Interview | Nicholas Tee Provides a Zane Education

Nicholas Tee’s own son and daughter have gotten a Zane Education. How about your children? With over 1,000 online video titles teaching nearly 250 topics across 12 curriculum subjects, including online testing with multiple choice quizzes, creating the Zane video library has been a huge undertaking. Nick has a background in software, education and in particular, homeschooling. He funded the efforts to compile and offer the videos entirely himself. With few companies delivering the use of any video online using a subscription model, Nick saw no out-of-the-box solutions available when it came to developing the website. The whole project has been completed by a small team of three including Nick, over a three-and-a-half year period. “Had it not been for the vision that we shared for being able to accomplish something quite remarkable in the educational market, and the benefits it was going to bring to so many children’s lives,” says Nick, “it would have been too easy to stop.” While the decision he made not to follow the path of so many other start-up companies and seek external investment made the task a lot more difficult, Nick says, “In doing so, we have ensured that we remain the master of our own destiny.”

Victor: Why did you create Zane Education?

Nicholas: Zane Education is the product of a vision I had to produce a library of subtitled video, that was available online and on-demand, to teach children of all ages and of all academic abilities, and provide them with the means to learn at their own speed – and thereby achieve their greatest potential.

It is the product of three years work that has involved the re-purposing of the content from 250 educational CD-ROM titles that were being widely used in schools and homes across the country, to enable the content to be delivered online.

We wanted to make this valuable content, that was originally developed by a handpicked team of academics to supplement the teaching of the K12 curriculum, more accessible to more people, at a much more affordable price, and more than anything, to eliminate the hassles involved with customers having to buy software that had to be installed on their PC’s or Apple Mac’s, and the worry of operating systems that were being constantly updated.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Nicholas: The name Zane is reasonably well know in educational circles as a result of the company Zane Publishing Inc., one of the leading educational software publishers during the late 1990’s. At that time I was involved in the software distribution industry, and the Zane software was one of the companies whose software we distributed. When Zane became available for sale in late 1999, it was already evident that the internet was have a significant effect on the educational software market, and so I took the opportunity to launch a bid to acquire control of the business with the intention of taking the content online. You might say that it was a classic case of “I liked the product so much that I bought the company”.

So as far as the name goes, Zane had by that time become so well established in the educational market, that it would have been rather foolish to move away from what had become a trusted and respected brand in the market.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Nicholas: What we have now created achieves four key objectives. Firstly, we are using the power of video to teach the subject. Video captures the interest and maintains the attention of most children for longer periods of time, therein making it a very effective teaching tool.

Secondly, because each video is subtitled, and those subtitles mirroring the information provided in the soundtrack, it means that children can process the information in the learning style that best suits their individual needs.

Thirdly, having the choice of seeing, hearing and/or reading each presentation means that our videos also provide a valuable teaching solution for special needs students, gifted students, those with dyslexia or reading difficulties, the disabled and even those with visual impairments.

Finally, the subtitles provide the means with which parents and teachers can tackle the increasingly common problem of poor reading literacy. Research that has been carried out in recent years has demonstrated that the use of subtitles can be used to dramatically improve a students reaching ability, irrespective of their age.

So in summarizing the benefits I would say that here we have a teaching aid that; children find fun to use, that helps improve the effectiveness of all children’s education, including those with learning difficulties and disabilities, and at the same time as learning a range of curriculum subjects, they have the opportunity to improve their reading skills.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? Do you see  others in your same market?

Nicholas: Until quite recently, education on the internet was largely all about using websites that offered text with a few graphics or photographs used to illustrate the information provided – and Wikipedia is such an example. As the popularity of YouTube has grown we have seen some educational video become available, but generally even that is limited – and what is available, is often only a demo version of a video submitted to YouTube to promote a particular website.

We are aware of a couple of websites that have been built recently that simply use links to videos on YouTube to compile a collection of relatively educationally-orientated videos in one location, and certainly sites like these have been valuable because they saved some teachers from having to trawl through YouTube themselves, to see what could be used in classroom. But generally these sites do not provide anything like the range of the subjects required in schools or homeschools, and none whatsoever provide the use of subtitles.

We also know of two companies that originate from a Television background that have been introducing previously used television footage to the online education market. However because much of this video was developed for a general non-education specific TV audience, and not to specifically fulfil curriculum requirements, its usefulness in the classroom is limited. Where our resource stands totally alone in the education field is in the area of firstly the subtitles, and secondly that it is content specifically written, developed and published to supplement the teaching of the K12 curriculum.

We consider ourselves most fortunate to have had the ability to access the original content quite cost-effectively because the cost of developing video is not an inexpensive undertaking, and the limited budgets in schools is such that it is reasonably unlikely that anyone will be able to produce this amount of video content in a manner that will be financially feasible – at least in the foreseeable future.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Nicholas: The original content used on Zane’s CD-ROM software was written and developed during the second half of the 1990’s, and the majority of the CD-ROM software was published during that time. Zane’s original concept was due in no small part to the rapid increase in homeschooling as an alternative education option. What has been particularly interesting for us to see over the last years, has been to watch what we originally envisaged as being a valuable resource for the homeschool and the classroom, now have the potential of being a solution for the many children held back in their education and personal development by the various types of physical challenges and intellectual disabilities that they suffer from.

This has been especially the case in respect of student’s poor reading skills and below average reading literacy levels that has become an increasingly topical subject in education in recent years. We have watched with a mixture of satisfaction and interest as the Availll Foundation released the results of their five year study into the link between the use of subtitled video and the ability to effectively use subtitles to increase children’s reading literacy in remarkably short periods of time.

Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?

Nicholas: We soft-launched the website (at approximately 4 months ago without the subscription system. The subscription system itself was implemented a month ago. Because of the size and complexity of the website, we have spent that entire period of time bug-fixing and looking for ways to improve the basic site. That continues as we speak. We were very encouraged to see that a significant percentage of the free users that took advantage of the soft-launch, immediately make the decision to become paying subscribers as soon as the subscription system was launched. But this really is only the start as far as we are concerned.

The next two years will see a continual addition to the site of many features to add value to what is currently on offer. There are a large number of other educational resources made available on the site, and they will continue to grow. We are already well advanced with a set of our own online encyclopedia’s, and also plan to gradually add a system that encourages children to compete amongst themselves with their quiz scores, and a lesson plan and curriculum library where parents and teachers upload and download lesson plans as required.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Nicholas: At the moment we have five membership plans available. They start at a free Basic Membership where users can access all the Maths videos, 250 quizzes and all the other education resources with the exception of the videos that are a Premium Service. The Premium Membership Services fall into a choice of Bronze, Silver or Gold Programs which enable the subscriber to select the videos they wish to use by age and grade, by subject, or all topics and subjects. A final Membership option is the Topic Taster, which is provided mainly for teachers. The Topic Taster enables them to select one particular topic of their choice, and use those videos for a 30-day period. The Topic Taster enables teachers to become familiar with all of the benefits, and then encourages them to bring our service to the attention of the school as a whole, following which we will provide a quotation for a school subscription.

With each Membership the subscriber can select a month-by-month option or an annual subscription that provides a discount. Currently our subscription prices start as low as $8.99 for a month use of a particular grade/subject going to $197 for a 12-month subscription to use all videos on the site. Hence our promotional claim that you a customer can access “12 months of video teaching for 12 curriculum subjects for a cost of less than 3 textbooks”.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Nicholas: The range of potential subscribers for our services targets is particularly broad. At one end of the spectrum there are the schools and homeschools where we believe online video can provide real benefits. At the other end of the scale are the many students that are held back, and even penalised, by their physical and mental disabilities. And right there in the middle are all those students that have issues with their reading abilities. We are also making an effort to present a case for using our services to parents who are concerned about the level of interest that their child is taking in their education. Most parents have a real interest in their child’s education, but there are only so many ways that are parent can make a decision and do something pro-active to help and encourage their child. And this really is one such situation.

Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?

Nicholas: The state of the global economy has been dictating the course of so many lives over the last 2 years, and this has certainly been the case in the field of education. Whether you are a parent, teacher, homeschooler or whatever the big B word (Budget) has been the guiding force in so many areas.

But the one issue that appears to be the same in every country at the moment, is that while technology and the Internet has so much to offer education, the majority of players (product developers etc) in the market seem to be focusing on using technology to develop the gadgets to help deliver information, the content management systems that allow you to organise the information and the tools that can be used to improve the educational infrastructures, yet few if any players seem to be looking to develop and improve upon the content itself. And the few that are, seem to all be focusing on the same core curriculum subjects.

In many ways it reminds me of the days in the mid 1990’s when educational software first started being developed for distribution on CD-ROM. Everyone was attempting to provide software to teach the three core curriculum subjects (Maths, Reading and Writing), but many of the other subjects were forgotten and overlooked. And this was where Zane Publishing really came into it’s own. It provided educational solutions for all of the other support curriculum subjects, and it appears that this is the position that Zane finds itself in again, albeit in a different format.

Although technology has moved on considerably and we now have the cell phone, the handheld devices, the iPods and iPads etc., the fact remains that we should be focusing more on providing real solutions for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of students that are being held back in their education by one difficulty or another. While many in education speak about taking steps to ensure no child is left behind, the fact of the matter is that children that suffer from poor reading abilities, reading difficulties and dyslexia, learning difficulties, visual impairments and a raft of other conditions, are being penalised and left behind, whether we like it or not. Even the parents of gifted students are being frustrated by the fact that access to the assistance that their children needs, is all about money money.

I sincerely believe that every single child has their own gifts to bring to society, whether they suffer from some disability or not. And the only way to ensure that those gifts are nurtured and developed is through giving every child the ability to learn at their own speed, and using the learning style that best suits their needs. And this is one of the reasons why we are seeing the incredible growth in the number of people turning to homeschooling, and why we are seeing some incredible success stories coming from homeschooling.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Zane Education?

Nicholas: As a child myself I was never the most interested in my own education at the time, but despite this being 35 years ago there are still a number of things that I distinctly remember, and that have come back to me while we have been developing this project. And a number of those things are still evident in my own children’s day-to-day education.

Children learn at different speeds, and each child reacts to different stimulus, whether it is a subject that interests them, or the way information is presented to them. I know that if I had been given the opportunity to learn at my own speed, and explore those subjects that either interested me more, or for which I had a greater talent, I would be a more developed individual today.

And I see this with my own son who is just now turning 14. After starting out as a homeschooler, he is now at a school where he generally spends 8 hours every day. I believe that he could be learning in 3 hours what is taking 8 hours of his time, and he is given little room to explore those areas that interest him and for which he has greater ability.

He suffers from mild dyslexia and has been using our videos over the last 4 years. It has made a huge difference to him. In addition to that, my wife and I have incorporated the use of the videos and quizzes into our parenting efforts by using them to incentivize our two children at home, and by using the quizzes for family fun times, in the same way that we use board games to spend time with them.

We will be continuing to draw on the experience of all the families of the people that form part of our team, to help shape where Zane Education goes in the future.

Victor:  How does Zane Education address some of your concerns about education?

Nicholas: I believe that what Zane Education provides online, enables all students to learn at the speed that best suits their individual needs and abilities, and encourages them to explore those subjects that interest them more.

Most importantly the use of video introduces an element of fun to the learning process. Education must be interesting and it must be fun, otherwise we are doing no more than taking the fresh young minds that have all manner of potential, and forcing them into little boxes that are shaped as we believe they ought to be, rather than what they need to enable them to become happy, satisfied and creative individuals whose responsibility it is to help maintain and grow our society, and that of future generations.

Victor: What’s your outlook on the future of education?

Nicholas: Education throughout most Western countries is in a terrible state. Many people have a general idea where they would like education to go, but a combination of not having the roadmap to take them there, and too many people in education wanting to be the chiefs rather than the Indians, is hindering more than helping.

The fact that the United States is one country yet we have 50 states each with their own curriculum is indeed indicative of the problem. We have children being told they need to go to college to have any chance in life, yet there are so many students leaving college and cannot get a job—and this is another sign of significant shortcomings in our current system.

I cannot help feeling that while we look at education as being the process of stuffing our children’s heads full of facts and figures, rather than being the responsibility of shaping future generations, we cannot prosper and grow as a society. You only need to look at a country like India and the effort and resources that their government is aggressively committing to the development of education in their country, to realize that most countries in the West are falling well short of the mark.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Zane Education?

Nicholas: When we first conceived the idea of what online subtitled videos could bring to the education market, we totally overlooked what is now possibly going to become one of the main areas of growth potential for us. The field of ESL and those millions of students around the world that are studying—as well as travelling to other countries—to Learn English as a Second Language.

Over the last 3 years we have had first hand contact with students that have travelled from other countries to learn or improve their English Language capabilities. While they are away from home, many of these students also attend school or college in the country they are visiting. We have discovered that it is quite common for those students to encounter difficulties learning particular subjects where an understanding of more technical words is vital to enable them to do well in that class. Science and Biology are just two such subjects.

What we have discovered is that in providing the use of our online videos to these students, they are able to use each video see, hear and read, how the English language is spoken in each of the subjects they are actually learning. In other words they are able to listen to the audio track and hear how each word is pronounced and spoken, they can see how each word is spelt, and they can then also develop an understanding of the context in which those words are being used.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Nicholas: In most situations where a child or adult is learning a foreign language, once they have learnt the basics, they are encouraged to practice what they have learnt in something like a simulated visit to a coffee shop where they need to order a coffee and then ask to pay the bill. Situations like this are not always the most practical. Using our videos, those ESL have the opportunity to learn and develop their English speaking skills while actually learning a range of other subjects that they are studying at school or college.

This aspect of our line videos offers huge potential across the United States where Spanish and a range of other languages are the mother tongue of so many children and adults.


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:


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