Blackboard's Jay Bhatt Strikes Up the Brass Band

By Betsy Corcoran

Yep, Jay Bhatt even brought in a brass band.

Last week, Las Vegas hummed with the energy of 2,500 educators and technology coordinators and the rhythm of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Marching Band at the Blackboard World 2014 conference. CEO Jay Bhatt, who has been with the company for 20 months, made it clear that he aims to reposition the company as a thought leader, one that will help articulate the emerging trends in education and learning. He brought in some big name keynote speakers—Joi Ito of MIT’s Media Lab (above) and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone—to establish a “big thinker” vibe.

But Bhatt has a big business task, too: to reverse the past few years’ slide in Blackboard’s market share, even as competition from companies such as Instructure, gets fiercer. Attendance at Blackboard World was mixed this year: down from 3,500 in 2012 to 2,500 in physical attendance but another 2,500 registered to watch via the web.

Blackboard was bought in 2011 by private equity firm, Providence Equity Partners. “We went private for a reason,” Bhatt noted in an interview with EdSurge. “We were losing market share. We were a house of brands, not a branded house.”

Since he’s joined, Bhatt has been integrating the host of technologies and restructuring Blackboard’s workforce. (The company now employs 3,000 worldwide—and hired about 500 of those people in the last year alone.)

Bhatt, who had previously worked at Autodesk, is also trying to amp up a “culture of innovation” at Blackboard. “You’ve got to be courageous enough to fail,” he said. “That drives innovation and entrepreneurism.” Bhatt recalled spending his first few months exploring more about innovation in education—and only later to think about how the organization should change to meet the vision of what education and learning will look like down the road.

Fast-forward: This year, Bhatt used the Vegas confab to both set the tone and to highlight a list of new offerings and features, some of which are coming about as a result of the acquisitions that Blackboard has made over the past few years. MyEdu and Perceptis are the two most recent public deals. “We’ve done a lot more than two--we just haven’t announced them,” Bhatt said. “There’s an avalanche of acquisitions in the pipeline. It’s one of the things that’s truly accelerated in the last six months. Stay tuned in the fall for some announcements.”

Business First

Blackboard has—at long last—started integrating what had been standalone or acquired assets into a more consistent product portfolio, including:

  • Four teaching and learning solutions for higher ed;
  • Four commerce and security solutions for higher ed;
  • Five K-12 solutions that include teaching, learning and community engagement.

Blackboard’s user interface, which had been notoriously tricky to navigate to the dismay of long-time users, is in the alpha stage of a getting an update. And, the company says, later this summer, its core product, “Blackboard Learn,” will move to the cloud.

Bhatt has also said that he hopes to expand Blackboard’s use in K12—and recognizes that it will take more than cheery graphics to tune the system to be useful for teachers in the K-12 environment. “A lot of the foundational things we’re doing will disproportionally [help] K12,” he said. The new UI interface will resolve some frustrations, he added. Engineers spent six months rewriting K-12 Central (Blackboard’s mobile communication connecting parents, student and educators) to make it more appropriate for K12.

Blackboard’s user interface redesign, which will have more of an iOS feel, is still in alpha. Michael Feldstein, who writes e-Literate, says he was puzzled by much of Blackboard World but liked the code he saw. He writes: “And if the alpha we saw was any indication, it’s not crazy to imagine that Blackboard could raise the bar on LMS UX design by the time that they release. I kid you not.”

But it’s the use of data--not just in Blackboard but by teachers everywhere--that will be a game changer, Bhatt says. “Every single institution higher ed or K12 district -- needs to have more insight on the student. [They’ll get that not] through intervention. It’s through machine automation of data around how the student is behaving and performing.”

Bhatt’s also very jazzed about the international opportunity for Blackboard; the company’s proportional of international business has jumped from 17% a year ago to 20% now. “When Brazil says it’s driving industrialization through education, it really means it. There are millions of kids, accessing education thru technology,” Bhatt says. “The imperative that exists in emerging markets around education is real. It will affect all of us.”

Big Messages

Expect to hear more—a lot more—about “reimagining” education from Blackboard. The message is ahead of where the company is—and so Bhatt tapped some headliners to bring the big picture to the conference.

Kicking off the gathering was Joi Ito, the MIT Media Lab’s first director without a formal university degree—and older brother of Mimi Ito, cultural anthropologist and educator. Joi Ito calls himself “anti-disciplinary”—because he believes the opportunities “between” traditional disciplines is much more vast than the opportunities within those fields, Ito said. (Here’s Bernard Bull’s longer recount of Ito’s speech.)

That’s all good by Bhatt. “I’m shocked at how little evangelism and forward thinking companies like us have been willing to put out there to drive change,” he said. “Change in education will come from deeper pocketed entities that are willing to put it out there.

“Some companies…are trying to invent the last generation tool of LMS. That’s not going to be relevant in 5 to 7 years. That’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s a part of what we’re doing but it’s not where we’re going. I’m trying to reinvent how technology is used in education –not how LMSs should be designed. And I’m surprised at how few large companies are trying to move that question forward.” 

 Blackboard Customer Footprint 

Segment Number of Customers
Higher Ed +3,000
K-12 +12,300
Professional Learning +1,800

Editor's note: Betsy Corcoran spoke at Blackboard World. Her travel expenses were covered but she accepted no compensation for the talk. 



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