Nikki Navta first became interested in technology in college, where she created her senior thesis project using a then state-of-the-art computer, the Commodore Amiga. She was a computer science and fine arts major at St. Lawrence University. For the last 20 years, she’s been working behind-the-scenes helping textbook publishers (National Geographic School Publishing, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Harcourt) incorporate digital tools and technology into K-12 curriculum and higher education. She has two teenage sons and their friends providing her with a touchstone for what’s cool—and what’s not. Among what’s cool? Zuluma—”online learning from Z to A”—where she serves as president. Here she shares her thoughts on the U.S. education system, online learning and the value of collaborative learning. “Students can get information and find answers through intelligent internet research,” says Nikki, “but they need teachers to help them assimilate, understand, and make the facts relevant to their interests and lives.”
Victor: Why did you create Zulama?
Nikki: Zulama (zulama.com) is a learning ecosystem and marketplace that currently does not exist. Students generally need help to find out what interests them, and high school is the perfect time to get a peek into possible careers, before paying college tuition or entering into the wrong career. And do you remember that legendary teacher in your high school, the one whose class everyone clamored to take before graduating? Zulama connects those inspiring teachers and their engaging courses with the students who need them.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Nikki: It’s a play on reversing the alphabet — we coined a word that represents shifting the paradigm of opportunity 180 degrees. See our tagline: online learning from Z to A
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Nikki: Zulama is an advanced online learning system that has been perfectly tuned to how the Facebook generation of students learn and collaborate. We currently focus on high school electives, but the system is built to scale for other types of learning products.
The four Zulama partners created the idea, we work with a stellar development company to get the software developed, but the beauty is that the users create the ecosystem that is and will become Zulama.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Nikki: We are first offering online elective courses that students love, parents want, and schools need. We bring high-interest, unique curricula to schools and districts at a reasonable cost. Teachers can completely customize the courses to their own localized needs.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Nikki: Two things, really — First, our integrated social networking is best-of-breed, allowing students to collaborate with their like-minded peers around the world. Second, our model for creating classes is unique—we license curricula from expert authors, teachers, and subject matter experts on a royalty basis. We provide the delivery platform, international sales and marketing, and years of experience in the education industry; authors provide outstanding curricula. As we grow, we hope to provide more and more content from celebrity authors whose expertise isn’t economically or logistically feasible for an in-person class.
There are a number of companies who provide online courses to high school students, including electives, but they aren’t as interactive, engaging, and definitively-authored as Zulama’s, nor are they delivered in the Zulama online environment.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Nikki: We started Zulama a little over a year ago, and collectively the Zulama partners (http://zulama.com/meet-our-team) have years and years of education and textbook publishing experience.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Our learning content and management system (zulama.com) is completely web based, no software or hardware to install. In the upper right-hand corner of our home page you can sign up for a free demo (really, it’s free, all we ask for is your contact information)
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Nikki: We have a variety of pricing plans for individuals, homeschoolers, schools, and districts. A pilot plan is available for schools who want to try it out first, and help shape Zulama by providing extra feedback and recommendations. Courses can be taught by Zulama teachers or by your own. We offer Summer Enrichment Programs (http://zulama.com/SummerEnrichment) and our courses are suitable for after-school programs, too. More info and enrollment forms (zulama.com/enroll) are available on our website.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Nikki: Watch a video showing a bunch of students taking a mini-version of one the Video Game Academy courses at Carnegie Mellon. It’s here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2QJEmKSInI
And it’s the first video on the page on our website: http://zulama.com/video-game-academy
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Nikki: Our first product is tailored for delivering high school electives. Future products will expand that reach. If you’re looking for the same old recycled courses, Zulama is not for you.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Nikki: I’m disappointed that the U.S. doesn’t do a better job, especially as compared to other countries. We are embarrassingly mired in a system that served our youth well for a certain time, and has evolved relatively little over time in response to the changing world. Specifically, I support block scheduling, year-round schooling, and blended learning.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Zulama?
Nikki: I was a competitive equestrian during high school, and I naively decided that being an equine veterinarian would be my following. I chose my college based on that assumption, and then dropped the idea after discovering that Bio 101 was my worst nightmare. My senior year, I discovered that architecture was a true passion, but the reality of paying for another five years of tuition kept that dream out of my reach. I sometimes think back and wonder if taking a course such as Zulama’s Geometry and Architecture course (http://zulama.com/content/geometry-and-architecture) in high school would have opened my eyes much sooner and helped guide me in a more appropriate direction.
Victor: How does Zulama address some of your concerns about education?
Nikki: The Zulama partners all believe in a collaborative learning environment, not the prevalent top-down, teacher-in-the-front of the classroom model. Students can get information and find answers through intelligent internet research, but they need teachers to help them assimilate, understand, and make the facts relevant to their interests and lives. Zulama is a great vehicle for bringing that content into a manageable format that students and educators can follow and customize to their own needs. The Zulama courses perform well in a blended environment, and the sequencing is flexible enough to accommodate various schedules such as semesters, trimesters, or, yes, year-round schooling! Developing Zulama represents my small part to shape education reform and achieve the goal of helping students become better prepared, enlightened world citizens.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Nikki: Collaboration is becoming more and more important for learning. The Zulama online application is designed to support and encourage rich experiences, with more features to come. We are creating an online community, a conversation, a media publisher, and a data publisher where teachers, scientists, researchers, and students can share their knowledge, ideas, research, and goals. Giving students the ability to connect with like-minded students not only in their school, but worldwide, opens opportunities to make meaningful connections and learn more together than what is possible individually.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Zulama? What makes you say that?
Nikki: Zulama helps schools:
– Keep pace with the future of learning.
– Stand out as a progressive leader.
– Offer cutting-edge curricula at low cost.
– Increase utilization of available teachers.
– Efficiently expand course offerings.
– Solve course scheduling conflicts.
– Prepare students for college and careers
Zulama helps students:
– Discover and pursue their passion.
– Connect with like-minded peers.
– Learn more — anytime, anywhere.
– Customize their education.
– Stand out as college applicants.
– Jump-start their career path.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com
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