Up close with Nader Qaimari and Britten Follett on the 146-year-old company’s ever-brighter future.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Five generations ago, her family founded Follett Corporation. Today, Britten Follett has returned to her roots in Illinois as Senior VP of Marketing Strategy and Classroom Initiatives working alongside Nader Qaimari, President of Follett School Solutions, as the company faces a future made ever-brighter by a series of smart moves, wise acquisitions, and a passion for improved learning leveraging new and emerging technologies.

The people behind Follett truly have a unique perspective on education, as they maintain business in so many different areas of the education ecosystem, from “cradle to gray”—from K-12, to higher education, and libraries.

“We’ve always been and always will be an agnostic partner in that [education] space, not trying to push any specific agenda,” says Nader. “Having the ability to be that partner in school districts, and in higher education institutions and with everyone—we’re really able to do things that are a little different. And more importantly, things that will help further the cause of improving education globally.”

Indeed, from our discussion it is clear that Follett prides itself on its old-school values, but understands the importance of so many newer, innovative solutions now entering the education market.

Here’s more from Nader and Britten in this far-ranging chat with EdTech Digest illustrating how a company with 19th-century origins has continued to re-invent itself while holding on to a core value of continual innovation to lead right on into the 21st-century and beyond.

A little while back you acquired Fishtree and its adaptive learning platform, strengthening your position in the classroom. Why the acquisition and what’s that say about where you’re headed?

Nader: I can start and Britten, you can fill in the gaps as you usually do. At Follett we have a unique perspective on K-12 education. Most schools and districts do business with Follett in some manner. However, we’re probably most well-known in the library space.

Librarians are extremely well-educated, capable professionals who, in some cases, are not being respected and utilized effectively.

On the other side of our business, we’re selling textbooks. And we’re seeing what’s happening with textbook adoptions. We’re seeing schools moving away from textbooks entirely.

In some cases, districts are not replacing them or are continuing to use older textbooks because they are shifting to supplemental resources. In their minds, the traditional textbook is no longer meeting the needs of their students.

On the technology side, we also see the emergence of open educational resources.

We see these innovative educators starting to build their own materials, districts starting initiatives where they say:

“We’re never going to buy another textbook. We’re going to build everything ourselves.”

But there’s chaos that ensues—because you have these teachers who are thrown in to do all the vetting and curation work that once was done by textbook publishers. And it’s all a lot of work now thrown on the shoulder of people who have no time. Time that could be spent teaching, or better yet, personalizing learning.

And through all of this we see students who really don’t have equity because you have some pockets where things are going exceptionally well, and other pockets, especially in big urban areas, where students are not getting what they deserve or need.

So, with all these vantage points going to my earlier point, at Follett, we are in an interesting place.

We can help fix this. We’re not going to be the silver bullet that comes in and fixes it entirely. Nobody can. We can, however, given our size and breadth, make a significant dent. With all our customer partners, publisher partners, edtech partners, we can connect all the dots.

The idea behind acquiring Fishtree is pretty simple. Given our access to all this content—what’s in the library (school and public), OER, supplemental, teacher-created and everything else—we asked ourselves if we could utilize Destiny with enhanced artificial intelligence capability to make it instruction ready?

Can we give schools the ability to start building curriculum seamlessly, without further burdening teachers or curriculum departments? Can we bridge the gap between the library and the classroom, having the librarian becoming more of a curator, bringing all of this together to ultimately create a world where content is content and instructional tools are put on that content. Teachers are able to just go in and teach and they’re able to personalize, differentiate, do everything that they need to do to further the student’s progression. Content is aligned to standards and assessments for the teachers, with the algorithm improving with every change they make. We can and will do this.

Does that make sense, Victor?

Absolutely! Pretty exciting, too—interesting stuff.

Britten: Just to put an exclamation point on that, I think there are a lot of companies in the edtech space that are dabbling in different areas of adaptive learning, using AI in their platforms, but as Nader mentioned, none of them have the breadth and skill that we do.

And so, when we think about all the competing platforms out there, we’re in a unique position because we’re publisher agnostic, we have content from all the major publishers, we have publishers knocking on our doors looking to use our distribution channel to get their content out.

And so, while all of these competitors have a unique position because they have a neat product, we are looking to disrupt the market a bit because we are adding that AI and adaptive learning platform to an already-established company that our customers can trust.

So, they’re not taking a gamble on a startup that has a cool product. They’re investing in existing resources that they already in their school or district. They’re investing in people, and they’re investing in a company that has delivered products for a number of years now. So, there’s just a lot more stability there.

Makes sense. What about Fishtree in particular snagged your attention? Why that company—because there were probably a few different options—or maybe there wasn’t. I don’t know. You tell me.

Britten: We looked at a number different companies that had either adaptive learning capabilities as well as artificial intelligence built into the platform and based on all the features that we were looking at, Fishtree checked every box and the other companies checked drastically fewer boxes.

So, they really had all the things built that we needed. And while we certainly are planning on extending our Follett Destiny platform into the classroom, out of the box Fishtree got us much further, faster.

Okay. And anything else that was at the heart of the thing that sealed the deal and made you say, “Absolutely yes, we’re going with these guys”?

Britten: I think that we’re getting, as a result of the acquisition, Terry Nealon, Fishtree’s former CEO, and co-founder Jim Butler. They are both brilliant guys with a lot of experience in this space. They came from a large publishing house. So, they know the classroom from a content and a technology standpoint, and they know what’s broken about the current model.

Nader: Yes. The same things that frustrate us about what’s going on currently in the educational market are the same things that instigated Terry and Jim to leave big publishers and build their own business.

So, we share those philosophies. They’ve ultimately built the product that we wanted them to build without us even knowing each other all these years.

Britten: The thing that they were looking for in a partner, obviously it led to an acquisition, but they really needed our content. And so, it was a perfect marriage of content and technology and a very large existing installation base with Destiny.

Okay, a perfect marriage. Nader, you started to touch upon frustrations. In a nutshell, what would be a couple of those?

Nader: Yes. For me, it’s the move to digital.

While I respect publishers a great deal, having grown up at one myself, the original move to digital was not driven by the need to create a better experience for the student. Ultimately, it was more self-serving. For one, they wanted to eliminate the used book market and have more control over the supply chain. Second, it was a new revenue opportunity. The messaging around increased access and a better experience was more of an afterthought.

So, the digital products that were built initially really didn’t address a lot of the specific needs of students. In fact, studies showed that students comprehended less using ebooks. So, you have that problem.

Then, you have all these edtech players that came into the space.

And many of them just wanted to disrupt something. These days, everything needs to be disrupted. These players didn’t spend any time in classrooms; they didn’t know how schools worked; they didn’t know the integration points they needed to have; they didn’t know about professional development, and the worst of all, they didn’t think of the teachers and how hard it would be for them to add something else to their full plates.

So, they created all this noise and confusion and all these free products. Their motive was getting more users, because growth in users leads to more investment. It all just created more confusion.

So, in general, on both sides, whether in the innovator space or the traditional publishing house, you have these things that are being created and pushed into districts, and like a hamster running in a wheel—they’re not really creating any new value. Just expended energy.

With Destiny as your trusted flagship solution, Follett has for many years been seen as “a library company.” Certainly not anymore—especially now with the Fishtree acquisition. The company continues to evolve, now opening floodgates of content into the classroom, OERs, and much more. Talk about Destiny’s evolution—is this in line with what customers asked for?

Britten: Yes, you’re right. Destiny Library Manager is the flagship product and historically was built to be a library management system. But we’ve evolved Destiny as a product in line with the market but also in advance of the market.

So, librarians don’t always know exactly what technology products they need. And so, we’ve continued to build new features within Destiny that make their jobs easier.

And so, it’s not as though customers are sitting around saying, “Follett, you need to build these things for us.”

We’re saying, “What’s going to really redefine the role of a librarian?”

And I think that’s the vision for Destiny Collections. So, Collections is the first step in extending Destiny outside the library.

Previously, students using Destiny were searching a physical or digital library that was within the confines of the library space so to speak.

Now with Collections, it’s a tool that allows librarians and teachers to collaborate on the resources available to cover a particular topic or lesson that they’re working on.

And so, as librarians and teachers start working together using the resources that are in the physical libraries and digital library and all of the world of OER, now it’s redefining the role of the library and the librarian, and then giving teachers a world of additional resources that they’re not going to find just out searching Pinterest or searching Teachers Pay Teachers for resources to teach a lesson.

So, it’s transforming the way the library and teacher work together as a first step.

And then, as we continue to build our Destiny to be adaptive literacy environment for students to consume that content and further their reading journey, again, it’s not something customers are sitting around saying, “Follett, build this.”

We’re saying, “This is where we need to take education as a whole, and we want to lead that journey.”

Seems like there’s a perception that the library is a separate entity within a school—like the cafeteria—and it has no connection to what happens in the classroom.

Britten: That really needs to be rethought entirely, honestly.

And I think the good schools and good districts have done that, where the library is really the epicenter or the heart of the school. The reason why I say that is, you can ask any teacher who has had great results and they’ll tell you that the best predictor of student successes are their ability to read and the reading level that they’re at and their progression within that reading level.

But we seem to have lost that as a society in terms of a fundamental principal when it comes to fostering education. And we’re just trying to point that out again because librarians are teachers. They’re just like any other teacher.

They actually probably get more education than most teachers and the requirements on them. And they need to be brought into this whole conversation because kids are not reading at-level, and if they’re not reading at-level, they’re not learning anything in any other subject area.

And so, that really needs to be what we’re focusing on as we try to “fix education.” But we keep ignoring that half.

And so, yes, Destiny was a library platform—but that’s actually a badge of honor for us.

What we’re saying is that the library needs to be a part of this classroom conversation, and you have a trove of content that’s not just books. It’s databases, open educational resources. It’s curated lessons.

It’s everything, and librarians can curate it and help you find the right piece of content for the right student.

And, more importantly, they can teach them the critical thinking skills that are going to help them decipher fake news, use logic, problem solve and do all those other things.

Those are skills that you’re going to need in any subject area.

So, we’re just really bringing back a truth that somehow got lost over time, which is this library needs to really be the center of everything you do.

And the skills taught there, not the physical space, and the thought behind it need to be the center of everything that you do or all the rest of education falls apart.

I’m hearing the Follett values shining through in what you’re talking about. Okay, you’d mentioned before about the “perfect match”—

Nader: Well, the big problem we’re trying to solve right now is this tremendous amount of content. That content needs to be aligned to standards, and it needs to be given to the right student at the right moment of time.

And so, Fishtree’s technology was built under that premise. What they do is they take content and using AI, can do a really good job aligning it to standards. It still needs some manual intervention and check off at the end. But they get you, say, 80 percent there. That’s one component.

The other component is they can then take that content and based on a student’s assessments, their interests, their history, and whatever else, can start recommending the right piece of content regardless of the mode. It could be video, print, a website or an ebook. It could be anything to help them move up that next level, the next step to master a concept and then progress.

So, they offer both of those things. That’s why it’s really a perfect match because we need someone to automate what would be a really long and manual process of doing a lot of alignment and that we need technology that’s going to help facilitate getting that content to the right student at the right moment in time.

Let’s dig into AI a bit more. You’re both bullish on AI to help create more time for teachers to teach. How does that work, and ultimately help students? Also, AI can have negative connotations. How can it be seen to empower teachers and students?

Nader: Yeah. It’s quite simple. You kind of said it. We’re trying to save teachers time so they can teach. Teachers, the best part of what they do in the classroom is engage with students, have those conversations, help those kids who need help, get them interested in materials, are able to focus on students and do all that.

That’s where the teachers really shine. When we think back of our best classes in grade school, we remember the teacher – not the book or technology. We’ll never use artificial intelligence to replace any of that. We never wanted to help teach a course; we never wanted to replace anything that a teacher, in terms of value, brings to the classroom. That would never be our intention and never the direction that we want to take.

We want to level the playing field and give all teachers the opportunity to be those rock-star teachers by taking away a lot of the manual work to give them more time to engage.

So, we want to use AI and technology to enable them to have more time and more effective use of that time with students.

A wise man once said, “Technology’s a vehicle, not the engine. It just makes things more efficient.” Okay, that was you, Nader.

Nader: (Laughs)

Could you expand on that?

Nader: Did I really say that? I don’t remember saying that. (Laughs)

It might have been in a fortune cookie—I don’t where I got that.

Nader: It may have been. But no, I believe that. I totally believe that. Yes. That’s exactly what we believe. When you talk to teachers, they know this too, technology should never really be looked as a solution to solve the big problem with education. The one thing that’ll come in and just fix all our classrooms. That’s nonsense. All it’s going to do is basically give teachers a little more time so that you get rid of some manual tasks.

You automate those tasks so teachers have a little more time to really focus on learning the material. Learning happens through human interactions. Or at least that’s where it gets solidified.

You might learn a concept reading it, but it really comes to life when a teacher explains it to you, and then you can apply it to something happening in real life.

That’s when it really gets ingrained in your head and you remember it years later.

Thoughts about future trends? Tech’s role in education? The state of education today? Any other last thoughts?

Nader: Britten, anything?

Britten: I think we covered it.

Nader: The next problem we really want to solve—and we’re well-positioned to—and it ties all this together is that there’s a tremendous gap between what happens in your senior year in high school and your freshman year in college.

And there’s hardly any communication that happens between secondary and post-secondary institutions, and students go in—I think it’s 37 percent of students aren’t reading at grade level when they graduate.

In some minority groups, it gets down into the single digits where kids are reading at their grade level.

What ends up happening is, they go to college and spend the first two years retaking courses that they should’ve taken in high school. And it’s such a waste of money and such a waste of time that we want to start building solutions.

And part of what we’re doing here with MyDestiny is to really help that—but building solutions that help bridge that gap between high school and college.

And you’ll see more from us in that in the next couple of years for sure.

[Editor’s Note: In the weeks after this interview, Follett announced the acquisition of NextTier, a college and career readiness platform. For more on that acquisition, click here.]

Any top-secret projects percolating in your underground labs?

Nader: (Laughs) It’s stuff we’ve talked about, but we’re going to start putting things together because we have our higher education business.

And we have our K-12 business.

We have our public library business.

And they’re all connected. And we’re going to see a lot more connections, even within our K-12 business. It’s all going to be about building bridges between things that should be talking to each other but currently do not.

Intriguing! Would love to talk more about that in our next discussion—anything else, Britten?

Britten: I think we’re good for now!

I really appreciate the time you took today. So, thank you very much.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com