Zuni Learning Tree of Conway recently received a $200,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build a new feature for its namesake online educational platform.
It was the only entity in Arkansas to receive one of the 16 Phase I grants the department issued for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The grant is notoriously difficult to get, and Zuni had applied several times, according to Founder and CEO Tina McCord.
She said the company’s platform for K-12 school districts, teachers, students and their families includes digital networking, learning and content management systems plus links to thousands of vetted free and open educational resources (OERs) related to literacy, math, science, civics, coding and more.
A learning management system allows educators to make assignments, McCord said. OERs are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, assessing and research.
Zuni can be customized to include district, school and teacher resources as well. It has an interface for administrators and teachers and another interface for students and their families. Those interfaces allow users to find resources in a few clicks, McCord said. The platform can also be integrated into Google and Microsoft applications and other learning management systems, she said.
The company was founded eight years ago and had three full-time employees before receiving the grant, which has funded one new full-time position and 10 new part-time positions. Keith Lenz at the University of Central Arkansas is research director for the grant project.
But Zuni isn’t profitable yet.
Right now, free access to the platform is being offered to teachers, students and their families, who can sign up for it at zunilearningtree.com. School districts can purchase access that includes user management, site and content customization and reporting features.
The company’s business plan is to make money through corporate sponsorships. McCord said there are places in the platform where companies can display their logo and communicate with users. For example, a hospital could post health and wellness tips. Banks could post financial literacy tips. Media outlets could post links to their websites.
Zuni already has one corporate sponsor. It is Shirley Walker’s Team CPR Inc. of Little Rock. Team CPR purchased access to the platform for Academics Plus Charter Schools Inc. in Maumelle.
McCord also said Zuni is distinct because it curates content for students and their families, not just for teachers as many platforms do. It focuses on enrichment, too. The platform doesn’t just help districts adopt content that is taught to students who are tested on it, she said.
“So we don’t want our kids and families to have to wait to be told what to learn,” McCord said. “We want them to be able to explore and have some authentic learning and areas of interest. So they can go into science games, computer science. They can watch Black history videos, cultural events.”
There are also audiobooks and ebooks available for parents and kids to enjoy together. “We really want to help build that level of learning in the home and inspire our youth to imagine things they might not otherwise even have given a thought to,” McCord said. “We support our educators by saving them time. And we support our districts … when you use free open educational resources, you save [them] money.”
The new feature funded by the grant will allow the company to go a step further. It will let Zuni import school districts’ standards-based assessment data into the platform, which will then automatically generate personalized collections of resources for students and teachers, McCord said. In addition, a two-way feedback loop will allow the teachers and students to collaborate on the impact of each resource.
“We’re the first platform to do such a thing, so we’re cutting-edge in the field of OERs,” McCord said.
Phase I of the project ends in February, and it is focused on math assessment data and resources. Fifth-grade math teachers at Lakeside School District in Lake Village (Chicot County) are helping Zuni with that. Zuni is also working with two school districts in Missouri and Alabama, but they aren’t involved in the grant project.
When Phase I ends, the company will apply for a Phase II grant, which could be up to $900,000. If Zuni is successful, Phase II would begin in June.
The company will also find out on Sept. 18 what portion of the Phase I grant the Arkansas Economic Development Commission will match.