Passing the test: Educational company bets on tech, wins big

Gizmo, an online learning tool that helps students read bar graphs, is just one of 
ExploreLearning’s programs. Photo: Courtesy ExploreLearning Gizmo, an online learning tool that helps students read bar graphs, is just one of ExploreLearning’s programs. Photo: Courtesy ExploreLearning

How do you get kids to learn math and science? It’s a question that has vexed many a teacher, but Charlottesville-based ExploreLearning has some pretty good answers. Founded in 1999 by UVA math Ph.D. David Shuster, the company develops online learning tools that are now used around the country. The key, says EL’s Tammy Weisman, is to focus on the concepts that give kids the most trouble, and to teach them through visualizations and games. Gizmos and Reflex, the company’s two current products, are meant to offer livelier lessons than your average textbook.

One Gizmo, for example, is a game whose object is to click on a moving target. The larger goal, though, is to help students learn how to read bar graphs, with their own reaction times being what’s graphed.

Such online tools have proved popular with schools, and for EL that’s paid off with consistent double-digit growth. ExploreLearning is today a $30 million company, and was acquired in 2005 by what’s now called Cambium Learning Group. However, it’s still based near the Downtown Mall and employs close to 100 people locally (many of them software engineers and former teachers), with around 40 more employees around the country who sell the products and train schoolteachers in their use. Three of these “professional development” specialists are full-time in the Miami-Dade (Florida) school district alone.

Weisman says focusing solely on tech solutions from the time of the company’s founding—rather than seeing online learning as a supplement to textbooks and workbooks—has helped EL succeed in a challenging sector. “Our company has benefited from how digital content [has become] something that every child can be doing at their own computer,” she says. “We developed with the intention that this stuff always existed online, and it was highly interactive and visual. It could change and adapt to what kids are doing.”

For example, algorithms built into the products learn what math facts a user needs to learn, then focus the simulation or game on those facts until the student catches on. ExploreLearning’s new product, Frax, will take kids on a space adventure which, along the way, boosts their understanding of fractions—a major stumbling block for many kids. Frax is currently being tested in Albemarle County schools and will come out next year.

“We really do go deep into the content,” says Weisman. “We’re not a box of everything; we’re a collection of stuff that is really focused on the areas that kids struggle with the most in math and science.”

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