The next time you see college students using their smartphone while eating or standing in line, don’t assume they’re surfing the internet or checking social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Like many of their contemporaries in countries worldwide, they might be studying for their next exam using an application created by a young, rapidly growing Coralville company.
Higher Learning Technologies, with headquarters in the University of Iowa BioVentures Center, is transforming the learning process for college and post-graduate students as well as professionals pursuing continuing education.
The company has about 50 full-time equivalent employees, including some who work remotely from other locations throughout the country.
Alec Whitters, HLT co-founder, president and CEO, was in his final year of UI Dental School when he became frustrated using flash cards to prepare for exams.
“He couldn’t use his smartphone for any of his studies,” said Adam Keune, another HLT co-founder and its chief business development officer. “He called up the publishing companies and they told him mobile learning was a bad idea. They couldn’t see students wanting to use their smartphones for school.”
Keune, Whitters and another close friend, Ben O’Connor, founded HLT in 2012.
“We did it part time for a while, after class or work,” Keune said. “Eventually we felt that we needed to do it full time. Alex left school, I left my job and we started building it out.”
From an initial study app for dental students — eliminating the need to carry boxes of flash cards — the company developed more than 70 mobile study products.
In February, HLT acquired mobile learning app developer gWhiz, a competitor founded in 2008. With the acquisition, HLT absorbed gWhiz’s existing catalog of more than 150 learning applications and publishing agreements.
The mobile studying products include course-specific study tools from primary school through college prep as well as professional career and exam training products such as veterinary medicine, real estate, engineering and architecture.
gWhiz’s educational app suite consists of more than 200 apps that have been downloaded by over six million people. The acquisition also includes numerous partnerships with some of the largest publishing and education companies around the world.
“Our platform is used by millions of learners as they successfully master the concepts and apply their knowledge through mobile-first test preparation,” Keune said. “Acquiring the gWhiz product line accelerates our rapid growth.”
Rather than converting existing material to a mobile-compatible, digital format, HLT’s apps are designed and customized for mobile devices. The company’s mobile study tools also help users diagnose problem areas and develop an action plan to stay organized.
“A lot of students pull their phone out and spend about 15 or 20 minutes using an app to study,” Keune said. “They can obviously use it for longer periods, but that is typically how they use it.
“They might be waiting in line or lunch or riding a bus between classes. Using a smartphone or other mobile device fits their lifestyle.”
Over the last 15 months, HLT has launched nearly a dozen new mobile learning tools in test preparation and clinical reference areas including the MCAT examination for admission to medical college.
Keune said the company’s flagship product, the nursing licensure exam app NCLEX Mastery, has been downloaded more than 1.3 million times and remains one of the top grossing mobile apps in education.
The NCLEX Mastery app received the Mobile App of the Year Award last month at the Prometheus Awards hosted by the Technology Association of Iowa.
Keune said the founders of HLT see the use of mobile study apps helping to improve education in many developing countries where there may not be running water.
Keune said the company is focused on how it can make its existing product platform more versatile, adding mobile apps for continuing education, corporate training and professional licensure and expanding the use of its products in the classroom.
“Some apps are already being used in the classroom, although that’s not what it’s intended for,” he said. “We are listening to people using our apps to learn what they want and figuring out how we can build it.
“We also are talking with some very large partners who will help us move to the next level.”
HLT generates revenue when users purchase an app after trying a portion of the product without charge. University of Iowa students are able to use the company’s apps without charge, owing to the strong support the company has received from the UI.
“We receive a lot of great feedback from students and faculty,” Keune said. “These students have a lot of good ideas. That has really helped us as we push these products forward.”
HLT has received funding from a number of sources since its founding. In 2014, the company raised $5.5 million in an investment round led by New York angel investors.
Keune said HLT is making progress on another round of investment. Taking the company public may be part of the future, he said.
by George C. Ford, Gazette “Garage Band” is a recurring feature that focuses on start-ups in the Corridor.