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

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By: Matthew Pittinsky

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.

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