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Higher Learning Technologies is putting textbooks into apps

Textbooks are big, expensive, and in some cases go out of date almost as fast as they’re published. The Coralville company Higher Learning Technologies is looking to make textbooks into more effective tools for education by converting them into mobile learning apps.

How Higher Learning Technology works

HLT’s Alec Whitters doesn’t seem like your typical startup founder. In 2012, Whitters was one year away from becoming a dentist, when he became frustrated that he couldn’t use his smart phone for any of his school work. He tried calling textbook companies, suggesting app versions of their books. Rather than listening to Whitters’ ideas, they ignored him.

Around the same time, Whitters was in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, when he noticed how prevalent smartphones were in the country.

“Almost everyone had a smartphone, even if they didn’t have running water,” Whitters said. “It made us realize this could be a global opportunity that can have an impact on millions of people’s lives.”

Whitters left medical school, feeling he could have a bigger impact on the world focusing on turning smartphones into teaching tools.

Whitters started with what he knew, working on an application to help dental students study for their licensing exam. Then HLT started working on apps for nursing and medical exams, then the GRE and GMAT. From test prep, HLT next expanded into reference, converting textbooks into apps.

The apps include practices questions and tests to let students track their progress and they make it easy to search for relevant material. As an added bonus, they can be updated dynamically, so a big change in a field can’t render the apps irrelevant the way it can for paper textbooks.

“There’s a one-way flow of info with a textbook, you get the info out,” Whitters said. “Our apps aren’t one-size fits all. This adapts to you.”

Currently 90 percent of graduating nurses and dentists use HLT products. The company has developed 38 apps, with 25 more in development. Whitters’ parents weren’t initially thrilled when he left medical school so close to completion, but his company’s materials are now being used by students in every country in the world.

Don’t underestimate the potential of your product

Higher Learning Technologies started with one app for a very small target market. If schools and medical students hadn’t embraced the technology, HLT might have met a quick end.

But it’s important to remember the textbooks and test prep material also manage to survive with a small target market.

“Everyone told us ‘There are only 7,000 dentists who graduate every year, it’s not a big enough market,’” Whitters’ said. “But we started with what we knew. Now we’re looking to expand into professional development and the classroom over the next four to five years. Build, measure and learn. If you find something that can scale, you can expand from there.”

The next chapter

Higher Learning Technologies plans to launch 25 new titles in 2017, expanding into test preps for CPAs.

“Test prep is continuing to grow for us, it’s our core at this point” Whitters said. “But we’re starting to see a lot of success in our reference products. We’re going to continue focusing on growing test prep, moving into high stakes testing, then we’ll keep experimenting from there.”