Follett Corporation, in a move that strengthens its position in educational technology for the classroom, has acquired Fishtree and its adaptive learning platform. Fishtree is a relatively new company in the rapidly expanding sector of educational technology platforms for online learning and markets its platform to K-12 schools and districts, higher educational institutions, and the corporate sector. Fishtree distinguishes its products from other players in the increasingly crowded educational technology sector through incorporating machine learning to curate and align all resources and deliver personalized experiences for every student, while reducing the time required for teachers to prepare and deliver courses. The Fishtree platform has some characteristics of a learning management system, but it is an adaptive learning platform powered by machine learning, social tools, and analytics and comes pre-populated with a large repository of educational resources.
The Fishtree platform leverages a growing trend in PreK-12 schools for teachers to increasingly rely on Open Educational Resources (OERs) rather than textbooks. The rising costs of textbooks has become a major factor in the development of alternative methods of providing content in courses across all educational sectors, including primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. Online learning platforms incorporating open learning resources as well as all other sources, have attracted increasing interest in tools that can provide alternatives to traditional textbooks and ease the burden on teachers in creating lesson plans, grading, and reporting. This allows personalized learning to scale. The acquisition of Fishtree places Follett in a sector of educational technology with rapidly growing interest and is consistent with its strategies of providing technology and content products that address an expanding scope of involvement in PreK-12 schools and districts.
An Adaptive Learning Platform
The mobile-friendly Fishtree adaptive learning platform enables teachers and other educational professionals to create courses on any topic, populated with OERs or even customdeveloped content. The platform includes tools to create lesson plans, discover relevant content resources, align to standards, create and grade tests, and track student performance. The platform includes filters to search content resources by grade or reading level as well as topical terms.
The Fishtree platform comes populated with a large set of OERs that can be readily deployed into courses. The product can also import content from textbooks or existing courses and continuously index real-time content sources daily.
Using Artificial Intelligence to Drive Personalized Learning
The platform uses advanced analytics and machine learning to guide students through course material based on performance and other data points, such as interests, content usage and efficacy, and user interactions. Based on these technologies, the Fishtree platform delivers personalized learning experiences for each student unlike a static course, which has a single path of navigation. Fishtree allows teachers to set customized learning outcomes according to the needs of each student. The platform continuously collects data as students work though their curriculum and uses that data to make recommendations or selections of material in each subsequent activity.
Since the platform gathers extensive information regarding each student, several layers of security have been implemented to protect sensitive data. The platform has been designed to ensure student privacy and to comply with regulatory frameworks such as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).
Designed for Integration
Fishtree has designed its platform to be easily integrated into other components of a school's educational infrastructure. It has developed a flexible set of APIs for interoperability with learning management systems or student information systems and supports the industry-standard LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) specifications.
The Fishtree business model relies on revenue from subscription fees paid for access to the platform. The company charges fees of about $10 annually per student. The subscription fees in most cases should offer considerable savings compared to purchasing or licensing textbooks for each student or reducing the effort required to curate and align resources in the classroom. Follett Expands Its Reach
Following the acquisition of Fishtree, Follett will integrate this adaptive learning platform into its Destiny library management system. Destiny is well established as the dominant automation system among K-12 schools in the United States, with implementations in over 70,000 US public school libraries. While Follett School Solutions originally specialized in automation tools for school libraries, for the last decade or so, it has also invested in technologies and content addressing the broader needs of schools and districts. The company has produced versions of Destiny, for example, configured to manage textbooks, equipment, and other educational assets, even when not directly managed by the school library.
In 2010, Follett acquired X2 Development Corporation and its Aspen Student Information System, providing an inroad to the school district administrative systems sector. Aspen provides a platform to consolidate all information about students, ranging from basic contact and demographic information to class schedules, events, grades, health records, or other related data elements. As a solution provider, Follett will meet a growing market demand for integrated solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders in school districts and libraries.
Follett's Partnership with Lumen Learning
Follett has other areas of involvement with courseware platforms and OERs. In April 2017, Follet Higher Education entered into a distribution agreement with Lumen Learning. Lumen Learning develops course content, which is released as OERs. The arrangement with Lumen enabled Follett Higher Education to deepen its involvement with OERs in addition to its extensive offering of traditional textbooks and other content products. Follett Higher Education provides content and courseware materials to over 1,200 colleges and universities. Following this agreement, Follett Higher Education integrated Lumen's OER-based courseware through its included program using its Follett Discover platform. Students pay a support fee for the Lumen platform and content, ranging from $10 through $25, a significant savings compared to purchasing traditional print or electronic textbooks.
Fishtree was founded in Dublin, Ireland by Terry Nealon and Jim Butler in 2012 as an educational technology company. Nealon served as the company's Chief Executive Officer and Chair, and Butler served as its Chief Technology Officer. Fishtree has grown from a startup to a mid-sized company of about 15 personnel at the time of its acquisition by Follett. The company is headquartered in Arlington, VA with its development facilities in Dublin.
The founders of the company have extensive backgrounds in educational publishing and technology. Prior to founding Fishtree, Nealon served as Executive Vice President and General Manager of international markets at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Butler was Senior Vice President, Platforms with Riverdeep and Senior Vice President, Technology Product Development at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Both exited Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
Leading up to its acquisition by Follett, Fishtree had attracted significant investments to fund its product development and marketing strategies. In 2015, for example, the company secured $3 million in venture funding to further develop its technology and expand into the US market. Investors included New Markets Venture Partners, Recruit Holdings based in Tokyo, Japan, Educational Credit Management Corporation, and JISR Venture Partners in Dubai and raised $5 million more with current investors and Jefferson Education.
Fishtree formed multiple partnerships to acquire content resources to populate its platform and to integrate with learning management systems. Fishtree entered into a partnership with Blackboard Learning in May 2016 to integrate its platform with the Blackboard learning management system using the LTI. Fishtree also works with Instructure for integration with its Canvas learning management system. In April 2016, Fishtree entered into a collaboration with Learnosity, a provider of assessment technology, to integrate its assessment tools and metrics into its adaptive learning platform.
Nealon will join Follett to lead the initiative to incorporate the technologies developed by Fishtree into the Follett product portfolio, including its integration with Destiny.
The acquisition of Fishtree represents a major opportunity for the expansion of its technology into the US school market. The Fishtree platform will be made available as an optional added-cost extension of Destiny, which is used in the vast majority of public schools in the United States. Follett did not disclose the terms of its acquisition of Fishtree.
Follett Corporate Background
Follett Corporation is one of the largest companies serving libraries and educational institutions, with an estimated $3.6 billion in annual revenue. The company includes multiple operating businesses, including Follett School Solutions (https://www.follettlearning.com/), which offers educational materials and technology products for PreK-12 schools and districts; and Follett Higher Education, which manages physical and virtual campus bookstores, offers an e-commerce environment campus retail outlets, and provides campus technology products and course materials (includED). In 2016, Follett Corporation acquired Baker & Taylor, a major distributor of content products to public libraries, bookstores, and other retail outlets.
Sidebar: Open Educational Resources
Open educational resources (OERs) have become a key component of learning environments across the educational spectrum. In contrast to textbooks, which deliver content in a proprietary way, OERs are openly licensed units of content that can be incorporated into educational environments without direct costs. OERs can be used according to specific Creative Commons licenses. Though the specific terms may vary, the expectation is that OERs can be freely accessed, modified or updated, and redistributed.
A recent court case further clarified the conditions in the way that OERs can be used. Great Minds, a nonprofit organization involved in curriculum materials in math and English for primary and secondary schools filed a lawsuit against FedEx for its role in copying materials on behalf of schools interested in using its materials. A federal appeals court ruled against Great Minds stating that schools can contract with a third party, even if it is a for-profit company, to copy materials to be used by students and teachers.1 This ruling softens concerns that may arise as schools employ commercial services to assist in their adoption of OERs.
- Sean Cavanagh, “Curriculum Provider Loses Court Fight with FedEx Over Copying ‘Open' Materials,” EdWeek Market Brief, July 13, 2018, https://marketbrief.edweek.org/marketplace-k-12/curriculum-provider -loses-court-fight-fedex-copying-open-materials/?cmp=soc-tw-shr-mktbf.
- John Kennedy, “E-learning Start-up Fishtree to Create 25 New Jobs after Raising US$3M Investment,” Silicon Republic, March 3, 2015, https://www.siliconrepublic.com/jobs/e-learning-start-up-fishtree -to-create-25-new-jobs-after-raising-us3m-investment.