Blackboard Co-Founder: ‘4 Secrets to Building a Tech Company for Higher Ed’

Blackboard Co-Founder: ‘4 Secrets to Building a Tech Company for Higher Ed’

Once upon a time the learning-management system (or LMS) was a new idea. In fact, the notion emerged about two decades ago. To mark the 20th anniversary of Blackboard, one of the first LMSes, the company’s co-founder, Matthew Pittinsky, wrote an epic blog post about the company’s history, which includes his advice for today’s edtech leaders. What follows is an edited excerpt of Part 1 of that post. You can read the whole thing on the Pittinsky’s website.

As origin stories go, the founding of Blackboard twenty years ago lacked that single light bulb moment that tech companies like to tell. Colleges were spending millions networking classrooms and residence halls, and I wondered about the absence of technology in the “front office” for teaching and learning.

Reading the book “Accidental Empires,” my favorite tech history, helped me imagine that an academic system was more than just another enterprise application; it was an operating system or platform for instruction.

At the time there was also a new effort to create standards for education technology, the Instructional Management Systems project, which helped convinced me there was real potential for what we now call learning management systems. This was an onramp for two 24 year olds—my co-founder Michael Chasen and me—to launch Blackboard LLC (which later joined with CourseInfo LLC to form Blackboard Inc).

Here are some lessons I learned about what makes the higher education market unique.

1. Colleges Really Are Different

Colleges and universities are decentralized and “loosely coupled.” Academic units often act independently, while faculty operate in relatively autonomous classroom environments.The administrative side, meanwhile, is divided into rigid professional categories and domains of responsibility—student life, registrar, academic affairs, career office—each with its own professional association. Governance is shared, while accountability is diffuse. Combine these attributes with the fact that educational organizations shape lives and each life is precious, it's not surprising that they are slow to change.

That means you need to shape your product strategy to respond to those organizational quirks. At Blackboard we packaged learning management into three tiers. Since instructors are autonomous, we allowed them to create a CourseSite on Blackboard.com. We used adoption by professors on Blackboard.com to drive sales of an affordable departmental or school-level license, with all of the course instructional tools, but no enterprise integration. Then we used adoption across departments to drive an enterprise-class license that added integration, more scalable database support, and functionality required to manage multiple courses, either as a faculty member or a campus administrator.

Equally important to our product strategy were “The Two Commandments:” Ease of use and enterprise technology. (Actually, they weren’t called that very often, but we lived them as if they were sacrosanct.) The idea was simple. The winner of the LMS market would be the company with the most widely adopted platform. The key to enterprise adoption was winning the hearts, minds and usage of faculty. At a time when many universities ran different LMSs in different academic units, the platform that was sticky and caused the greatest revolt among the faculty if discontinued would be the one in pole position for the enterprise contract. And if you appealed to what the CIO needed to provision an LMS at scale, you’d seal the deal.

Our chief rival in the day was WebCT, which had a lot more features. If a university evaluated Blackboard and WebCT using a feature checklist, we lost most of the time. Our sales reps would scream bloody murder that we needed adaptive, multi-choice, fill-in-the-blank, discussion board polls (I hope that's not a thing). But we’d say no. When the university evaluated platforms by having a group of faculty use both systems, we won most of the time. As a result, Blackboard achieved more adoption at multi-platform campuses. And by pairing ease of use with a focus on the enterprise technology concerns valued by the CIO—the actual buyer with a budget—we got the campus-wide mandate, which opened the door to additional products and services over time. The lesson? Work bottom up and top down.

2. Beware Proximity to the Instructional Core

In most industries, a pretty smart strategy is to identify the core productive activity of the organization and improve it. The closer you are to that core and the more value you add, the more rent you can extract. This is tricky in education, in part because colleges and universities strive to achieve multiple, sometimes conflicting, outcomes. And it’s problematic for another reason. The core of an education organization is instruction. Yet selling against the proposition of improved learning outcomes is dangerous. At Blackboard we made a point to stay at least one degree away from the instructional core; we decided to be an enabler, not a driver.

Education is political, with many constituents: parents, faculty, administrators, accreditors, activists and others. Put yourself at the center of the instructional process, and you put yourself in the middle of the bullseye. Once upon a time Pearson operated under different brands that made the totality of what Pearson did less obvious. I remember when the Pearson brand could be found on fewer than 50 business cards, despite being a large and global education business. Also back then, Pearson generally operated as an enabler of learning. It was a tools and technology and service provider. Then Pearson became, well, Pearson, unifying all of its business under a common brand, with the consequence that Pearson was everywhere. And Pearson became about delivering learning outcomes. I admire Pearson’s integrity and chutzpah in holding itself to this standard, but the backlash they are weathering from all directions is instructive.The closer you get to claim ownership over the teaching and learning process and the more you sign up for delivering learning outcomes, the more dangerous the path you take. You (and your product) probably can’t drive learning outcomes in isolation. Learning outcomes are difficult to measure. I won’t say impossible, but I think the ed tech sector is way too enamored with the idea that there are disruptive learning technologies, and those technologies can create exponential value through delivered differences in learning outcomes.

The problem is not only that the state of education research is poor, reducing results to the predispositions of political stakeholders. (Though that’s getting better and can be fixed.) The bigger issue is that research on outcomes from learning technologies is almost never about answering the question, “Is this technology effective?” In education, it’s almost always about the question, “Under what conditions is this technology effective?” Learning apps are not pharmaceuticals, raising your comprehension the way statins lower your cholesterol. Results vary by student, by teacher, by social context, by implementation—by a lot!

At Blackboard we committed ourselves to improving teaching and learning by empowering the instructor. We embraced the word “help.” Blackboard’s initial mission was to “help transform the Internet into a powerful environment for teaching and learning.” At Parchment, it’s to “help turn credentials into opportunities.” I insist on the word “help” over the objections of copy writers, who despise the way it weakens the punch. But as a third party, we are NOT the ones doing the work that matters. It’s the schools, universities and teachers. They are the heroes of the story. So think twice before putting yourself and your solution at the center.

3. Colleges and Universities Value What They Pay For

While it’s tempting to give away your product free of charge to get a pilot going, or overcome budget objections, don’t do it. I remember Casey Green describing the “higher ed handshake” as one in which the hand is open palm out. Universities often ask to get a product for free, promising to be a reference or case study. I do not doubt their sincerity, but rarely does it work out. In reality, universities implement and adopt what they value. If you want them to use it and make an impact (and be a reference), insist they pay for it.

4. Don’t Blame the Education Market If You Fail

While “It’s me, not you,” may explain why some relationships fail, it’s a cop-out when it comes to explaining failure in ed tech. It’s us. It’s always ultimately us. Sure, we can complain about slow sales cycles and buyer shortsightedness. The market is fragmented and purchase does not equal adoption. The stereotype of the Luddite faculty member or status quo administrator is a tempting one to fall back on.

It's our job as ed tech entrepreneurs to crack the code, and the code is crackable. When we do, the same dynamics that make the education market tough to scale make success so defensible and loyal. In recent memory, we launched Blackboard in 1997 and took the company public seven years later in 2004. Chegg was founded in 2005 and went public eight years later in 2013. 2U was launched in 2008 and became a public company six years later in 2014. Instructure was also launched in 2008, and went public seven years later in 2015.Sure, these successes are notable in part because they are the exception in a market where most ventures fail to scale. And they each have their own story on what made the difference. But there is a balancing act that I think they all got right between continuity and disruption. Cracking the code in my humble opinion is about being a radical incrementalist.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

In short, building a higher-ed technology startup is hard—even my second time around, leading Parchment. Back in 1997, Michael Chasen and I would rationalize that expertise was overrated. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and our “fresh perspective” (read: inexperience and ignorance) allowed us to approach things differently.

Now it’s twenty years later. And I have become what we mocked. A purveyor of experience and its virtues.

Matthew Pittinsky is a co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard, Inc and is now CEO of Parchment.

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