Meet the Founder

ZNotes: the online note sharing platform levelling the educational playing field

Leah Montebello
January 25, 2024

Zubair Junjunia is the founder of ZNotes, the community-led learning platform that has reached over 3 million students globally. With a goal to “tackle inequalities in education”, Junjunia was recently awarded The Diana Award for going ‘above and beyond’ with this effort. It is one of the highest accolades a young person can achieve for social action, and Simpatica sat down with Zubair to discuss his founder story.

Where did the idea for ZNotes come from?

Zubair: I’m Pakistani by birth, but I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. During that time, I went to a British International School and got my first set of GCSEs. There it dawned on me that so many students have to do the exact same set of exams with such a disparity of resources available. This was very, very clear to me because the neighbouring school didn’t have access to the same textbooks; you could be doing the same exams and not have a level playing field. I was 16 and I thought, what can I do? I just started messing around with websites and put together a WordPress blog and wrote up some revision notes and published them. I told a few friends about it and it kind of grew from there, spiralling into more and more people coming to the site.

It dawned on me that so many students have to do the exact same set of exams with such a disparity of resources available.

The pivotal moment was when a group of students reached out to me and asked if there were more subjects available and asked if they could start to contribute. So it went from a solo project to something that more people were starting to contribute towards. Fast forward seven years and we have transformed into a community-led social enterprise with a foundational arm: from concise, exam-oriented revision notes, to online classes and podcasts. It’s our mission to end educational inequality for young people and we do this by providing high-quality educational resources.

ZNotes has had 100s of contributors to support it. We now also have a team and have had a reach of around 3 million people and 21 million hits. We also have a Youtube channel with 8k subscribers and a Discord server with around 10k users.

A lot of people see the disparity in the education system, and just say that’s how things are and don’t actively do anything to change it. Where did the desire to make a difference come from?

Zubair: I think it comes down to my upbringing because my parents were always helping me to be conscious of the privilege that I had from the schools I went to. Equally, my parents worked in the Islamic Development Bank, so even at a young age I knew about development goals and had an understanding of how meaningful change can happen. I was able to attend my school through scholarships and I could really appreciate where I was. I felt a sense of responsibility and duty.

What makes ZNotes different, especially with the explosion of online resources in the past year?

Zubair: I think something that we started off with and really stuck with is our slogan, for students, by students. We have always created content and empowered students to be the content creators. Everyone in the process, from quality assurance to publishing to running social media, is a student. And I was as well until very recently! So because the core business is still student-led, this puts us in a very different position from other free learning platforms and even the premium ones. It also makes it syllabus-specific and exam-orientated.

We have always created content and empowered students to be the content creators.

We have also always been open, accessible, and free to the student community rather than a top-down approach; I think this means we connect better with student groups and students come to us without being forced to come to us by schools or parents. It almost feels like an underground movement, so I think that’s the nuance we’re trying to keep.


Above: ZNotes wins first place in the Exposure Startup Contest organized by the Manchester University

Do you think providing students with revision notes encourages laziness?

Zubair: It’s a great question and it’s something that I struggle with myself; in many ways copying and regurgitating notes is the opposite of what I want to do. The way I explain it to myself is that we need to go through the educational system as it’s currently set up in order to make a change. Ultimately, being assessed in a 2-3 hour exam period is not realistic: how many times during your career are you told to sit down in front of a sheet of paper and asked to work? It’s not realistic and doesn’t capture the sensitivities and nuances of a subject. However, we have to follow this way of working to get students to university and to their futures. So, my proposition is that ZNotes are accelerating students to do well in their exams and our site is the fastest way to go from zero resources to something that means you can sit an exam.

There is the challenge that some students will come for the last few days and cram it all in, but the Discord platform is the middle ground, and students will take the notes and pull them apart and discuss them. I think the notes need to exist and I also think they should be used as a springboard. We are trying to build a platform where we have students’ notes added to other students’ notes, and if a student doesn’t understand one part, they can follow another section and get even more student-made content. We are aware of the overall challenge and are trying to mitigate it.

What would the ideal education system look like for you?

Zubair: I don’t see assessment to be a big part of the future – as we become more technology-focused moving forward. I think teachers should become more like mentors and there should be more continuous assessment. It would be less about the assessment itself and more about where the student has progressed with their learning. There should also be more freedom with what you learn. At the moment, we are so bound by the syllabus that the curriculum can only be delivered in a scalable way through notes. I see us moving more towards core skills being assessed, like critical thinking and teamwork.

At the moment, we are so bound by the syllabus that the curriculum can only be delivered in a scalable way through notes.

I also think we are heading in a direction with a lot of machine learning skills and there is some really cool development in the essay marking space. For example, they are using millions of data points to understand each individual student and are using different references to get to grips with the complexities and differences within sentence structures.

I think when we get to a point where the education system accepts technology is here to stay, and we start to develop further tools, not to put people into boxes but support different skills, then we will finally be heading towards a better education system.


Above: The ZNotes study guides

How has Covid impacted ZNotes?

Zubair: We actually faced quite a big drop over the last two years because we normally have natural traffic around May and June time. We had none of that last year because of exams being scrapped. However, what we have had is time to reset and we’ve been doing some redevelopment of the site and thinking about different offerings, like our live classes. Before the pandemic, there were a lot of fringe things that we always wanted to do, and lockdown actually gave us more space to do it.

More generally, Covid has given us a reset button and forced us to use technology in education. Every school and everyone who didn’t want to use it in learning before, have had to take it on. Some have done better than others and moving forward, we can’t go back to the way things were before. We need to learn from it.

What is great is that we are thinking about accessibility so much more: for example, children that can’t travel every day. We are also thinking of new ways to interact with children (e.g. transcription on the bottom of their screen for children who struggle with concentration). Equally, with tech, we need to make sure we aren’t losing the magic of bringing people together in real life!

What’s the ultimate goal for ZNotes?

Zubair: My personal ambition is for it to grow. In my view, 3 million is still a small number to reach in terms of the global population, so my question is how do we get beyond this. With ZNotes, we’ve been able to prove is that this community-led model is functional, effective, and low resource-intensive. It doesn’t require school, teacher training, or the development of a curriculum. You are using people who are learning to be teachers as well.

With ZNotes, we’ve been able to prove is that this community-led model is functional, effective, and low resource-intensive.

What I would like to do is take this model and apply it to parts of the world where the education model is not as developed. Ideally, we would work directly with NGOs and governments and say “here’s our solution in a box, let’s go on the ground and implement it”. This would mean we can reach as many students as possible and make high-quality education accessible; this comes with a challenge for people who think that rural and underdeveloped countries don’t have technology. These countries aren’t as disconnected as people think and we have been able to connect with them before. Now we just need to make those connections meaningful.

That’s the hope and dream.

Contact Us

Drop us a line and we'll be in touch today
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.