Halifax reading game startup Shoelace Learning is aiming to leverage its traction in the United States to win more deals in Canada, as CEO Julia Rivard Dexter looks to consolidate on pandemic-era growth amid a saturated educational technology market.

Rivard Dexter said in an interview Thursday that Shoelace expanded rapidly during the lockdowns, as educators turned to digital solutions. With countless other companies having benefitted from the same edtech boom, though, the market has grown crowded and looks due for a “period of normalization,” she added.

For Shoelace, preparing to weather that market pullback means a business development strategy focused on educating teachers about the research underpinning the company’s offerings.

“I think, post-COVID, there has been this sense of, ‘Do we go back to the way we were before? How do we maintain some of the things that we’ve learned that were really valuable?'” said Rivard Dexter. “Making sure that research is at the core of everything we do is very, very important to us.

“The digital education sector got busy during the pandemic, so (the market is) at a point where we’re having to start to weed out the exceptional products from those that are mediocre.”

This year, Shoelace is part of three research projects. Run by scientists from Dalhousie University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta, the first is a large-scale, seven-year study involving multiple technology platforms. The second and third are specific to Shoelace, with the company’s software being trialed by the Calgary Catholic School District and the University of Calgary.

More than 6 million children across 160 countries now play Shoelace’s Dreamscape reading game, with 85 percent of the company’s business coming from the U.S.

“In the States, traditionally, teachers have had more agency to innovate and try new things,” said Rivard Dexter. “And so it was easier for us to go to the U.S. market.

“Now that we have an established product with legitimacy, we’re looking at building relationships with the Canadian school districts to really move the needle for Canadian kids.”

Youth literacy in Canada has declined in step with a global downturn, according to a study of 12 member nations from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, released by the international group late last year. In fact, Canada posted its worst results since the OECD started tracking reading scores in 2000, though the country’s students still scored better than the OECD average. About four-fifths of Canadian 15-year-olds have achieved the minimum level of reading proficiency necessary to synthesize a text of moderate difficulty.

“We believe that without engagement, you can’t have deep learning,” said Rivard Dexter.

Now, Shoelace’s 17-person staff and roster of contractors are working on developing a system to scan and incorporate passages of school textbooks into reading games, making the content interactive to make it more accessible to kids who may be overwhelmed by dense school texts.

“Literacy is not just about reading, it’s about being able to apply your reading skills, like comprehension, to other subjects,” said Rivard Dexter, who said that teachers Shoelace works with often report that as many as about two thirds of their students are struggling with reading.

“What we see is … kids who were struggling during COVID, they’ve gone into the higher grades, still struggling while they’re being exposed to science content, to social studies, to history content.”