At the risk of starting a comment war, this is one that I nonetheless feel the need to get out there.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I’ve been reflecting on the past year and in particular on what I consider to be my most significant “life event” during 2013 – leaving Blackboard. If I were a cynical person, I could say that I’m thankful for having gotten out in time, but in actuality what I’m really thankful for is having had the good experience of working for the company when I did. I first joined Blackboard many years ago, since even before the WebCT acquisition when the organization was only a few hundred people in size. The company for a good many years always had this special spark to it. Ideas flowed freely among smart people who were capable of taking a concept and turning it into something thoughtful and real. It was a good place to make an impact, particularly with the knowledge that your product was being used by millions of individuals each and every day.
It was one year ago this month that Jay Bhatt took the reigns from Michael Chasen who announced last October that he was stepping down as CEO of Blackboard. Ray Henderson, in his usual form, penned one of the most eloquent takes I’ve read on Michael’s contributions to the success of the educational technology software space. With good reason, Ray focused primarily on Michael’s contributions to the business of educational software. The model that Blackboard pioneered contributed to a certain stability and sustainability in the space during a time when technology companies were not the most-long-lived of corporate entities.
Michael’s new company, SocialRadar, hosted an open house this past week as they launched their newly-renovated office space, coincidentally located in the same exact building that housed “original Blackboard” as it was getting off the ground many years ago. The event was a reunion of sorts. Many who contributed to the success of Blackboard as it grew and evolved over the years were present. And here Michael was again, building another world-class team of creative people who can execute.
While Michael’s business success is often noted, I’m not quite sure everyone realizes a different type of impact he’s had on educational technology, one that became increasingly apparent to me the longer into the evening the open house continued. Blackboard has always been characterized as having an entrepreneurial environment, due in large part to the culture Michael cultivated while at its helm. It was great fun reminiscing about past projects with the others present, the failures and successes alike, and learning about what they are up to now.
While I can’t exactly quantify it, I guarantee that this entrepreneurial spirit lives on in the people who were impacted by their experiences working for the organization. I’m certain that for many their experiences at Blackboard gave them the reason or means or inspiration to go forth and make a difference elsewhere, using their skills and talents to new ends. On my ride home, I began to compile a list of former Blackboarders and what they’ve been doing since. I’m sure that there are many more who I apologize in advance for forgetting.
Leaders and founders at other educational technology companies
Kurt Ackman and Patrick Devlin – now leading higher education and government education initiatives at Cornerstone OnDemand, providing talent management software used primarily in the context of delivering corporate training
Justin Beck, Brian Cooley, and Brett Frazier – now on the leadership team at EverFi, a firm that provides K12 curricula to address life topics such as financial literacy, student loan management, digital citizenship, and sexual assault prevention – topics not typically covered effectively or in any depth during secondary school
Wayne Bovier – now Vice President of Product Management at Ellucian, the popular provider of many enterprise-class software packages for higher ed, known primarily for their SIS offering, Banner
Chuck Brodsky – now Chief Corporate Officer at Full Measure Education, a firm providing technology and solutions to help keep students in school
Chris Etesse - formerly CTO of Presidium, a firm focusing on admissions, financial aid, and higher ed IT support and now CEO at Flat World Knowledge, an innovator in affordable, digital-first textbooks that use gamification, educator collaboration, and adaptive learning algorithms to deliver personalized learning experiences online and offline via web, mobile, tablet, audiobook, e-reader, or print.
Todd Gibby - former CEO of Intelliworks, a CRM tool for higher education, and current President of Higher Education for Hobsons, a firm that guides schools through approaches to facilitating college preparation, student advising, and retention
Jim Thibeau – now EVP of Educate Online - delivering personalized, individual instruction for college and career readiness
Judy Verses – now President of Global Enterprise and Education at Rosetta Stone, the language learning company
Leaders and founders of startups focusing on other technologies and those now working for non-profits and academic institutions
Bob Alcorn - former CTO of GroupMD, a technology solution focused on improving patient/healthcare provider relationships and now Chief Architect at the Advisory Board, a firm focused on providing data and analysis to improve healthcare, education, and philanthropy among others
Ben Carmichael - now Director, Innovation in Technology for Ivanhoe Grammar School in Australia
Phil Chatterton - now Director of Digital Media Technologies at University of British Columbia
Ruth Cubas - Director of Online Course Development for Sam Houston State University
Meaghan Duff - now ASCD’s (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Managing Director of Professional Learning
Tracy Engwirda – former Enterprise Architect at Open Universities Australia
Gordon Freedman – President and Founder, National Laboratory for Educational Transformation
Erin Knight – now Director of Learning at the Mozilla Foundation
Melissa Loble - now Associate Dean of Distance Learning at University of California, Irvine
Matt Lynch - founder and managing partner, District Capital Partners - while not exactly a tech startup, District Capital has helped many good ones get off the ground and grow
Dave Mills – CEO of Tenent Ventures
Patrick Wilson – CEO and founder, Modern UI – providers of UX development and mobile expertise
And this list does not even begin to include the many others who work in other managerial and technical capacities at these and other organizations, each making a difference in their own ways. As I reread this list, it impresses me how many are focused on addressing the problems of the here and now with an eye to the future, not wasting tens of millions of dollars building a new variant of a course web site or searching for some mythical magical formula to e-learning.
People aside, there’s still yet another angle on Michael’s contributions to the educational technology space that is often overlooked. We can’t also forget that because of Michael, Blackboard became one of the largest funders of and contributors to open source educational software. Under his leadership, Blackboard acquired Moodlerooms and NetSpot, two of Moodle’s largest partners who each contribute 10% of their earnings back to Moodle Headquarters. Blackboard has been a sponsor of OSCELOT (the Open Source Community for Educational Learning Objects and Tools) since its very beginning. And through Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, IUPUI received a $23 million dollar windfall that I’d speculate has since been reinvested in other open source software development initiatives like Sakai and Kuali.
Michael is only one of thousands of individuals over the years to have contributed to educational software as we know it today. And while he is primarily known for his business success, I want to make sure that we don’t forget Michael’s indirect contributions to the space as well. Thank you for the good memories, and best of luck to the SocialRadar team on their new venture. May you achieve success as have the many others whose lives at various points were connected by this common thread.
This post written by George Kroner
Note: some additions made to the above list as I’ve been made known