Carly Shuler and Maya Kotecha team up to support learners.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
The world continues to evolve; handwriting is a lost art, bookstores can’t stay open, and kids can text faster than they can type,” says Carly Shuler, co-CEO of Hoot Reading, an edtech startup offering 1-to-1 online reading practice with experienced classroom teachers. “But one thing we know will not change is that reading is fundamental to all aspects of our lives,” adds co-CEO Maya Kotecha. “Ensuring your child is reading proficiently by Grade 4 is critical so they can make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn,” says Maya. In this interview, Carly and (co-founder and co-CEO) Maya discuss company origins, reading itself, online vs. hands-on, community, pandemic pivots, money, tech’s role in learning, and their read on what the future holds. (Pictured above: Just some of the Hoot Reading team that, although a startup, has been working on raising readers for over a decade and are among the best in literacy technology.)
Carly Shuler is Carly is the co-founder and co-CEO of Hoot Reading, an edtech startup and leader in online reading education. Carly has been working at the intersection of children’s technology, education, and media for almost two decades. She holds a Master’s degree in Technology, Innovation, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied how media and technology can be used to educate children effectively. She has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Sesame Workshop, Spin Master Toys, and UNESCO. Carly spent over five years at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, where she researched and authored a number of seminal reports focused on the power of digital media and mobile devices to help children learn. Carly frequently speaks worldwide on the topic of children’s learning through technology.
Maya Kotecha, is co-founder and co-CEO of Hoot Reading, an edtech startup and leader in online reading education. In her role, Maya is responsible for operating the business, ensuring Hoot Reading is ready to scale, and managing its customer growth and teacher network. Prior to co-founding Hoot Reading, Maya held a number of senior executive positions across marketing, corporate strategy, and business development during her 18-year tenure at 24-7 Intouch, a leading global customer care outsourcer and technology company. Starting as one of the first employees, Maya built and led key marketing and sales roles across the business, helping the company expand from 50 to over 18,000 employees, across 15 global locations. She has two young children and became passionate about and heavily engaged in literacy through her personal journey dealing with her child’s reading struggles. Maya holds a B.BA (Hons) from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and a B.Sc from University of Manitoba.
How would you describe your solution and what inspired you to create your company? I understand there’s a little more to the story.
Maya: Hoot Reading is an online tutoring platform focused on reading. While the company has only been around for almost four years, our journey began on a research project at the Nokia Research Lab in partnership with Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center almost a decade ago.
Back in 2010, when Skype was just becoming mainstream and long before we could have imagined a global pandemic would mean that children around the world would do schooling online, my co-founder Carly worked on a project aimed at understanding whether kids could make meaningful learning gains over video chat.
What she found was that in the right set of circumstances – with the right books, the right technology, and the right teacher – children could have effective and meaningful learning experiences.
‘…with the right books, the right technology, and the right teacher – children could have effective and meaningful learning experiences.’
The results were well received and written up in various book chapters and journal articles, but never made it out of the labs.
Fast forward to 2018, and we decided the idea was too good to stay in the labs. We got the rights, formed Hoot Reading—and the rest is history in the making.
However challenging learning to read can be, eventually a vast majority of learners find their way to a workable level of literacy in life and are able to read. What is the imperative then; why should parents be interested in extra reading support?
Carly: We love this question! Parents are often shocked to hear that over two thirds of kids are reading below grade level by the 4th grade. To your point, this doesn’t mean that they are illiterate – what it means is that they aren’t reading as well as they need to be.
The reason that the 4th grade is important is because kids at this age need to make the leap from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’. What this means is they are no longer learning how to read in school, but are instead expected to read proficiently to do all of their learning.
When a kid is not yet reading at grade level, their lack of reading proficiency starts to impact the rest of their learning. Whether it be comprehending a math problem or digesting a difficult science concept, these children fall behind, and by middle school are often labelled by their teachers, their parents, their peers, and even themselves as a “poor student,” impacting the rest of their educational trajectory and beyond. This is something that is relatively easily prevented through extra reading support in the early years, and is the reason why parents should be interested in extra reading support.
Over the past year, we have seen an increase in virtual education options. As teaching kids to read can be a very hands-on process, how do your tutors keep children engaged without having in-person access to them?
Maya: If there is one thing that we have learned since the onset of the pandemic, it is that you can’t simply put a child and teacher on a zoom call and expect good learning to happen.
This is where our proprietary technology, which as mentioned above was incubated on a research project at Sesame Street, becomes very important. The Hoot Reading app was specifically and intentionally designed to allow emerging readers and experienced teachers to read books together, no matter where they are.
Within the app, kids and teachers can read a book together with the same page appearing on each user’s screen, see and hear each other over video chat, and see where the other is pointing. This shared experience of pointing is important, allowing for the back-and-forth interaction between a teacher and child that stimulates learning.
A great teacher can keep a child engaged in person; however, without the right technology, even the world’s greatest teacher is handcuffed. What we hear more than anything from our Hoot Reading teachers is that our app makes it so easy to do what they love, even when they aren’t physically in the same place.
With your strong emphasis on helping children in underserved communities, tell us why this is important to you and any highlights of your work and results in this area.
Carly: Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet every year, more than 80 percent of low-income children miss this important milestone.
Raising literacy rates boosts the future success of individual children, and eventually the economy as a whole. In fact, raising literacy rates is one of the most effective ways to decrease poverty.
‘Raising literacy rates boosts the future success of individual children, and eventually the economy as a whole.’
Our Hoot For All program offers free reading support to vulnerable children and youth. Our mission for this program is to close the gap on the 4th grade reading slump and impact those most at risk.
Through partner organizations such as The Boys and Girls Clubs, we have already been able to offer Hoot Reading to hundreds of at-risk children. One of our priorities for 2022 is to drastically increase the reach of this program, helping more kids get the one-on-one reading support that they deserve.
What is Hoot for Companies and what’s the impetus here?
Maya: Hoot for Companies is a program embedded into a company’s portfolio of employee benefits that gives parents on their team access to fully funded or subsidized learning support for their children. Parents make up 40% of the workforce, yet many companies don’t provide benefits that directly address the issues faced by their working parent population.
Both of us are mothers of two children, and since becoming parents we’ve always felt there was a gap in the benefits space for working parents whose primary concern is the wellbeing of their children.
When the pandemic really set in and parents and their children were sharing an office/classroom, we knew it was time to see if Hoot for Companies could work. We were incredibly humbled that Accenture, a global professional services firm, was excited to pilot this program with us. Given the success of that pilot, we were able to officially launch Hoot for Companies as a formalized offering to other companies. With children up to a year behind in learning due to the past year of online schooling, Hoot for Companies has had a huge impact on both working parents and their children.
Simple question, perhaps a simple answer: How can working with a teacher on a digital platform help kids with their literacy skills?
Carly: At Hoot Reading, our goal is to instill a lifelong love for reading. Working on a digital platform, through an interactive app, is engaging for children. We’ve taken something as simple as a book and elevated the experience with a real teacher one-on-one.
The app makes learning fun and the fact that you can read with a teacher anywhere, is convenient too.
Hoot teachers know how important it is to establish rapport with their students, especially in an online setting, and the design of our app helps to facilitate that. Teachers are expected to follow a lesson guide, so lessons are structured and scaffolded to the student’s abilities and the teacher is assessing every step of the way.
We also strive to ensure our library of digital books meets the interests of the students we serve, so they can feel connected and immersed in the texts.
How has the pandemic impacted your approach, your company, your product development and your offerings? In other words, did you pivot and simply enhance and accelerate where you were already going—and how has it impacted your strategy and direction?
Maya: We have been a remote learning company since day one. Our entire program was built around the concept that children could learn to read online, and that virtual tutoring – when designed properly – could be a more engaging, more affordable, and more convenient alternative to in-person tutoring.
Unlike many companies that had to pivot during the pandemic, the pandemic was simply a tailwind for our demand. And there is no question that since remote learning is our core competency, the pandemic has given us a massive competitive advantage.
You recently secured $3M CAD in seed funding. How will those funds be used to enhance the program and how will it benefit your users?
Carly: We will use the funds to expand our reach, which includes addressing the needs of underserved children and scaling our Hoot for Companies corporate benefit. We will be able to grow our leadership team to support product evolution, educational efficacy, and continued growth. It’s a very exciting time to be a Hoot user, teacher, or employee!
What is tech’s role in education, generally speaking?
Carly: We’ve seen over the past year that almost anything can be done online, and it doesn’t seem like that concept is going away any time soon. In fact, the advancements in technology have enabled us to learn virtually anywhere, which we think is an incredible breakthrough.
‘We’ve seen over the past year that almost anything can be done online, and it doesn’t seem like that concept is going away any time soon.’
Beyond the past year, technology has become fundamental to our lives and even our children’s lives – whether that’s television, computers, phones, or tablets,. Given the amount of time that we spend engaging with these devices, we firmly believe that all technology should support learning and education, especially for our children who often know how to use these things better than we (parents) do.
Sesame Street really nailed this back when TV was one of the only technologies our kids had access to. Their vision was to create public broadcast programming that was also educational and enriching. What we love most about this is that instead of trying to get kids’ eyes off TV and into books, which might seem punitive and create negative association with learning, they used a technology that they knew kids loved and turned it into a teaching vehicle. That is what we believe the role of tech is in education: to support lifelong learning and education for all of us.
What trends are you tracking in learning, education, and where you fit in? What do you see on the horizon that’s important?
Maya: One thing that is clear for us is that our mission to close the 4th grade reading slump is more critical than ever. At Hoot Reading, we are working to shift the paradigm that literacy is binary, meaning you’re not literate or illiterate, but maybe just need a bit of extra practice.
For an emerging or struggling learner, reading is a new skill that needs to be practiced frequently and consistently and that’s where we fit in.
This is no different to someone that takes up piano or tennis – they would likely need an instructor to practice those skills until they become muscle memory and can be practiced independently. Hoot Reading lessons are efficient and engaging for students and the 1:1 nature of our lessons makes a world of a difference.
As for trends and what the future looks like for Hoot Reading, we’re hyper focused right now on helping kids catch up and keep up with their schooling after a disruptive year(ish) of learning. The past year has been so hard on kids – imagine doing kindergarten online!
Forget paste-eating as a parent’s biggest worry; there’s no doubt that universally kids have been hit hard both socially and academically. We’re especially passionate about getting Hoot Reading into the hands of underserved youth who might not be able to access learning support, which has a ripple effect on their entire lives.
We believe that helping a child become proficient at reading unlocks their potential and every child deserves that opportunity.
‘We believe that helping a child become proficient at reading unlocks their potential and every child deserves that opportunity.’
Hoot Reading is a double-bottom line company, meaning we donate 1% of all revenues to Hoot Scholarships, which are part of our Hoot For All programming. As mentioned earlier, through Hoot For All we’ve established partnerships with amazing organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and Lead To Read Kansas City to make sure that we’re able to reach those kids – and the results with this group have been really moving.
We are excited to grow our Hoot For All program in addition to our other programs to help make education more accessible and equitable, and positively impact literacy rates on a macro scale.
Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com