ETC: Investing in Baltimore’s innovative, emerging technology companies and entrepreneurs Lida Zlatic is the co-founder and CEO of ClassTracks. ClassTracks is a blended learning solution for the foreign language classroom that allows teachers to offload the drilling of vocabulary so they can focus on communicative lessons. Citybizlist interviewed Lida as part of our conversation series with the staff and entrepreneurs operating out of Emerging Technology Centers (ETC), the city of Baltimore’s hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, ETC is split across two campuses and offers three major programs: the ETC Incubation program; Beehive Baltimore, a coworking space; and AccelerateBaltimore, a 13-week intensive providing up to six local startups with mentorship and seed funding. Since 1999, ETC has helped over 350 companies grow and achieve success. Today, about 85% of those companies are still in business, and 75% have remained in Baltimore. EDWIN WARFIELD: What motivated you to start the company? LIDA ZLATIC: I was a foreign language teacher. I taught Spanish in Baltimore, and I was ready to leave the classroom and I wanted to continue working in education, but I didn’t really know how, so I actually ended up going to a startup weekend event specifically for education, just kind of to see what it was about, maybe see if I can network, maybe someone could give me a job. I wasn’t planning on pitching at all. I heard about twenty pitches, all from people who had no background in education, and they were all terrible, so I thought, “Well if I’m going to be here all weekend I might as well just get in line and pitch something.” I ended up getting in line right behind Jamel [Daugherty], who’s now one of our cofounders—she was the only other teacher there and we both pitched the same exact idea, which at the time we ended up calling Flexicon: “the flexible lexicon.” Terrible name. We worked on it that weekend and our third founder Thierry [Uwilingiyimana] had a background in product development and really wanted to work on blended learning, which is what we were interested in. Obviously, at startup weekend there were like 15 people working on our team, but the three of us stayed together and decided to just dive in and start working on it. How does ClassTracks differ from other foreign language learning companies? Our big thing that we always emphasize is that students don’t learn better with technology than with a teacher. Students learn better when they have both a teacher and technology. ClassTracks helps do the things that technology is more efficient at, which in foreign language is drilling. Vocabulary and grammar drill technology can do more efficiently because it can provide feedback immediately to all of the students at the same time. It can collect data, so sometimes the teacher might ask a question—you might answer the question—but I don’t know if anyone else in the class actually knew the answer as well. What makes ClassTracks really effective is that we are not trying to then replace the communicative part of the lesson—we’re letting the teacher do that and, we’re just trying to save them time so they don’t have to spend this much time drilling. Why should a student use ClassTracks versus, say, Rosetta Stone? I have to confess that I have used Rosetta Stone. I thought I needed some review, so I got the Spanish Rosetta Stone and I mean, honestly, it works pretty well for adults. I was 20-something and had a background. I was already fluent in several other languages, and it worked pretty well for me, but that’s the point: it’s made for adults, not for kids, and kids learn differently. And so, when I actually started working at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Elementary Middle School, which is a mouthful of a name, the two years before I got there the students were taking Spanish with Rosetta Stone because Maryland requires students to either have a teacher or use Rosetta Stone. I got there, and on my first day, I gave the kids a pre-test to see “what did you learn in the last two years?” The students that knew the most knew one word. Are you finding a lot of teachers who are excited about your model? There’s definitely research to suggest that using a blended learning model—which is some learning that’s done on a computer individually and some that’s done totally offline, face-to-face—there’s some research that suggests that that is the way to do foreign language. I think that at this point we can say “just sit on a computer and try to learn a foreign language” is effective at the beginning, but will not get you to the point where you can then communicate in that language. I think there’s a lot of room for something like ClassTracks and a blended learning model, like flex models or station rotation. When we interviewed for 4.0 School’s launch program, one of the tasks at the interview was to leave and go find users and see what they say about our idea—this is before we had a product. We walked in to several schools in New York—surprisingly little security at schools in New York—and talked to teachers, talked to principals. We actually went to one school that is fully blended, so the first thing that we said is “are you interested in blended learning?” And they said, “In fact, all of our classes are fully blended learning. Look at our wonderful Math class, look at our wonderful English class.” I asked, “Do you teach foreign language?” They said “Yes, but unfortunately we can’t blend our foreign language because there’s nothing available, so we just have a teacher teaching the traditional way.” I think that was a big aha moment for us, that we’re really working on something that people want and need.
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