Meet Mr. Nussbaum: The Sterling Teacher with Millions of Online Students

Meet Mr. Nussbaum: The Sterling Teacher with Millions of Online Students

Back in 2003, when Netscape was still a thing and AOL was still king, Greg Nussbaum launched an educational website.

Netscape was gobbled up and virtually disappeared and AOL is a remnant, but is sailing along with millions of page views a month.

Nussbaum, who lives in Sterling but teaches in the Fairfax County school district, said the idea for the website grew out of teaching games he had “invented” to hone mastery of specific learning skills and objectives for his own students.

“I taught second grade, and I was always making up these games to make learning and mastering basic skills more fun for the kids,” Nussbaum said. “So, I thought that if I could figure out a way to make these games comes to life digitally, I think I could sort of develop some reach. I had a vision of how I could take the ideas I had in the classroom I could spread my reach beyond the classroom.”

Nussbaum grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Hamilton College in upstate New York before returning to Pittsburgh for graduate school. He started teaching in 1999 at Fairview Elementary School and then transferred after six years to White Oaks Elementary School.

With virtually no knowledge of website creation or design, Nussbaum started simple and picked up the basics as his vision grew.

“I literally just bought myself a copy of “Html for Dummies” and I started playing around and it was fun,” Nussbaum said. “When I started, I sort of had a vision of what I wanted it to become and within a few months, I had built the website myself. It was just a place where I was communicating lessons plans to parents or I was posting pictures of things we were doing in the classroom and students’ work. It started out as something between me and the parents.”

Once that seed was planted, Nussbaum quickly got ideas for building a much more involved, interactive site.

“It wasn’t long before my vision for it grew,” he said. “So, I partnered up with someone I knew who was a JavaScript coder and he coded the first game, which was based on something I did in the classroom. Now, the kids who were playing these games with me in the classroom could play them at home. It was a great thing for them.”

Over the next 14 years, grew where it is now, with more than 6,000 pages of static and interactive educational content. Nussbaum still remembers the first game they launched online.

“It was based on something we were doing in the classroom called Cash-out,” he said. “Children could make a sale every time they performed a calculation of giving the correct change. They would have a friendly competition to see who could make the most sales in three minutes.

“We made it so different kids at different skill levels could play because the calculations they had to make were more sophisticated.”

As the internet exploded in usage, Nussbaum’s content grew at a similar pace. This second “full-time job” derailed the career path he had previously established.

“When the website got started, I was three years into a PhD at George Washington University,” he said. “I just had to finish about half of my dissertation — that was it. I stopped it cold to work on the website because I couldn’t do both.”

Nussbaum said it was a matter of following his passion, and he already envisioned the potential for growth the internet.

“We made a few of these games and slowly the word started to spread around Fairfax County and more teachers would use it and share it with their kids and it started to spread by word of mouth that way,” he said.

“At that time, there were a growing number of index-type, sites which would provide links to other websites. I contacted a lot of these sites and some of them agreed to link to my site. That’s really how the site began to spread beyond just one county when some of these big sites – Internet for Classrooms was one of the big ones at the time — got ahold of the games I was making and linked to them, described them and put them in prominent places. That’s how the site grew and multiplied over the years.”

Nussbaum is still the creative force behind the games and other content, but he hires website professionals to help execute his vision.

“I never really managed to become a very good coder,” he said. “I learned the basics. I learned enough to build a static website. To make all these games I had to hire people. I established relationships with developers early on and I had really clear visions for the types of games I wanted to make. They were all original and there wasn’t anything else like it anywhere on the internet.”

He said is used in many different ways by teachers, parents and even governments and other organizations around the world.

“The material is wide enough in scope that it can be used in almost any purpose,” Nussbaum said. “The site has 6,000 pages currently, and covers every subject for grade levels K-8. There is a huge collection of interactive activities and a huge collection of static and printable stuff.

“Teachers use them as assessments. They use them for enrichment. They use them for remediation, for special needs kids, for bonuses for kids who finish work. They use it for practice. They use it for homework.”

“I’ve had people email me that they use this for their adult learners, for people who are learning English, for people who need to continue their education. I’ve gotten emails from wardens who run penitentiaries saying this site has been perfect for their inmates who need practice in things like reading comprehension or basic math skills.”

The website is supported by a dedicated server in Utah and is paid for by third-party advertising and licensing of content.

“One of my goals as part of my original vision was to make it so anyone could access it at any time without limits and without having to log in,” he said. “That’s expensive and there has to be a way to pay the bills and that is the reason for the ads. Organizations, companies and sometimes government agencies license my content and use it in their own ways. I have licensing deal with LeapFrog tablets, and I’ve licensed sections of the site to different government agencies.”

Clara and Greg Nussbaum

Nussbaum and his wife, Clara, have 5- and 7-year-old sons. He said Clara isn’t a hands-on contributor to the site but has been very supportive and has helped the project in many other ways.

“She is very good at a lot of the areas where I am not as good, like marketing and PR,” Nussbaum said.

With the site now well established, Nussbaum said he has no regrets about the time he has invested to create one of the leading sites in the world for educational content.

“I gave up my summers, first and foremost,” he said. “I just spent 10 hours a day working on this — building content, making pages, learning more.

“Those summers were the time I spent building a lot of the static content. The biggest sections on my site are the history and geography sections. I was building that, page by page. I wanted to build huge sections on topics like the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.

“I used Flash to make things like interactive maps, like for the Revolutionary War. So, for the Battle of Saratoga or the Battle of Ticonderoga, kids can click on those points and a whole panel would drop out about those battles so they could learn the entirety of the Revolutionary War on one page. It was a unique approach to building educational content. I did this for virtually every history section.”

Using a program called Google Analytics, Nussbaum can track how many people are using his website and where they are located. That data for February of 2017 showed more than 2.5 million visitors and more than 10 million page views.

Nussbaum said one of his proudest moments was helping with a project by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“A professor from the MIT linguistics department contacted me and he was doing a three-year study in Haiti and he wanted to use my games and write the first educational software written in Haitian Creole. He wanted to see if Haitian kids would respond positively to educational games, and he certainly found that they very much did.”

Nussbaum said the decision to forsake his educational doctorate degree to pursue his passion was one of the best moves of his life.

“The PhD wasn’t really a passion of mine,” he said. “It was interesting to me but I was doing it because it seemed like a good career path.

“When I started with this, it was one of the things in my life that I knew was the right choice and I have never regretted it.”

Joseph Dill