EdTech Q&A: Bob Holl, Co-Founder and President of Learning A-Z

EdTech Times spoke with Bob Holl, founder of Learning A-Z, a leading provider of Pre-K-6 literacy-focused curriculum resources. Founded in 2002, Learning A-Z believes that comprehensive literacy is the foundation to all learning. With a robust library of highly effective and flexible curriculum resources, Learning A-Z provides the tools teachers need to deliver personalized instruction for a wide range of student needs, including ELL/ESL, intervention, special education, and daily instruction. Learning A-Z’s award-winning line of products includes: Reading A-Z, Raz-Kids, Headsprout®, Science A-Z, Writing A-Z, Vocabulary A-Z, and ReadyTest A-Z.

Bob Holl Headshot (1)

Company at a Glance

Company Website: learninga-z.com

Founder: Bob Holl

Founded: 2002

Company category: E-Learning

Product stage: Market

Facebook: facebook.com/LearningAtoZ

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/company/

Company Twitter: @LearningAtoZ

What market segment is your company in?

Learning A-Z is a literacy-focused curriculum resource company. Our Web-based products support a wide variety of instruction for Pre-K-6 teachers and students as well as practice opportunities within and outside the classroom. With a blended approach that includes both digital and printed materials, we are focused on developing career and college-ready skills. In essence, we provide cost-effective, time-savings resources to help teachers to differentiate instruction while building strong literacy foundations.

Who are your core customers and how did you come across the problem you’re addressing? How did you define it, and what was your process in identifying it?

Our core customers are students, classroom teachers and administrators responsible for instruction. Our resources are currently used in over half the school districts in the U.S. and Canada, and nearly 180 countries worldwide.

As a former classroom teacher, I constantly struggled to find the right resources, and I often was forced to create my own. When I left teaching, I knew that there was an important opportunity to help deliver valuable resources that can make a teachers’ job easier and and more effective while meeting the needs of each student.

How did you develop a solution to this particular problem, and what was your process of arriving at it?

Learning A-Z started with LearningPage, a website delivering free resources to teachers. Francis Morgan and I, two entrepreneurs with years of experience in the education industry, saw that teachers wanted more and we believed that they would subscribe to a service that delivered comprehensive resources to help teachers meet the needs of every child. We recognized that developmentally appropriate leveled books for use at school and at home were key to a successful subscription-based Internet business. With the support of a handful of staff, many of whom still hold key positions with us today, we started LearningPage and Reading A-Z, our first subscription-based website that offers teachers a vast collection of research-based, differentiated reading resources and instructional tools.
Today, Learning A-Z provides seven dynamic websites that deliver hundreds of thousands of resources and other tools to students and teachers across the world.

What it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors? Do you expect to develop other differentiators in the future?

It is a combination of factors that differentiate Learning A-Z from its competitors. We have a handful of core beliefs that we feel set us apart from others in today’s marketplace. First, we believe in an expanded notion of value. Value, to us, means that a vast collection of resources, all research-based and of the highest quality, should be affordable enough for every individual classroom. In addition, everything should be easy to access, from home or in the classroom, to save teachers time. We also believe is that every child deserves an instructional path that works best for them. Our leveled readers and resources are meticulously differentiated using a proprietary algorithm to accurately determine text level difficulty on over a dozen difficulty factors. Using our text leveling tool, we can create resources of gradually increased complexity. It is also important that our websites our dynamic, meaning that we constantly strive to expand and enhance the existing resource collections with other resources that address current information and pedagogy. Lastly, we believe in teachers. If literacy is the foundation to learning, teachers are the master of instruction. We don’t tell teachers to do it our way—we help them do it their way. Whether used with a single child or an entire class, our flexible resources empower teachers to deliver engaging and effective instruction.

Please describe your product development strategy and product stage. What should we expect to see from your company in the next 12 months? Describe your potential next milestones.

We will continue to leverage technology and look for ways to deliver a broad spectrum of product that address our expanding definition of literacy. With products like Raz-Kids and Headsprout leading the way, we’re investing more in student-facing products, all online, all managed by teachers with smart assessments, reports, and dashboards. We feel these products will help save teachers time with quizzes and activities that are auto-scored and that gather data that can be reported to teachers and students and used to inform instruction. At the same time, we recognize that a blend of print and digital won’t change overnight. As such, we will continue to deliver strong instructional materials for teachers that can be printed and projected through products like our popular flagship, Reading A-Z.

We will continue to enhance our products on an ongoing basis as we identify new technologies and processes that help promote learning inside and outside the classroom. We will also extend our efforts in updating and designing websites that are user friendly for teachers and students.

Are you a disruptor, and how so? Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in the near future? Why or why not?

I would prefer to think of Learning A-Z as an enabler.

We try to stay focused on how we can help a teacher be more successful in the classroom. We listen to our users and we monitor trends. I think my years as a teacher and product developer have given me a keen sensibility for what works in the classroom and we just try to respond to instructional needs from the point of view of an educator. Historically, schools are slow to embrace something truly innovative, so we try to deliver products that fit well with all the challenges teachers face. How can we save them time? How can we help them customize their instruction? How can we help them expand the school day with easier access for their students? These are all ongoing efforts. That said, we’re not content with the status quo when it comes to learning. That’s where technology comes in. Through our platform and constant updates, we can do what many traditional publishers can’t. In the end, we’re not trying to turn the education industry on its head. Our goal is to make sure that teachers and students are effectively equipped with the right resources to make learning easier.

Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?

I have been involved in educational publishing for nearly 40 years and a good bit of my time has been spent on the product development side of the business. While Learning A-Z is really my first experience with a startup, I have been part of development on the print side of the business in the areas of reading, math, and science for a number of different publishers. As technology has emerged and created opportunities for digital products, I have been part of a number of projects that have had technology at the forefront of the development.

Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you throughout the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?

Not really. Francis Morgan has had the biggest influence on me in terms of using technology. When I was editor-in-chief for Addison Wesley Publishing, I worked closely with Francis who was the director of design and production. It was Francis who ushered in desk-top publishing at Addison-Wesley. Later, it was Francis who had the idea of delivering products over the Internet using a subscription-based model. We were a good tandem in that I brought a lot of curriculum expertise and Francis had a good eye for design. He also was a student of Internet marketing while I focused on more traditional sales approaches.

Where do you think the education technology market is going in the next five years, especially in your market segment?

I believe that while technology has been slow to catch on in many schools, it has reached a tipping point and more and more educators are seeing the value of technology for delivering personalized instruction, assessing student performance and informing instruction. There are significant obstacles in the way, of course, including teacher training, bandwidth, ever-changing technology, funding, and IT support in schools.

A good teacher will always be the most important component to student learning, but technology will only help the teacher be more effective. I believe in a blended approach to learning recognizing that there is a place for whole group, small group and individualized instruction delivered electronically. This is why Learning A-Z provides a rich array of resources for different instructional approaches and delivery formats.

What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?

It all begins with a good product that addresses a need. But that product has to be easy to implement and have demonstrated effectiveness. But, in the end, if you don’t have the sales and marketing component of the business in place and the ability to support the customer as they are introduced to and use a product, I believe success will be hard to achieve. You need all the pieces. Product alone won’t make you successful, but it is the critical ingredient to getting it all started.