Little Rock-based education technology company ZUNI Learning Tree received a $199,856 Phase I award through the Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences’ Small Business Innovation Research program and will be used to develop an innovative tool, the CatchIt App.
ZUNI Learning Tree is an online content management, learning management, and collaboration platform started by a conglomerate of parents, teachers and administrators with a collective 50 years of experience, who work to highlight and provide solutions to the challenges they encountered within K-12 education with a focus on K-8. Today, it is available to parents, school districts and public and private school educators, and it is home to more than 100,000 vetted, free open educational resources (OER).
OERs are learning tools such as lesson ideas, videos, games, and interactive tools that are available in the public domain or have been released under a license which allows them to be freely shared and accessed. ZUNI’s current platform allows users — both students and teachers — to access thousands of OERs in only a few clicks rather than spending hours online to find them.
The DoED SBIR grant for this Phase I project will allow ZUNI to build on the success of their platform by making way for more research into OERs using the CatchIt App solution.
Tina McCord, founder and president of ZUNI Learning Tree, said that data collected in previous ZUNI early-adopter implementations from 2016-2019 showed that teachers spent 10 hours per week — or 360 hours per year — of uncompensated time outside of the school day scouring the internet for supplemental resources to support their students’ learning. While ZUNI has found a way to meet this need by providing thousands of vetted OERs at teachers’ fingertips, the next step is building on its success by personalizing the experience even more.
“This SBIR award will allow us to take the next step in automating the selection and alignment of OERs to individual students based on end-of-year standards-based assessment data. Teachers and students will be able to collaborate on each OER that the system selects to rate and review its effectiveness on learning and student achievement. Once fully developed, the CatchIt App will assist educators, students, and families with using OERs to increase student achievement and support the learning process,” McCordtold Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center.
With the way that the platform works now, students can rate and review, but the new platform will allow them to provide feedback in a more structured and systematic way.
“That student feedback [is] imperative to know what a student thinks about what we are giving them to help their growth and their learning,” McCord said. “This is really to help our educators have a new tool in that decision-making process about which resources are really having an impact.”
This is the first DoED SBIR grant awarded to an Arkansas company since 2003 and McCord said at ZUNI, they have been applying since 2016, altering their applications depending on where they were at with product development.
“The U.S. Department of Education and many states across the nation are very much trying to figure out how to best use free open educational resources; they know they’re valuable, but there really hasn’t been the data behind them or the ease of use with them,” McCord said. “It’s great that we’ve made it easier so they don’t have to spend 3 hours searching the internet, but [now] can we even take that next step — to use that data to help them see resources that could help drive their instruction.”
After attending a U.S. DoE-hosted event, McCord met Leah Potter, the co-founderand Presidentof Hats& Ladders, Inc., a New York City based educational technology company dedicated to empowering young people to learn more deeply through career exploration.
“We knew what we were doing was definitely cutting-edge and worthy of research. What I wasn’t sure of — because I’m not a grant writer; that’s not my forte — was the format to put it in that would be a winning format.”
With the help of Potter and many others, McCord was finally able to secure the grant this year, and when asked if she was surprised to receive it, she replied “No.”
Educators from Baseline and Forest Park elementary schools will work with ZUNI’s content curators Cheryl McCord and Brenda Aycock to curate new educational OERs.
Right now, the company plans to continue supporting educators and families across the nation by providing free access to the OERs linked in ZUNI. However, McCord said that when districts purchase the enterprise solution, they are better able to insure equal access to quality educational resources for all students, families, and educators
“We sell to districts [so] they can customize, add their own content, keep their analytics, all of those kinds of pieces,” McCord said. “Districts can bring their entire community together under one platform and it can link all of their other tools … with our platform, because we are pre-populated with OERs, districts can save money, they can save their teachers time, they can ignite learning movements by having everyone in the same place.”
The coronavirus has also paved the way for solutions like ZUNI to possibly come into a variety of other learning environments this coming fall.
“The need has always been there … COVID-19 made it an urgent need,” McCord said. “I think ZUNI is really going to be able to aspire a lot of families with the love of learning and I think we’re going to be able to be a tool that could bridge some of the gaps that people are concerned our students are going to experience from not being in the classroom and we can help lessen that as we get more families and educators using ZUNI.”