Alex Grodd knows that teaching can be isolating work--particularly for novice teachers. He’s experienced that for himself, as a middle school teacher in Atlanta and Boston. And that experience motivated Grodd, now 30, to found BetterLesson to help change things for other teachers. BetterLesson is an online community that enables teachers to share lesson plans and access proven content from effective educators. Applying the tools of social networking to education, BetterLesson helps teachers to connect to one another. It’s already gaining traction in some of the nation’s highest performing charter organizations and has even greater future potential to leverage the highest-quality instructional content and connect teachers so that they no longer feel alone. [Read more.]What’s your “elevator pitch” for BetterLesson?
BetterLesson is a platform for educators to connect and share lessons, techniques, and ideas. We are making it simple and easy for teachers to access the highest quality instructional resources in the world.
Why did you decide to create BetterLesson?
BetterLesson addresses a problem I’ve been interested in solving since my first week as a TFA corps member teaching 6th grade social studies in the Atlanta Public Schools. My principal gave me a textbook and that was it. I spent every night over the next two years trying to figure out what to teach, how to teach it, and where to access the materials to effectively deliver the instruction to my students.
This was in 2004. The Internet had been around for a decade. It seemed crazy to me that there wasn’t an easier way for me to find effective lessons.
I then moved to Boston to teach 6th grade at Roxbury and there was this painful realization that all of the content I had created over the past two years was going to move with me, that it would die on my desktop. It was this moment when I first started thinking seriously about the idea behind BetterLesson.
Roxbury Prep was an amazing school but I was the only 6th grade English teacher and I was struggling to connect with other 6th grade English teachers in the Boston area. After phonebanking a number of local middle schools, I eventually started an email list with five
other English teachers but it didn’t last long.
In the summer of 2008, I decided to jump in full time to solve this problem. I connected with Matt Lenard, Erin Osborn, and Jonathan Hendler, the BL founding team, and we started figuring out how to build a company.
BetterLesson offers FREE lessons, classroom materials, and instructional resources to teachers--where does the revenue come from to support what you do?
We offer a premium knowledge management package for school networks and organizations, where we offer custom branding, privacy permissions, detailed analytics, professional development video, and the ability to feature and curate content within their network.
What have been your biggest victories/successes to date?
For me, the successes are all about the individual stories of teachers coming to the site, connecting, not feeling alone or having to go it alone. There’s a transformational moment for teachers on our site when they connect with another teacher in the same grade-level and subject and are no longer forced to “reinvent the wheel” each evening. This has a profound effect on their personal morale and the quality of their instruction.
This fall we implemented our business model and brought on a number of customers--KIPP, Achievement First, Rocketship. The metrics over the past 8 months have been awesome. We have close to 50% user activity in all our paying customer networks. KIPP had 921 of their 2000 teachers upload content in the month of March--almost half of their teachers didn’t just log in but took the time to upload their content.
We also send out a weekly download digest e-mail so teachers can see who’s been downloading their content. I personally had 35 downloads last week from teachers across the country, which was incredibly rewarding.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Teachers are really busy, especially the best teachers. Creating the right incentives for teachers to take time to upload and create content is going to be the core challenge for a site like ours. We’re getting better at it every week.
The other really tough challenge is committing to stay focused on the teacher as the core customer. In a space like ours a lot of companies are targeting teachers, students, parents, administrators, guidance counselors, etc. We’re open to those conversations, but for us the key to our success so far is our focus on creating value for teachers.
What do you ultimately want to see BetterLesson become? How is this going to help transform public education and teachers’ work 10, 15 years from now?
We want BetterLesson to be the place where every teacher in the world comes to access the highest quality instructional content and practices. We want to replace the current content industry--which is closed-off, expensive, and anti-social-with something that is open, free, and crowd sourced. We want to save every teacher from “reinventing the wheel” and allow them to focus their energies on “innovating on the margins” and delivering engaging instruction to their students.
There is a growing consensus that teacher quality is one of the most important drivers of student achievement. There are teachers today that are really moving the needle--making 2-3 years of progress with their students in a single year. We believe that we can dramatically improve student achievement by sharing the content and practices of these high-performing teachers with every teacher in the world.
Who are some entrepreneurs and/or educators you admire and who influence your work?
Larry Berger of Wireless Generation has been a really great mentor and advisor to me. What I really admire about him is his willingness to help young entrepreneurs. I’ve learned a ton from him about all the nuances of building a company.
I also really admire Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook launched my senior year of college, so I was a very early user. Being able to see the evolution over the past 7 years has been really inspiring, in terms of their approach to product development, all of their iterations, not being afraid to take risks. The motto for Facebook’s product development process is, “Move fast and break things.” For any start-up you need to have some of that.
Another thing Facebook did early on that we’ve emulated: They didn’t try to create a new Facebook community, as a lot of the social networking sites that were in the space when they started out were doing. Instead they took existing communities and put them online. That’s also what we’ve tried to do with our network: Take an existing real world community like KIPP and create a way for people to share with their real-world social connections.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
I like to play ping-pong and I’m a pretty good juggler.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.