One Year Later

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

Neil Allison, Jan Poston Day,  Karl Engkvist, Karen Gage, and Robert Jones – now leaders at Pearson, the publisher with a renewed focus on improving learning outcomes

Justin Beck, Brian Cooley, Ira Frankel, 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 [since this post, Justin has become VP of Education at Kaltura, the online video experts]

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

Russ Carlson – now an SVP at Academic Partnerships, a firm that guides universities through effective approaches towards adopting technology

Ramsey Chambers and Matt Doherty – now leaders at Academic Benchmarks, makers of data and toolsets to make implementing standards easier

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.

Jessica Finnefrock – SVP of product at Liaison International, makers of software to help colleges facilitate the application and admissions process

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

Stephen Gilfus – founder of Gilfus Education Group who aims to be the Gartner of education and also recent purchaser of Adrenna, an open source LMS company

Robert Godwin-Jones and Sue Polyson Evans – co-founders of SoftChalk, a tool that makes it extremely easy for teachers to build standards-compliant interactive lessons that aren’t bound by an LMS

Derek Hamner and Hal Herzog – co-founders of Learning Objects, one of the first and most broadly-adopted social learning toolsets

Jim Hermens – who left Blackboard to become VP of Product Management at  Spectrum K-12 Solutions and then CEO of Educate Online before returning to Blackboard

Max Lytvyn – co-founder of Grammarly, a tool that helps students to improve their spelling, vocabulary, and grammatical proficiency

Matthew Marinovich – now CTO of Eiffel Corp, the leading provider of educational technology software solutions in Africa

Elizabeth Prior – co-founder and VP of product for Credential Me, a firm exploring new ways to facilitate earning credits, badges, and certificates in ways that actually count for something

Dan McFadyen – now General Manager of EQUELLA, a broadly-adopted LCMS that can be used to version and deliver learning content outside the context of a Learning Management System

Paul Monk – founder of GoletaWorks, a boutique e-learning software integrator

Matthew Pittinsky – now CEO of Parchment, a company that specializes in making sure that students get credit for courses taken across multiple institutions and facilitates transcript operations

Jim Thibeau – now EVP of Educate Online – delivering personalized, individual instruction for college and career readiness

Chris Vento – now CEO of Intellify Learning, currently creating “Learning Intelligence as a Service”

Judy Verses – now President of Global Enterprise and Education at Rosetta Stone, the language learning company

Jessie Woolley-Wilson  – CEO of DreamBox, helping K12 students improve their math abilities with adaptive learning technology and apps

David Yaskin – founder and CEO of Starfish Retention Solutions who provides institutions with data and approaches to improve student retention and graduation rates

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

Christian Campagnuolo – now Chief Marketing Officer at Logi Analytics, a business intelligence and analytics platform

Dan Cane – co-founder of Modernizing Medicine, a technology firm focused on saving time while improving outcomes in the healthcare space

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

Tim Chi – founder of Wedding Wire, a solution that makes it easy to find reliable wedding vendors, locations, and related services

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

Steve Hargadon – founder, Web 2.0 Labs Initiative supporting community-based educational technology projects  and coordinator of the yearly Global Education Conference

Erin Knight – now Director of Learning at the Mozilla Foundation

Melissa Loble – now Associate Dean of Distance Learning at University of California, Irvine [since this post, Melissa has become Senior Director of Canvas Network, Instructure’s MOOC initiative]

Jonathon Lunardi – co-founder of Veteran Central and Military Job Networks, each organizations focused on helping veterans as they transition out of service and into civilian lives

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

Robert Morton – co-founder of Power Supply, focused on improving individuals’ health and well being through better diet

Lara Oerter – now CFO and EVP, Technology for The New Teacher Project, a non-profit committed to ending educational inequality

Peter Segall – CEO, Healthcare Source, talent management and career learning software for healthcare professionals

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