otherwise.”

‘Business Models That Work’

There’s been a tension among supporters of open educational resources about how, and whether, those materials should be commercialized, particularly if the content that was once billed as “open” is closed off by K-12 companies for proprietary use.

But Westendorf said LearnZillion is not taking material that was once open and sealing it from the public. Instead, it is building on top of open materials, which remain available in their original form to whoever wants them.

The LearnZillion official also said that allowing commercial products to grow out of open educational resources is critical to sustaining them. So far, LearnZillion’s funding has come from a combination of philanthropic sources, private investment, and revenue from the support it offers districts.

“For OER to be successful, there have to be business models that work and allow for an [Illustrative Mathematics] curriculum to become a curriculum that competes with a Pearson, a McGraw-Hill, a Houghton Mifflin,” Westendorf said. “So, it’s one thing to have a curriculum; it’s another thing to figure out a solution to help a district get a job done.”

Demand to Vary by District?

Going forward, there’s likely to be continued demand for a mix of open educational resources that are both individual lessons and units, and full curriculum across entire subjects and grades, said Kristina Ishmael-Peters, the public interest technology and education policy fellow at New America, a Washington think tank.

Ishmael-Peters, who served as K-12 OER fellow during the Obama administration, said she sees room for new business models to emerge around open educational resources—and that growth is a good thing.

One reason districts find bite-sized chunks of open resources appealing is that the process of selecting and organizing those resources “gets teachers involved from the very beginning” in curriculum, and gives them a deeper understanding of it, said Ishmael-Peters.

But that process can consume a lot of time and money, and districts that want to avoid those costs may seek out fully-baked, open curriculum instead, she said.

“There’s some validity to having something that’s scoped and sequenced, especially for a smaller district that may not have a lot of capacity,” Ishmael-Peters said. Open curriculum “at scale is an effort we know needs to happen, nationally.”

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