Blackboard Co-Founder Urges ‘Disarmament’ Between Edtech Companies and...

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Blackboard Co-Founder Urges ‘Disarmament’ Between Edtech Companies and Academics

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 26, 2017

Blackboard Co-Founder Urges ‘Disarmament’ Between Edtech Companies and Academics

This article is part of the guide: Thought Leaders Discuss The College (And Classroom) Of the Future.

Matthew Pittinsky wants the equivalent of disarmament talks between edtech companies and colleges. There’s still reflexive distrust in the academy of anything for-profit, he says. And he admits industry leaders bear some responsibility, since many haven’t done enough to understand the unique culture of higher education.

He has seen the situation from both sides, having spent years as a leader of Blackboard (he co-founded it 20 years ago), then heading back to school to get a PhD and become a professor, all before returning to business to become CEO of Parchment. EdSurge sat down with Pittinsky last month to talk about lessons from his time at Blackboard, as well as what has surprised him most about how learning management systems have evolved (or haven’t).

The conversation is part of ourThought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

Let’s rewind 20 years, to when you co-founded Blackboard. How did you even get the idea to make a learning management system, which was a new thing? (Though it’s hard to believe, learning management systems were a disruption.)

Pittinsky: Back then software was installed on premises, and academic computing was pretty much a cart with an overhead projector and PowerPoint slides. And it just struck me as odd that universities were spending millions of dollars on their administrative computing. They were wiring up the dorms, (this was before wireless) so the motto was “a port per pillow.” And yet faculty didn’t know HTML. They didn’t know how to program. How are we going to use the technology for teaching and learning? The answer is you have to make it really easy for the typical instructor to be able to bring their course online and then manage it online.

It wasn’t really about distance learning. I don’t think we had this big, disruptive sort of vision. What we were trying to do is just make it obscenely easy for a professor to create a course website, and then we hoped that would be like a pebble in a pond and have a ripple effect. Once instruction was supported online, it could move completely online. You could begin to do grading and different kinds of instructional tools. You can see how that could open up more opportunities over time.

There are many tools in Blackboard, and there are many parts of the software that don’t get used by most professors. Has this ever been a concern about the relatively low number of features that are used on average?

No, and this may surprise you. I don’t have that concern. As you mentioned, I’m not affiliated with Blackboard anymore, and I wouldn’t want anyone to take any comment I make and somehow attribute that to Blackboard. But my belief is that a learning management system is like an operating system for education. The way that I thought about it was that there’s 20 percent of functionality tools that 80 percent of faculty care about and use—discussion boards, chat tools, grading engines, certain parts of quizzes. Then there’s the 80 percent of tools that only 20 percent of faculty talk about, because they’re specific to a particular discipline. They’re specific to a particular pedagogical approach—if you’re using your portfolios in creative arts, versus whatever the examples may be, simulation-based learning.

And so, my hope and dream 20 years later is that we could walk into a university, open up a course website, and see that while you can recognize that there’s an off-the-shelf or industry-standard platform behind it, the actual learning environment is very distinct to that faculty member and what they’re trying to accomplish in their particular tools.

You recently offered some advice for entrepreneurs starting an edtech company in today’s landscape. One part of that surprised me: You said, “Don’t get too close to the instructional core.” Why is that?

Education is very political. The purpose of education is not singular, it’s multiple. You’ve got to network your stakeholders in terms of faculty, parents, students and the administration. The closer you get to being the actual platform for that degree of instruction, you often will tend to communicate that you can drive way better outcomes. My product increases math comprehension by A, B or C. I just don’t believe it.

It’s not like taking statins to lower your cholesterol, which we know works. It really is, under what conditions does it work? The closer you get to the instructional core, the closer you get to the political crosshairs of these different stakeholders that are involved, the more you tend to overstate or over-hype your actual impact on instruction.

The real question is, under what conditions do your technologies work? That’s the mature conversation to have, which means that you’re ultimately about helping, not doing. We help teachers teach math. We help personalize education. Parchment helps turn credentials into opportunities. Blackboard helps turn the internet into a helpful environment for teaching all ages. The copywriters always hate “help.” It’s this squishy word that weakens the punch, but that’s that.

Because you’ve been in this so long, I can’t help but ask, is there anything that has kind of disappointed you in the way things have evolved? Or surprised you about how things have changed, back when you had this kind of vision for what you want to happen?

I don’t want to be like the curmudgeon [who says], “20 years ago, we had…”

First off, I’m usually the outlier on a panel when people say, “Is education going to change X in five years?” I’m always the one that says no. I tend to think [it will be] 10 or 15 years. Even with that, 20 years later, in 1998, we talked about the flipped classroom. In 1998, we talked about star faculty teaching global audiences. I would say, even I am surprised by the slow pace. I was surprised that learning management systems have not changed as much as they could have. Given social, mobile, data-driven algorithms, and all the ways in which the general technology world has changed, I’m surprised that learning management teams still look, feel and taste the way they did back in the day. But that makes me sound like a curmudgeon.

You made an interesting decision after you left Blackboard. Immediately, you went the academic route yourself and became a professor. Why?

It really is just the thing I would have done if Blackboard hadn’t worked out. Literally four weeks after starting Blackboard, I took the GREs. That’s how confident I was.

I bet you didn’t tell your investors that.

No, I didn’t even know that we were getting those at first. What I had always studied to be was an academic in sociology, so I eventually got to the point where it was the right time to reapply for it. I got my PhD in sociology and education, and then became a tenure-track professor at Arizona State University. I did that for a few years.

At the first ASU+GSV Summit, though, coincidentally, I came across a company that eventually became the basis of Parchment. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t from a lack of love of the academic life, it was just even more, I had gotten hooked on the idea of Parchment, and so I eventually jumped back into edtech.

That’s an interesting perspective, having been a faculty member and an entrepreneur. Can you speak to that dual experience? Because as you know well professors often are quite skeptical of for-profit companies, and there’s this clash of cultures. Do you have any advice for either side on how to better communicate, or understand each other?

[We need] just universal disarmament. It’s incredibly frustrating, this bright line between you’re a vendor, and I’m an academic institution, and by definition you are corrupt and self-interested and I’m virtuous. If a tool was built by another university, and they came to talk to me about it, we’d be collaborating. If a tool is built by a for-profit business, it’s the devil. That really exists.

It’s absurd. It is absolutely absurd. In no other industry [would that happen]. If the CEO of Tableau was willing to come visit me and talk about data science and where it’s going, I wouldn’t think you’re trying to sell me Tableau licenses. I know you’re trying to sell me a Tableau license, but it’s like, “Holy cow, it’s the CEO of Tableau, let me ask him a thousand questions, get 15 great ideas, and definitely show me their five new things that are coming out.” That’s the best way to run my organization.

I say it’s universal disarmament because part of why that behavior has developed is really through entrepreneurs who don’t take the time to understand the education language, who overstate their value proposition of what they’re doing, who don’t understand education.

You mentioned Parchment, your new company. What is next as far as the way you see things changing for transcripts and credentials?

One key piece of what’s next is bringing all the different types of credentials that the universities issue into the digital age. That’s the certificate, and the diploma as well as the transcript. Obviously, micro-credentialing has been a very active area as well.

One of the things that you mentioned with vendor relations: I think some people will remember that Blackboard didn’t always have the best reputation in that regard, especially with its aggressive stance on patents, and suing competitors. Is there any lesson from that aspect of Blackboard’s past?

Again, I want to be careful [because I’m no longer with Blackboard.] They have the leadership team, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate me either endorsing the idea of a negative reputation, or refuting it in a different way. I would say, certainly, early on, we were truth, justice and the American way [and we had a good reputation].

But you’re right, certainly then was a point [when we grew in market share] and were enforcing intellectual property that institutions began to say, what kind of a partner is this? Again, my disarmament is about that. It is about, don’t think about it as a vendor, and as an educational institution, think about it as a partnership. Be selective. Absolutely be selective. You don’t have to treat everybody equally, but there are good actors and there are bad actors, and you lose a lot of value by not being engaged with the good actors.

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