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In this episode, Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman discuss the longer-term implications of the rapid adoption of synchronous video conferencing systems.

Hosts:

  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman

Transcription:

Phil: Welcome to MindWires Musings, where we throw caution to the wind and take a more relaxed attitude to discuss the news in EdTech. We haven’t even talked for a little while through Musings, I’m looking forward to this. I’m looking forward to the holidays, too. I can’t wait.

Jeanette: Yeah, no, I’m looking forward to the holidays. It’s going to be very different. We normally have a lot of a lot of people in our house, so it’s going to be a very different experience. Probably the first time of my children’s lives where there won’t be a couple of hundred people here on Christmas Eve, so that’s going to be a new experience for sure.

Phil: For people who don’t know you or don’t know Albuquerque, you’re going to have to explain that.

Jeanette: Oh, yeah. Well, there’s there’s a thing called luminarias which are, if anyone has seen paper bags with sand and a candle in it, which I know sounds kind of strange for a lot of people, but it’s very beautiful. [00:01:00] They put out thousands and thousands of them in our neighborhood in Albuquerque, and it attracts a lot of attention. There are bus tours that go through our neighborhood and lots of people walking. And because we’re in this neighborhood, which is really beautiful, it’s sort of a destination on Christmas Eve. We’ve always had this open house since we’ve moved here, and it would mean that people that maybe we only saw on Christmas Eve, once a year, show up. We don’t see them at all, they just know this is part of their family tradition. I think for some people, it’s the place to go to have a safe place to stay with family. This is because of Covid the first time that we’re going to not have that open house. It’ll be interesting.

Phil: Oh, that’s sad. Too bad. I mean, especially for the girls. It’s interesting that they’ve never been without that.

Jeanette: It is. To me, it means that probably just cooking time less. Well, I’ll still cook everything, maybe [00:02:00] just not as big of quantities, but I’m an early bird. I’ll probably not have to stay awake till 2:00 a.m. or something. I’ll be able to go to bed fairly early on Christmas Eve. I’m hoping to be able to walk around, which I’ve never been able to do because of hosting this party. There’s some good parts to it that I’m looking forward to. We’ll see how the girls react.

Phil: What do you have with you? What kind of cocktail do you have?

Jeanette: Just drinking a little bourbon, little Woodford Reserve on a block of ice and a splash of water. How about you?

Phil: Pretty darn close. I am drinking a Midwinter’s Night Dram courtesy of our lovely friend Becky, who had provided this.

Jeanette: Oh, nice.

Phil: It’s limited release rye put out by High West Distillery. They put it out in the winter time.

Jeanette: That’s much fancier. I got my huge bottle at Costco, but it’s a good bourbon. I stand by it.

Phil: This [00:03:00] is our next Musings. We tend to specialize lately in video conferencing platforms. So are you ready to go?

Jeanette: I’m ready. Let’s talk about it.

Phil: Video conferencing platforms: Zoom, Zoom University. Microsoft Teams with their live video, Google Meetings, WebEx, Blackboard Collaborate. We’ve all talked about that and obviously that’s been a major factor during the pandemic. The more I think about it and the more I talk to academics – such as one of the conversations you and I had today in a focus group – and the more I read, I’m becoming quite convinced that this is a more fundamental shift in learning platforms than I think we realize. That’s got some implications to it. Quite honestly, part of the way this solidified in my mind where I needed to explore the subject is I was interviewing Michael Chasen, former [00:04:00] founder and CEO of Blackboard. He’s got his new company, ClassEdu, which we discussed, Class for Zoom as a product. As we were talking about this subject, the profound change, he had made a statement talking about how Zoom has become the learning platform, the most dominant learning platform, where that’s how students and faculty mostly, or as much as any other, are experiencing education these days.

So I’m paraphrasing our conversation, but that’s really the point that I wanted to explore, is that typically when we’ve talked about learning platforms, quite often it’s the LMS, but then we call it the learning platform so we can be a little bit more broad and include courseware and include things that are not technically the LMS. If you think about it, part of what I’m realizing is not just during the pandemic, but moving forward, the definition [00:05:00] or the perception of learning platform might be equal between the LMS and live video, synchronous video, or video conferencing, whatever you want to call it. The video conferencing as learning platform is going to be as significant as the LMS moving forward.

Jeanette: Well, I certainly think it’s significant. I think that for a couple reasons. I think it was Zoom itself, and we heard this again today in the focus groups. The simplicity of it, made it a very easy platform to go to, to replicate learning in the classroom and synchronous learning. It wasn’t thinking outside of the box. It was an application that was so easy to use. Everyone knew how to do it. There weren’t a lot of different options to it. For teachers, that was really important, but also for the students. I think it just didn’t make anyone have to think that hard about delivering online education. [00:06:00] I think for that reason, it was critical. Like, really, if we were to think about this spring, especially being able to move so quickly, I don’t think people would have been as nimble if Zoom wasn’t an option. I really don’t.

Phil: I completely agree. I guess what I’m wrestling with in my head, I would go beyond the ‘Zoom saved our bacon’ type of view, which I think is very accurate. But wait, this is going to have long lasting repercussions and we’re not going backwards. A lot of the reason I’m seeing it going even beyond what you just described is it gets to the technology adoption curve and it gets to the fact of, if you look at the LMS, it took a decade or more before you could say you went beyond the early adopters and innovators and crossed the chasm and got into the majority of faculty [00:07:00] in particular, and of students who were using the LMS on nearly a daily basis. It took a long time. It went through a typical adoption curve and different difficulties.

With Zoom in particular, and other video conferencing systems, we went to the mainstream in a matter of weeks this spring. As you rightly described it, fit the characteristics of what you need to serve the mainstream. It was something familiar. It was something that worked, intuitive. Now the same people – it’s not just that it worked and allowed them to finish spring. They’ve been working with this for six months now.

Now you’ve eliminated that whole barrier to EdTech adoption where traditional faculty, mainstream faculty who are saying, oh, I’ve never done it that way, I don’t know what to do now, they know what it is. They [00:08:00] know they can do it. It wasn’t perfect, but they’re adopting it and they know about it. We’re hearing this more and more. They’re starting to say, well, I’m actually seeing some of the benefits of this. This wasn’t just saving our bacon. It’s like, wow, this is going to continue to be used. That’s part of what I’m wrestling with.

I hear skepticism in your voice.

Jeanette: Well, I mean, there’s a couple of things. I mean, yes, it worked and yes, it can. There’s definite benefits. I think especially in the higher ed space, there are opportunities for students to be learning online. A lecture setting that doesn’t need maybe the community that you would find in a classroom, doesn’t need the hands on skills base that maybe you need in the classroom. There are real benefits for learning in this platform. What I question and what I hope people don’t fall into is that I think there are a lot of things that you can do online that [00:09:00] can make a course much more successful than just trying to replicate in a classroom setting using Zoom. I think that if people are, to just take one more baby step or maybe two more baby steps towards really, looking at pedagogy and curriculum delivery online that interaction, rich media, rich community, rich discussion tool, could take another step.

There’s things I can just take things a little bit further that I think can really enhance the online environment and make it so that maybe in some cases and some courses is even better than an in-person environment. I think flexibility is the number one thing that I’m assuming, it’s just the flexibility and the ease of use. I’m just saying that let’s take it a little bit further.

Phil: But when you say let’s take it, I guess that gets to the point. I’m trying to describe what I think is going to happen. We need to think beyond, [00:10:00] though, what should happen or what do we want to happen. Part of the point I’m trying to say is we do know a lot about how technology gets adopted. Part of what I’m observing is, for better or worse, this is becoming … let’s just make the argument this is becoming coequal with the LMS as the default learning platform.

Jeanette: Absolutely.

Phil: Video conferencing, and therefore that raises there are some implications such as how do we improve it with better engagement, better pedagogy? Microsoft Teams is coming in with a whole richer set of tools on chat and collaboration. So they’ve got an approach to say, let’s take it a step further. Engageli replaces Zoom, but it’s very strongly focused on a pedagogical engagement model. Class for Zoom is a plug in on top of Zoom to add education specific features. I think those are the main contenders right now.

But I think [00:11:00] we’re in a world where it is now the second learning platform, that really isn’t second. It’s like 1A and 1B, one is synchronous, one is for asynchronous, by and large. Now the question is, how do we do better with this?

The reason I think that’s so significant is because there’s so much history of EdTech where the adoption issues are driven by faculty, instructors, course designers, reluctant to try things out, or a lot of times it doesn’t make sense, or there’s just a perception and a barrier or resistance to doing things differently. We’ve in a rapid period of time, blown through that whole chasm and gotten into the mainstream. Now they’ve had six months of experience. So we’re past that. Now the question is, we have, in one view, a new normal. What’s going to happen moving forward and what are the [00:12:00] implications?

Jeanette: Well, I mean, there are really good ones, too, right? There are. For how many years have we heard that being able to take a required course was almost impossible because of enrollment issues? A lot of that can be perhaps solved with having those courses available to students.

Phil: So in other words, that online courses are going to be easier or less resistance to get them started when needed. Oh, wait, I’m misinterpreting you, perhaps saying even for a course that’s not, quote unquote online will have options for students to take them remotely.

Jeanette: I’m saying that the options will be there. So if you have to take psych 101 to graduate, you’re going to have the availability to do that any semester you want because it’ll be available to you online. I mean, you can look at things like ways to improve it or to create the HyFlex model that Kevin spoke [00:13:00] so eloquently on early on about this, but I feel like that might not be an option for a lot of campuses. What is an option is to provide this online. I also think those really large lecture courses, I don’t think they’re coming back in the next maybe two semesters anyway. I’m thinking maybe 2022 before we start seeing that.

Phil: We’re hearing that from educators more and more, aren’t we?

Jeanette: Yeah. I think that those are the types of things that once people start getting more used to our big gen ed courses are going to be delivered by the Zoom or online. It’s going to become more of the norm. I mean, who knows the implications of that? Then you can start thinking of, OK, that’s what’s happening. Are there going to be more of a push to have freshmen really engage at the beginning? Are they going to start taking more of a backwards curriculum model that you are taking some of those major courses first so that you have that on campus skills approach? I [00:14:00] don’t know.

Phil: I think a lot of implications of maybe doing that. One that I guess I wouldn’t qualify it as positive or negative, it’s something that will be interesting to see as we’ve gotten used to the LMS almost as a portal, that’s your entryway to tools, and pre-pandemic, even for video conferencing, the majority of cases where students experience video conferencing, they got it through the LMS. It was a third party added, but it was through the LMS. It’s interesting, you talk to educators now, or students now. I listen to my daughter who’s in college, and you almost hear that they equate class time with their video conferencing.

You’re getting this perception where on its own video conferencing as a learning platform, it’s now being perceived as a huge part. It’s not through the LMS by and large. Now, a negative part [00:15:00] of that is yet another system that teachers and students have to know about. It raises the question, what are they going to want? Do they want the video conferencing to go back to be experience or triggered through the LMS? Or are you going to start seeing it vice versa? Or you’re going to see that students and faculty are comfortable experiencing them in parallel. How do you integrate them? I think there’s just a big open question that if this is now one of the default learning platforms, what are schools going to want to do in terms of student experience?

Jeanette: Right. I think there’s another piece in terms of the student experience especially, is that you can’t discount the Zoom fatigue that a lot of students have been feeling. I don’t have college students yet, but I do have a poor seventh grader who is in online courses, online class from eight o’clock in the morning till three o’clock [00:16:00] in the afternoon. She has after school activities, if you can imagine that are still gathering. She’s on Zoom for maybe another hour after that voluntarily, that’s a long time. Then she has a 30 minute lunch. It’s a lot.

Phil: You give your daughter a 30 minute lunch?

Jeanette: The school gives her.

Phil: My views on that. First of all, I agree fatigue is a real issue, particularly for students, and something’s got to be done about it. The other thing I’d have to say is where this can work out is very age dependent. As I look through the K – 12 market, particularly K through five or six, that’s a completely different ballgame than university in terms of whether it’s appropriate or not. But I guess I get back to my main point. I think it’s here. It’s almost a coequal learning platform with the LMS. Instead of viewing ‘let’s go back to what we used [00:17:00] to do or we should do something different’, it’s now embedded in academic culture. I’m seeing a major shift where people are thinking, well, how do we improve it?

Jeanette: I was just going to say sort of echo that. I think a good example is that we had a faculty member, full time faculty member who said that up to six months ago she had never even had one online conference, she never met with anybody online. She opened up Zoom for the first time because of the pandemic. She was the one that said, I don’t know if we’re going to completely go back. Her point was that, for especially large lectures, she said the students seem to be able … the learning seems to be better, and that she said the ability to have experts in chats answering questions frees up some students, that maybe there’s just that one student always asks the question and now there’s more students asking questions. She was a real proponent for it and she [00:18:00] had never even opened it up.

Phil: So I certainly am not saying it’s better in every case, but of course, the story you mentioned is very instructive because somebody who had never even looked at it and thought about it, or willing to even try it before the pandemic, and suddenly within six months, it’s like I’m not going back. Boy, I see better engagement with it and I’m going to use it. That’s a rapid adoption, or a rapid example of blowing through this chasm and serving the majority.

There’s a risk to the LMS market of being boxed in as asynchronous, only part of the courses. So I think there’s a lot of open questions about how you integrate those systems and how you deal with student experience and in terms of data, cohesive data., so you can look at student learning.

Jeanette: I agree. The only thing the last thing maybe I would mention to think about, though, for those systems is [00:19:00] that I think primarily the success that we saw on Zoom was because of the simplicity and the intuitive nature of it. I think that if it wasn’t for that, that this adoption and this thought of we can continue to do this, wouldn’t be there. I think that that there’s lessons to be learned in that for any EdTech provider.

Phil: Yeah. Intuitive, simple. This helps me figure out my blog post, but that’s a key aspect of the majority, when you get to technology adoption, if I’m going to have to do it, just make it easy. Let me be able to figure it out quickly. It simplifies things. That’s exactly it. It’s a key part of mainstream adoption.

We promise not to make more than 50 percent of the Musings podcasts about video conferencing, but we also think it’s a very important factor moving forward for EdTech. It’s important to understand these significant [00:20:00] changes are happening. Great talking to you, Jeanette, and thanks for helping me hopefully figure out how to write this blog post, but not tonight because I’m going to enjoy my rye some more.

Jeanette: That sounds good. Great talking to you. Thanks.

Phil: Sure. Bye.

MindWires Musings logo

In this episode, Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman discuss the newest video conferencing platform designed for academic usage. Engageli, from two of the founders of Coursera.

Hosts:

  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman

Transcription:

Phil: Welcome to MindWires Musings, where we take a more informal approach and discuss the EdTech news of the today, and I’m here, as usual with Jeanette Wisemen, but we also have a special, at least temporary guest with my wife, Emily, with us. So hello, Jeanette. And hello, Emily.

Jeanette: Hello.

Emily: Hello.

Phil: And part of the reason we have Emily here is as we were getting prepared, Emily came in the house as I was getting prepared for the podcast. And I’ll let you take it from what your reaction was.

Emily: Well, I was bringing the groceries in and I walked into the kitchen and see a bottle of the Ruffino Gold sitting on the counter, open. And my my mind starts racing like, what are we celebrating? Did you get some huge contract? You never told me about [00:01:00] it. And Phil said, no, we’re just doing MindWires Musings. And it was the biggest letdown.

Phil: When we lived in Massachusetts, this was our favorite wine. And so if we were ever going to have any kind of celebration, this is many, many years ago, this is the wine that we would always go to. And we unfortunately disappointed Emily, that it’s just a podcast.

Jeanette: Well, at least you didn’t forget anything more important, I guess. Yeah, true. Look at the silver lining.

Phil: Yes. So, Jeanette, after after teetotaling and then the seltzer. What do you have for us today?

Jeanette: I know I had to really bring up step up my game. So I went the complete opposite. I think I really thought about this and I made a boulevardier. Are you familiar with?

Phil: That the name, but not the details at all.

Jeanette: Ok, so it is [00:02:00] like a negroni, but you swap the gin for bourbon. So it’s a bourbon. I use 1792 which is a really nice Kentucky bourbon. There’s Campari and sweet vermouth, and I also put it in my grandmother’s cut crystal coupe with a little bit of orange and a cherry in it. It’s very nice. It’s sort of a fall type of negroni. If you’re a fan of Negroni and you’re a fan of bourbon, then this would be for you and it sounds really fancy.

Phil: So with the sounding very fancy, do you just have these on the top of your head or are you hitting Google before we do the podcast?

Jeanette: I did a Google for this one. I was like, OK, there’s got to be something that I can do. So I found it because I knew I had to bring it. Plus I have had this before, though, because I do like Negroni, I love Campari. I like that better. So yeah, it’s, it is a favorite [00:03:00] of mine. I just forgot about it.

Phil: Well since we have Emily here, we will be able to do the glass clinking as a sound now.

Jeanette: Oh, nice.

Emily: That was loud. All right. I will be dropping off now. Enjoy your afternoon.

Phil: So today. Well, we wanted to cover sort of a follow up from two episodes ago where we talked about ClassEdu, the new startup that builds education specific stuff on top of Zoom. And today we’re going to talk about another market entry called Engageli. But before we get into it, it’s interesting to note that we’d already been saying that there seems to be a hole in the market around video conferencing systems, that there’s a lot of pent up demand, if you will, and that for this year so far has been filled by Zoom. So K – 12 and higher education, when everybody [00:04:00] went online with emergency remote teaching, Zoom became almost the default method of of doing that, with Microsoft Teams and some with Blackboard Collaborate, but mostly Zoom.

But Zoom was never designed for education. And it was it’s really a web conferencing system, but it really fit the bill in terms of intuitive use and just being available. And but now people are saying we need to go past that. We need to get education specific features. And so just seemed like this was an area of the market that I guess I’m not too surprised that we’ve seen another market entry in this space. How about you? Have you been surprised by this?

Jeanette: Not at all. I think even when we saw ClassEdu, you were like, how quickly will we see the next market product be launched in this? And it was two weeks maybe. And so I’m guessing [00:05:00] there may be other ones on the horizon as well.

Phil: At the same time, part of what the story here is very similar to ClassEdu. This is a company where the whole idea started with founders, with an EdTech background. In this case, Daphne Koller, one of the co-founders of Coursera, and her husband, Dan Avida, who also helped start Coursera, even though he wasn’t an executive at the company. But two EdTech veterans who are also parents, their kids go to school with emergency remote teaching and they look at it and they they notice the kids are just not engaged.

So similar type of stories in that terms. But then it’s only six months since even the idea came up and then a very large seed round to get the company going, in this case, $14.5 Million dollar investment to get the company going. So even though they were developed, not [00:06:00] based on competing with each other, and it’s just a coincidence that they were announced within two weeks of each other. Very similar stories there, but also very different approaches to how they’re trying to solve the problem. And that specifically Engageli is not meant to be built on top of Zoom. It’s meant to replace Zoom. It’s an entire system from the ground up that does its own audio, video and all the learning tools as a new platform meant to be a replacement for using Zoom in an educational setting. Does either approach strike you as being a better fit for education or fitting in one area but not in another?

Jeanette: You know, I don’t know if I would like it as contrast. And I think what it does show is that there are two experienced executives that are very smart and saw a need within the classroom. I think that there [00:07:00] are clear differences between as much as they are feeling kind of that same space. You know, one thing I think we need to note is that we haven’t gotten a demo of Class for Zoom. So what we’ve seen of that has been really just what we’ve seen on the videos, what we write about.

I think that there are two people that are familiar with education, have, I think in the case of Daphne and Dan, this real strong education background, they know what was needed for the educational space and saw that whole and wanted to try to serve something there. And probably the same with Chasen and his experience with Blackboard. Both, I think, saw business opportunities, but also probably ways to really improve this online experience for the instructors and for the learners.

Phil: And we should specify this is sort of a little bit reverse, of Coursera, because in the Coursera case, it was Daphne who was [00:08:00] leading the company, or co-leading the company, and Dan helped fund it and was involved behind the scenes. In this case with Dan as the CEO, and Daphne is investing and advising the company, but she’s not directly working with them as an executive. So to a degree, it’s not just a contrast with ClassEdu. There’s also an interesting contrast with Coursera. And so the way when I asked them about the contrast with Coursera, the biggest thing they described was the fact that Coursera was designed as a MOOC. I mean, it was designed for one hundred plus thousand students and of course, and really broadcasting engage.

I think the idea is to take the lessons of how to do a learning platform heavily organized around video, but specifically, how do you improve engagement in a classroom setting. So [00:09:00] not dealing with thousands or tens of thousands of students, but actually a real classroom with dozens of students, if you will, or possibly hundreds. So it’s a very different approach even than Coursera, although presumably with many lessons learned between them.

As you saw the demo, did you see any analogies with Coursera or is it just the people behind it that makes a connection with Coursera from what you saw?

Jeanette: I don’t know if I would say analogies. I think that they’ve definitely learned a lot of things. Just there’s some learning points, data collection. I think what’s important to instructors and to institutions about what data should be collected behind the scenes in terms of engagement. And I think they’ve definitely applied that to the Engageli platform.

I mean, little things they’re looking at. If a student takes a note, how [00:10:00] much they’re raising their hand, how much they’re talking. So if you have seen any of the demos for ClassEdu, you see some mirroring on the Engageli where a student, there’s an indication of how much engagement is being done by the student in terms of a red, yellow green indicator light around that student. And you’re seeing that.

And the Engageli I think that there’s likely what we, I guess we don’t know. From the ClassEdu, but there seems to be a lot of those data points that are being gathered that I’m assuming are learned lessons from Coursera that they’ve carried on to that. And it’s those types of really thoughtful additions that, when compared to what we’re seeing right now in a Zoom classroom or a Google classroom online, it does seem like a big improvement from there, and something that I think teachers and students would really like.

Phil: And the big improvement, [00:11:00] sort of the thing that jumped out to me, this to me, it felt like, OK, we learned a lot from Coursera. Here are the things we wish we would have done back then, but now we can do it. So, for example, you mentioned one which gets around the data with Coursera. So much of their data were server side statistics based on having just tens of thousands of students. It really was tracking discrete events, whereas with Engageli, there’s much more of a model of let’s organize organize this data around a specific learner, such as multiple measurements to look at their engagement.

And there’s actually another connection I’d like to bring in. And I asked Dan about this. I said it seemed like some at least some of the tools remind me of what I’ve seen from Minerva, their learning platform, in particular, highlighting students who are not engaged and giving them nudges about, you should ask a question [00:12:00] or you might want to think about doing this. Or presenting, as you mentioned, the red, yellow, green – or some sort of visual indicator to the instructor of which students have been engaged and which haven’t been so that the instructor can call on different people and try to get them all involved. So I guess I’ve added yet another comparison to the Minerva platform that I’m seeing there, but it definitely wrapped in a lot of these features.

And then another key element and other people have written about this, and we’re not going to describe all of the features, but the whole breakout groups, or the study groups, I think they call it, where they organize people around virtual tables, up to 10 people, I believe, is the way they have it. So it’s natural small group basis. And it’s got very interesting feature where by being in a table, it can automatically adjust [00:13:00] the audio so that you’re hearing the people at your own table, but not other people at other tables. It’s trying to mimic the idea of people working together in a small group. And then you can sort of migrate from different study groups, or between them. But when you’re within a study group, it tries to recreate that small group feeling and set of interactions that’s behind it. And I found that to be, the whole organizing principle around that certainly seem to be quite interesting to me and much better done than Zoom. And what’s much better done about it is simple things such as the instructor or a T.A. can jump in, can listen to different work groups in anonymous mode so that they can hear the discussion but without interrupting it. Or they could jump in and become a member of that study group and talk to people and they can interact. [00:14:00] So it’s very similar to walking around to different groups or working on a problem and seeing what they’re doing and working out the whole organizing factor around study groups. I found it interesting.

Jeanette: I think also just to note on the study group thing are the tables is that they have, I think, five or six different ways to organize a table so that either the teacher controls you can use an algorithm based on your settings, on diversity.

You can take you know, the students can choose what table they want to be. And there’s multiple ways to to organize these tables, and it can be done a few times during a class. So you don’t have to be just stuck on one for the entire classroom. If there’s activities that you need to do, you can you can change it up as whatever the instruction is needed for that moment.

Phil: And one other organizing feature that I found quite interesting is  [00:15:00]they’ve already thought through some of the issues, such as what if you have a hybrid class? So a way to actually display while this group of students or even HyFlex, this group of students, is sitting in the classroom with the instructor and they can tell that. And then this other group of students are watching it remotely and they have this virtual mode. And that way you can teach both, but try to treat them the same way in terms of activities and engagement. And likewise, you could alternate between synchronous and asynchronous. You could have a live video, but you could also have this mode where there’s a recorded lecture or activity. Then the students are doing it asynchronously but as a group. So, for example, sitting in a study group of five to ten people watching a recorded thing, but having that interaction among the group while they’re doing the asynchronous activity so semi-synchronously, [00:16:00] I don’t know what you would describe that, but I found that to be a quite interesting feature as well.

Jeanette: No, that was I thought that was fantastic and something I can see really moving forward, something that’s needed, especially shout out to Kevin who is not on, but the HyFlex model that he has written so much about this almost speaks to that directly. So it was that was fantastic.

The other feature that I was I mean, I can just imagine as a student being really wonderful is the screengrab and being able to take notes around that screengrab and going back to those notes asynchronously and saying, OK, this is exactly where the instructor was at that moment.

Phil: And actually be a little bit more clear about that, that’s as you’re going through an activity. There’s a button within the notes and it automatically grabs the entire browser based screen as a screen grab so that you don’t have to do like the Mac screen grab or just try to take [00:17:00] to. Makes it easy.

Jeanette: Yeah. To do things right. That was I can see that as a student being fantastic. Then again, they’re tracking that as a data point so that, you know, a student’s doing that, that they’re engaged, rather if they’re doing the synchronously or asynchronously, they’re going to be able to capture that. So, you know, the students are really partaking in the course.

Phil: To me, it is, as the listeners can tell, I think both of us were quite interested and found this an intriguing product design, or at least I’m reading it that way. You and I haven’t actually had a discussion before this podcast, and we had separate demos. But certainly I found this to be a very intriguing design with a lot of features.

But at the same time, they seems like there’s a major barrier that they face, which is schools are already using Zoom, they’re already paying for Zoom. And now they’re going to be faced with an argument to either, well, let’s replace [00:18:00] that thing that you scrambled to add this year, or let’s do something in addition, in parallel to it. So you’re asking people to pay for multiple systems in a time when the budgets for schools are just devastating. While it’s a very compelling product, there’s a big barrier to get people to start using it. And I think that’s going to be really interesting, especially when you contrast it with ClassEdu, where there’s much more of a message of, hey, you’re already using Zoom, add us in and we can make it more education specific. So how risky is the strategy from what you see?

Jeanette: You know, we’ve talked about how online education, and I’ve seen my kids, and they’re either Google Classroom or on Zoom, and there isn’t the engagement, even though the teachers are trying so hard to figure out new ways to engage the students. The features that I have seen in Engageli and what we’ve seen in the video of  [00:19:00]ClassEdu are so needed right now by the teacher. I see a strong argument when you’re looking at. How schools are going to be able to reach these students with the unknown of when you’re actually going to be back in class. And I think in the higher ed space is, what we’ve seen, especially for some of these colleges, are people really going to be getting back on campus? When is that going to happen? What is that going to look like?

I feel like these features are absolutely needed for successful online teaching moving forward. I think it will make a big difference. I think the schools that have the budget to be able to adopt tools like this sooner rather than later, it would be a difference for me as a parent looking at my college colleges for I have a senior this year. If they’re using something like this, I know that that school is probably really interested in engagement of the students online and they have the budget to do it. So [00:20:00] there’s two things actually. This could be kind of key points for me to see if they’re using tools like this as a parent, if that makes sense.

I get what you’re saying, though. I wonder how many schools have signed enterprise licenses for Zoom, for example, and they’re using it for conducting work in business and then they’re using it for their classroom setting.

And I think it’s all going to come down to contracts. And you’re right, it could be a lot easier if you have a three year term contract on Zoom, using an add-on of ClassEdue rather than going through Engageli, despite maybe the features that you want. The only other thing I would mention is that based on what Dan told me during our demo is that the business license for them is they can do enterprise, they can do a per student, but the first class for the instructor instructor basis is free. [00:21:00] So if there’s an instructor that wants to use it, I think they’re still in pilot mode. But when it is pushed out to full mode, it’s going to be a free thing for for an individual instructor to use.

Phil: And that makes a lot of sense, because get the individual instructors to create that demand. Hey, I just tried this. I want to use us, get a license, because that’s what I want to teach with. So that makes sense to me.

The other thing I would say is if you’re going to try to take on Zoom, if you will, within an education, while you better go all in. So if anybody’s going to be able to do it, it’s a profile of a company who is very well known, given their Coursera background, and is very well funded. So I consider it high risk, but if it’s going to work, this seems to be the team that has what it takes to make that work out. And they’ve certainly mentioned it – like ClassEdu it’s not fully released into the market until at least Q1 [00:22:00] of 2021. So this is preliminary, but that’s where I think it’ll be interesting to see how they do, just simply based on this new product category. While it’s maybe not new video conferencing, but being a central part of how teaching and learning is occurring, that’s the new part. And interesting to see how it evolves next year. And are we going to see any other market entries in this space?

Jeanette: Exactly. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see right now, I just get it off the demo was really impressive. Also, I will say that it was a demo that I was in Engageli for the demo. It’s working. It’s up and running. I clicked the buttons. I was a student in there. I got to see exactly what a student would see and I would compare it to Zoom. That’s what I would want to be in. Yeah.

Phil: One of my impressions of it as I was doing it, and I realize this is not, I don’t [00:23:00] know that they’re going to try to do this as a business model at all. But, boy, I would love to use this for a conference now that we’ve been doing several of these vendor conferences.

Jeanette: Yeah.

Phil: And it’s got the nice mix of presentations, the screen grabs. We’ve talked about the ability to easily talk to a group of people you’re around. It just seems like a much more engaging platform than the video conferencing platforms I’ve seen for virtual conferences. So I don’t know that they’re going to use it that way.

When I did ask Dan about it, it didn’t sound like they’d really thought about it much. But his initial reaction is, well, if we sell it to institutions and they want to use it that way, that’s fine. But they don’t necessarily want to go into the virtual conferencing platform market. But that really, as I saw it, I’m like, oh, I’d love this in a EdTech mode.

Jeanette: That’s definitely true. The other thing about Engageli is that it’s not it’s all run through a browser.  [00:24:00]So it made it for the most part, very simple. There wasn’t downloads and things like that. You’re not having to worry about any of that, which. It can sometimes be a nightmare, especially with conferences, since we’ve been experiencing, as you say, especially with conferences.

Phil: I want to end up with this. It’s a little mini rant. People portray – and actually, I think it’s accurate – that one of the main competitors to to Zoom right now has been Microsoft Teams. Now that you and I are using the Microsoft platform more with a client engagement. Oh, my gosh, that is such an old enterprise licensing and application model.

That’s almost the opposite of what we’re talking about. Takes forever to get it licensed and set up. And in one of our cases, we cannot even connect the Teams part with a client because of the firewall settings.  [00:25:00]It’s difficult to use. It feels like you’re going back in time, at least 10 years, and then everything is a downloaded app, and then you go with this Engageli model. But it’s also the Zoom model. It’s also the ClassEdu on top of Zoom model – that’s much more consumer friendly of, hey, just set it up, it’s easy and start using it. Get away from all of the complex licensing and installation challenges you’ve had before. And I just have to say, this is an area where I know Microsoft Teams is getting used quite a bit, particularly in higher education and also in high school settings. But to me, there is going to be so much momentum behind these easy to use applications. And in the case, purely based on a browser moving forward, it’s so compelling as long as they’ve taken care of all of the security and the science and aspects.

So I’m asking [00:26:00] people, don’t make us use Teams if you don’t have to.

Jeanette: I think it’s like completely slow down by computer by 10 to every time restart I the Teams think locks me up forever.

Yeah. So in EdTech, this is the interesting area product category area. It’s not it’s an old category where you used to have Wimba and Elluminate and some of these  tools, but now you have a lot of interesting activity. This is the fastest growing area of EdTech usage, yet people are trying different approaches Zoom in which you give Zoom credit that they not only have taken the market, but they have hired a lot of education people. So I don’t think they’re going to stand still. I would expect to see more education features directly within Zoom moving forward.

So here’s the area of EdTech that seems to have the most momentum and [00:27:00] the most iterations happening right now based on how people are teaching. So this is one of the most interesting areas to watch, in my opinion.

Jeanette: I agree.

Phil: Well, as always, it’s great to talk to you and sorry for surprising you with with the guests participating here. But it was funny when Emily saw the wine and got all excited.

Jeanette: Love it. No, glad to hear from Emily.

Phil: Ok, well, we will keep watching this space and appreciate you being online and doing the demo, Jeanette, and talk to you later.

Jeanette: You guys have a good evening. All right. Bye bye.

MindWires Musings logo

In this episode, Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman discuss the launch of ClassEDU, the highly-funded startup from Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen. Is this a thing, or not? For further reading:

  • YouTube video introducing Class for Zoom.
  • TechCrunch article on the company and product launch (I still can’t believe I’m recommending TechCrunch, but this article has a good description).

Hosts:

  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman

Transcription:

Phil: Welcome to MindWires Musings, where we throw caution to the wind and discuss the EdTech news of the day. Today is quite an interesting subject as we’re going to be talking about a new market entry from an old source, ClassEDU, created by former Blackboard founder and CEO Michael Chasen. I’m here with Jeanette Wiseman. Jeanette, this should shape up to be a fun episode. How are you?

Jeanette: Why is that, Phil? I’m doing well.

Phil: Well, there’s so much history and there’s so many stories. Even though it’s a startup company.

Jeanette: This is true.

Phil: What do you have with you for your cocktail?

Jeanette: I have nothing. I don’t even have a sparkling water with me right now because it’s a little bit earlier than normal. I have some errands I need to run. I will definitely be doing shots later. No, just kidding.

Phil: I [00:01:00] chose E & J XO Brandy that I’m sipping. Again, neat with just a splash of water.

What the news is, and it’s interesting, even the branding, it took me a while to figure this out. ClassEDU is the company and their first product is Class for Zoom. I’ve seen them being used interchangeably in the media, but I’m pretty sure I have that accurate, that ClassEDU is the company and Class for Zoom is a product.

Jeanette: That’s what it appears for me. I think Chasen’s already been asked if they will be building it out on other applications, other platforms. He sort of skated around that, and said maybe.

Phil: Yeah. Essentially the story, and I’m still surprised to say this or I’m uncomfortable saying it, even though it’s accurate. The article in TechCrunch covering this gives a good description, back story, what the product is, how it’s positioned. I [00:02:00]t’s good that I’m reference to TechCrunch in a positive way. A good description was basically the whole idea for this product started during the pandemic. Six months ago. In that time, let’s create a company which is essentially building an LMS on top of Zoom or turning Zoom into a video based LMS. We’ll have to talk about how to think about it.

Jeanette: Yeah.

Phil: How would you define what the product is?

Jeanette: Calling it a Zoom LMS … I think that there now is an entry possibly for that type of a platform in the market, but I think what they’re doing right now seems like building some functionality that I’ve seen, and what they’re showing is needed for classroom instruction and Zoom. There’s now an opportunity for other entries in this model.

Phil: Yeah, so let’s [00:03:00] put it that way. It’s a new model. It’s somewhere between the video conferencing of Zoom or WebEx or Blackboard Collaborate and the learning management system. Essentially a lot of the classroom tools are things that you find in an LMS, quizzing and assignments, and in different LMS type of activities that are now built on top of Zoom. Plus you can link out or integrate with an LMS is what the concept is. It’s a new product category if they’re successful or merging of product categories and it’s specifically targeted education K-12 and higher ed.

Let’s start out with just the unique nature of this company. You have Michael Chasen, one of the key figures in educational technology from the creation of Blackboard. Blackboard dominated the market and defined [00:04:00] the market. You have to give Michael Chasen a lot of credit for even defining how to monetize the LMS, because originally people were playing with ad driven models and freemium models, and helped establish what an LMS is, that schools need to pay for it. It’s mission critical and it really dominated the market in the 2000s. Obviously his story of coming back in is unique.

Six months ago, they started the product. The software development kit, the SDK, is zero dollars from Zoom and it’s available to anybody. Essentially that screams out no apparent barrier to entry. Yet this is a company skipping the whole seed round and Angel funding, and going straight to a sixteen million dollar investment round within six months on a product that doesn’t seem to have a barrier to entry, and that really [00:05:00] doesn’t neatly fit into products. That whole situation I find quite unique and likely driven by the crazy year that we’re in.

Jeanette: Absolutely. I think that it was clear today as we’re recording. This was the first day, or the preshow or whatever they were calling it for the GSV online conference. This was the very first session, it was moderated by Deborah Quazzo. It included Chasen and the CEO of Zoom was on well.

Phil: Eric Yuan.

Jeanette: Yes. It was a love fest, probably would be the nice way to put it, of how impactful Zoom has been during the pandemic and how wonderful it is. These are the words that were being used during the session. How it is by far the number one online and video conferencing tool [00:06:00] for education.

Phil: Is this what happens when we get Jeanette with no cocktail, very reserved and careful with her description?

Jeanette: Exactly.

Phil: That’s not what you said preshow.

Jeanette: Yeah, I try. It was a little over the top. That’s what we needed to have a drinking game for, for the amount of times that Zoom was even mentioned during those forty five minutes. If we had a transcript, it’d probably be pretty funny. It seems pretty clear that GSV is one of the major investors of ClassEDU and they were really heavily promoting it for their launch, which was officially announced yesterday.

Phil: There’s a real question, and I didn’t get to watch it, but how appropriate did it feel? You have not just GSV, it’s Deb Quazzo is the lead investor [00:07:00] on this, Michael Chasen, the CEO, new company, sixteen dollars million. It’s built on Zoom, even though they’re saying Zoom is not officially involved yet. All of the marketing is just touting, hey, we have Zoom’s earliest investors investing in this ClassEDU company, and then they also have Lev Gonick, who’s the CIO of ASU. He was quoted in the press release, so there’s some ASU connection there as well. It feels like an infomercial to me.

Jeanette: Yeah, it was definitely an infomercial. It was a love fest infomercial, there was nothing really concrete. Out of those forty five minutes aside from promotion of Zoom, of ClassEDU, which is something that you can come to expect at the GSV is that they show new products [00:08:00] and talk about it. It wasn’t really any kind of critical thinking. We can maybe talk a little bit about what came later today during GSV, which was very critical.

It was sort of an about face, I would say. The ASU thing was just how much they use Zoom, and one quote that they had was, and I want to say it was since this spring, over twenty six billion minutes of Zoom was used over the course of the ASU campus since spring.

I don’t know if that’s over the course of their adoption, but I think they were trying to say just since the quarantine. They were extremely successful, is how ASU felt, and it was all due to Zoom. That was sort of the basis of the discussion.lI’m the cynical one because I have my XO brandy today, and there is an ASU connection to ClassEDU and we’ll find out what it is. There’s a [00:09:00] reason that this infomercial was done with their help. The quoting in the press release, ASU works with a lot of EdTech companies as incubators as they help them out. They try out new ideas.

Jeanette: It could be, I mean, it is the ASU GSV conference. It was the very first session of this conference. It could just be that was part of setting the stage, but I agree with you.

Phil: Given that whole set up and quite honestly, we’re talking about it, it definitely is a way to make a big splash quickly. They’re getting us to talk about it, which I think that we really need to do for our subscribers. People will be talking about it. GSV, they set up a special pre conference to talk about it, even though it seems like it was an infomercial. That’s a very unusual investment round that quickly in a company’s life. It’s definitely something that’s quite interesting to watch.

I would like to go back to [00:10:00] what it is because there are a lot of features. It definitely is between an LMS and a video conference tool, and at least if you watch the intro video, they mention all kinds of features that if you look at it, you say, well, how is that not an LMS? It’s almost the reverse of what I think people have assumed, including myself, that you have an LMS and then you integrate the video conferencing into it. This is almost video conferencing and then you integrate the LMS features into that.

Jeanette: I feel like the LMS is more powerful than what I saw. We haven’t seen the platform, so we’re going off an infomercial video that they’ve posted for marketing material. It looks like Chasen and his product development team, he has brought in some people from Blackboard that he’s worked with [00:11:00] before, have the LMS experience. I think collaborate took two really nice classroom and education based video conferencing tools that had fantastic features and prior to being acquired, also had a really large adoption and happy customer base, at least with Wimba from them.

They’ve taken those lessons and some of that functionality that they learned from that and have applied it somewhat. You saw some really classroom centric things that I know teachers and instructors would love to see in Zoom. Those are the things that I know schools are going to be attracted to. There’s a lot of questions still, questions in terms of just functionality. One of the things I’m looking at is the CPU needs look like they may be really high. Is that going to limit out students that don’t have newer or faster computers? What about [00:12:00] the district that just bought a bunch of really cheap ChromeBooks? I don’t know.

Phil: Actually, if you noticed in the TechCrunch article, they mentioned that the initial version, at least for teachers, is for Mac and it actually excludes ChromeBooks.

Jeanette: I mean, that’s huge.

Phil: I think you’re spot on what you’re guessing about. The other thing I’d like to say, this is the thing that jumps out and it’s practically the headline beyond the interesting nature of the investment, is this takes the approach of emergency remote teaching, where people are just trying to translate their face to face classroom into the video world. Don’t rethink it, just do it virtually. Instead of saying, OK, we need to learn how to turn this into an intentionally designed online course, it’s pitch is, and this is a quote from their video, “teachers want to take their in classroom skills online without having to learn a whole new methodology of teaching [00:13:00] and learning.” On one hand, quite honestly, I’m a little bit horrified that that’s going to encourage teachers to not think about how to teach appropriately in an online medium. There’s another piece of me saying, my gosh, that is very clever to go with what the majority of faculty are probably thinking right now, it’s such a compelling message for teachers, even though I am very concerned about it.

Jeanette: There’s some compelling elements of the feature set that we are seeing right now that would make teaching and learning better. I think the better teachers, and I think that’s the majority of teachers, teachers that really care and instructors really care about their students and teaching in their classroom, and are trying to learn as fast as they can for this.

I think that message could be really insulting to [00:14:00] them, personally. There’s the saying of those that can’t do teach, and it’s kind of almost like that to me, which is really offensive.

Phil: I’m sure that will be something fascinating to watch, because I agree with you. I think some of the features are absolutely improvements to Zoom for an educational usage. Just the fact of allowing the teacher to be in a separate area instead of in the grid view, and having a place for T.A., I think that type of feature is useful. The little automatic break out for one on one discussions without losing the previous video of the whole class, I think there’s some really compelling features.

Jeanette: Incredible.

Phil: It gets back to the product category thing. All of these things make sense, but where is it going? If the messaging I’m seeing is more than just, here’s a couple of cool features to make Zoom a little bit better. That’s where the [00:15:00] concern is, that it encourages people not to rethink their teaching and explicitly stating that in their marketing, and I don’t know how people are going to react to it, I’m telling you how I react to it, though, is more on the where is it going or what does this really mean longer term. Whereas if I look at the individual features, I’m like, yep, those all make sense.

Jeanette: I think that’s absolutely true. We also have to go back to the fact that Zoom, you mentioned at the very top, that this is SDK that they’re building off on. This is where the investment thing I’m questioning. It’s just that if they were able to build this out in six months, this brand new company, so can all of the other LMS companies and have it be tightly integrated into their LMS with the features that teachers are already used to. The things that they are adding are [00:16:00] incredibly useful, things that were well thought out, but could be easily replicated.

Phil: That gets to the no barrier to entry, both from the SDK, but also they’re sort of obvious things. I’ll give you another one. It’s not just other LMS companies could duplicate this, it’s also Zoom could duplicate this. This is the time when Zoom has already said, I think EDU is their biggest vertical, and they’ve hired Anne Keehn and some other EdTech professionals to really beef up their education vertical. That really raises a question to me, what’s the desire not want to get into this space and let others, like ClassEDU, be the specialist, or are they going to be building out their own feature set for EDU? I don’t know if the GSV session got into that, but that’s one of my questions.

Jeanette: No, it definitely did not. I [00:17:00] think it’s a huge question. The only thing I would say that maybe didn’t get into the session, none of the speakers did. There was a little bit of a side discussion where people were asking for this at the beginning, which was interesting.

Like they hadn’t heard the news. There was some chatting that the people were asking for better features in education, which I don’t know if those were people that were just planted there to say those things right before it got introduced.

Phil: What was Eric Yuan doing there? Not why was he there, but what was his reaction? Was there any connection between him and Michael Chasen?

Jeanette: Very supportive. Like I said, it was a love fest. They were really proud of the work they’ve done. T [00:18:00]here was a lot of discussion from Eric on happiness, and having a company that was fulfilled with happiness, lots of that, and that was his company culture, happiness.

Phil: So deep discussions.

Jeanette: Deep discussions. Yes.

Phil: All right. One other thing. I want to mention. It’s humorous to me, but I honestly think this gives insight into what this is about and where it’s going. I haven’t convinced you yet, but give me time. When they mentioned the link out, they called it course management system, not learning management system. Everybody in EdTech used to call these course management systems back in the 2000s, back when it was Blackboard’s heyday. They, while Michael Chasen was there, were some of the key players who were trying to redefine it as a learning management system which has caught on. That is the terminology everybody uses [00:19:00] today outside the UK, where they call it a VLE, virtual learning environment. In this product and in the video, he calls it a course management system, which to me sort of positions it as the ten year old technology stuff.

He went out of his way to not mention D2L and Canvas. He mentioned Moodle, he mentioned Sakai, he mentioned Google Classroom, he mentioned Blackboard. He didn’t mention the two systems in higher ed that have the most momentum. He certainly didn’t mention Schoology, which is the one that you could argue is in the top one or two in the K-12 market. He deliberately, when referencing these integrations, won’t mention the ones that are the actual companies with the most momentum.

I will call out, this gets to the history thing. D2L as the company where Blackboard, with Michael Chasen as CEO, they sued them for patent infringement, tried to put them out of business. They lost [00:20:00] a three-year patent fight eventually. D2L was a major antagonist to Blackboard, and then Canvas came along in 2010 and 2011 and just immediately started taking most of their market share from Blackboard. It’s like the two companies that have hurt Blackboard when he was CEO, the most, the two companies he couldn’t overcome or the ones he can’t even mention.

Jeanette: Yeah, I think it’s true. I think the course management system, if I recall, that was the language that WebCT used.

Phil: Yeah, back in the 2000s.

Jeanette: There was the fight was between Blackboard using LMS and WebCT using CMS.

Phil: And Blackboard won.

Jeanette: Well, Blackboard bought them.

Phil: That’s how they won. I think that there’s a reason why these things are being done. We will have to watch for it. [00:21:00]

In my view, some really interesting looking features that would absolutely attract teachers, faculty to be able to use Zoom better, particularly this year or next, given the remote teaching that we’re doing, and quite compelling and nicely done after just six months.

Boy, that’s a lot of money, no barrier of entry, and we’re not sure how much they’re defining a new product category. My question to you is, for both of us, is this for real? Is this going to impact the market in your mind?

Jeanette: I do think it will. Absolutely.

I think that once it’s released, if they’re able to get it so that it’s affordable to schools, which is an open question and it’s accessible to schools not using Macs, using low level ChromeBooks, there’s no way that a school won’t think that’s [00:22:00] a compelling product to have if they’re teaching online. 

If they’re already using Zoom, why don’t you just make it better? Absolutely. I agree with you. Certainly in the short term, it’s going to have a market impact because quite honestly, it’s really positioned well given the momentum of people teaching online and remote teaching mentality. I’m not so sure about the long term impact in the market because it’s so tied to remote teaching and not some of the more advanced usage of asynchronous and synchronous methods and more advanced online. Maybe that’s me not seeing the fact of you put out a product and get some interest and you can always build out the deeper stuff longer term. I definitely think it will have a impact on the market in the next few years.

Jeanette: I do too. I [00:23:00] think there’s a lot of open ideas, open issues, especially if they’re just really launching in January for usage. What that looks like and what Zoom needs are going to be, or online conferencing, video conferencing needs are going to be next fall, 2021. It’s going to those types of numbers that are going to make a big difference.

Phil: Before we check out, I will mention one other interesting positioning from the press release and the media coverage, which is one in the same this week, is they have a data opt in policy for tracking data. In other words, it’s not an opt out, but it’s an opt in. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated way to say you get to control whether you want to share your data with us. Now, that’s PR material. You have to see what it means in reality, but it’s interesting message and the approach that is taken there. I give them credit for that.

Jeanette: Ok.

No, it’s [00:24:00] interesting.

Phil: OK, this is the last one we do with Jeanette without a drink in front of her.

Jeanette: Yeah.

Phil: This is pretty quick, but we think it’s significant enough news that we wanted to talk about what it means and what we know about it so far and what to watch for. It’s great talking to you. I’m glad we were able to tag team on looking at different things and you attending the session. We will keep watch.

Jeanette: Thanks.

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MindWires Musings logo

In this episode, Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman build on the Instructure Restructure blog post from last week.

Hosts:

  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman

Transcription:

Phil: Welcome to “MindWires Musings: Serving EdTech Straight Up”, where we throw caution to the wind and have a more relaxed conversation on the non COVID EdTech developments that are affecting higher ed. I’m Phil Hill, and with me is Jeanette Wiseman. Welcome, Jeanette.

Jeanette: Hey, Phil.

Phil: Are you looking forward to this new style of podcasts for us?

Jeanette: Well, I’m looking forward to my drink that I have in front of me.

Phil: What do you have?

Jeanette: I am drinking a Tom Collins today, which I know is old school, but I think people need to revisit it, especially if you do it the right way. Fresh lemon and a local gin that I’m drinking and some splash of water. Sparkling water. Very refreshing on a very hot summer day in Albuquerque.

Phil: I need to add Albuquerque to the list of all the places that have a local gin. Barcelona, London and throughout the world … and also Albuquerque now. So that’s good to know.

Jeanette: Well, it’s Algodones, which is north of Albuquerque, but a very nice, nice gin. What are you drinking?

Phil: I’m going to a little bit old school at least for California. I have a Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing, and it’s a classic West Coast IPA. You can get them a lot more easily now, but it’s just such a solid drink and always has been.

All right. So the big news this week and the blog post that is getting a lot of attention over the past two days is about the Instructure having layoffs. We’re assuming if you’re listening to this, and you want more details, go read the blog post. But essentially, 150 people are losing their jobs this week, primarily affecting Canvas now. And this has surprised me how much interest this blog post is generating. I mean, I knew that it would get interest, but the level of interest is surprising. There’s a lot of emotion out there, and a lot of comments online and various forms. It’s unfortunate that that’s how we’re kicking off this podcast, dealing with what’s a difficult story, quite honestly. But that’s what we’d like to cover today.

Jeanette: Yeah, well, I think it’s not surprising.

I think that there’s interest around Instructure, especially within the community, since it was such a community based LMS. And the change of ownership is a big deal. But also, there’s so many people losig jobs. It’s hard to not want to guess what’s going to happen next, and what is the future of the company when things have shifted so much from its origins.

Phil: Well, it’s unfortunate. Keeping in the line with this show we certainly want to raise our glasses to Instructure – a lot of the people that are losing jobs. I know it’s a tough time, but we certainly wish you the best. And the people who are still there, I know this is difficult, even on the people still at the company. So here’s to them.

Jeanette: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great run. Fun company.

Phil: Well, they are. Talk a little bit about that. I mean, they’re fun company. What does that mean and does it even matter?

Jeanette: They were the first EdTech, at least LMS company, where it was special to go to their user conference. They made sure that everything was a lot of fun. It wasn’t really based on new features being rolled out. It was more based on Sexy Sax Man. Little shout out to Sunny Washington, if she’s listening, who was one of their original partner people that I worked with when the company was founded. It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of energy. They built a community from some of these really neat things they did. I mean, one of my first memories of its structure was also at the Blackboard World conference in Las Vegas, where they rented out a bar right in the middle of where the conference was taking place. And they passed out T-shirts that said something like ‘I went to Blackboard World and all I got was this Instructure T-shirt’, that was a really funny thing. They were tongue in cheek and they made people trust them, I think, with their honesty as well.

Phil: It’s more than just a surface level, fun, funny people. It gets to that point you’re making about the openness, the transparency, the honesty. And Michael Feldstein, he wrote a great post about it, that was referencing how their definition of open is different than open source or open educational resources, but it really gets it or got to the transparency of the company. ‘We’re going to tell you what we are what we’re doing. If we make a mistake, will admit it. But you can trust us.’ And to me, that really changed the dynamic in a pretty difficult environment because academics, educators, there’s a natural distrust of EdTech vendors, for profit vendors. And somehow these guys were able to put it so that there was a more of a transparency and a trust, a feeling that, ‘OK, you guys have our back.’ That happened out there, and that was a core part, if not the core part of the company’s success. So it’s more than just fun. It’s really gets to the transparency and trust.

Jeanette: Now, absolutely. I think there’s always been sort of a us against them. I think from an academic standpoint, we are looking at for profits. And I think Instructure was able to turn that around and make it that ‘we’re all in this together.’ And they were one of the first companies to do that. From what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, that culture has shifted somewhat. So this isn’t an overnight story. It’s not because these layoffs happened yesterday as we’re recording this. This has been the slow march towards this sense of the sea change over time. There’s definitely been a different culture experience when dealing with Instructure.

And it was very obvious to both of us when we were at the users conference this past summer, where the first day, particularly meeting with the executives, quite honestly, it was stunning how different the company culture felt and the difference in tone and openness that was out there. But on the other side, I felt a little bit different for the rest of the conference where I was meeting more with the rank and file, the engineers, the developers, the writers, the support staff. I didn’t get as big of a culture change feeling through the rest of the week, meeting with the rest of the staff, as I did with the executive team at the beginning of the week.

Jeanette: Unfortunately was at Schoology after that first initial day. What I experienced was ‘oh my God, this is InstructureCon?’ Because it was a big difference from what I had experienced in years past. But what we lost yesterday was a lot of those kind of rank and file that were really the front line to the customer. It would be hard not to imagine the customer experiences are going to shift somewhat and the expectations in terms of product. My assumption is when you lose that many people, things are going to are going to be different.

Phil: One of my arguments, although I can’t entirely prove it – there’s a little bit of connecting the dots going on right now – is that more than just the number of people gone, that there was an explicit message being sent by these layoffs as the new owners (and through the senior executive team) were establishing a new control. ‘That this is how a private equity firm works, and if you’re going to fit into our culture – which quite honestly is driven by spreadsheets, focusing on the bottom line profitability. If you can’t fit within this culture, and a lot of the old culture didn’t do it, there was a message of, ‘okay, we’re making a change in the culture now, whether you want to or not.’ I think there was a message being sent.

Jeanette: I’m sure. I mean, I think anybody that’s been part of a PE acquisition feels that right away. One thing to keep in mind is the engineers and the salespeople and anyone really working within an education company, a lot of times they’re smart guys and smart people, and they could be working anywhere. But there is an altruistic part of you that wants to work with an education. You feel good about it. I can remember one time traveling back in the days when we used to travel, and sitting next to somebody who was a potato chip salesman, listening to that conversation and just sitting back and going ‘I am so glad that I work in education.’ Now, I may not be paid as well as if I was working in another industry, but what I’m doing, I’m proud of.

And when an ownership with a PE firm takes over, that feeling sometimes is lost because it does become a numbers game. And this is a for profit company. And of course these things are going to happen. But the reason for maybe why you’re there is no longer really apparent, and I’m sure that was the case. PE firm takes over. They need to be profitable, and they’re going to make the hard decisions that probably won’t be made at the time within the company.

Phil: But that gets to what is a key question. I hear the right phrases when I talk to the interim CEO, who is really a Bravo person, who’s worked with them before, and I hear them talk about Instructure’s culture and higher education’s culture or education in general. But this really raises a question. Does Thoma Bravo, do they really understand what they have, and do they understand the importance of the culture at Instructure, but also the culture of education and what it takes to be able to break through and create the trust that they’ve had in the past? I wonder if the ownership understands this.

Jeanette: Understand may be the wrong word. They probably recognize it, but do they care? That’s what I wonder. Do they care that that was the culture that maybe led them to that place? That’s the question I wonder. They may not. And they probably don’t because they need to be profitable, and they don’t likely understand that these shifts are going to cause a ripple effect within the industry and within their customer base.

One thing that we’ve seen in the last year is that the customer base has been pretty solid at Instructure. Remarkably, they have never lost a higher ed customer, and that’s amazing in this day and age. We haven’t really seen the effect that Dan brought, the ex-CEO brought to that company. At the customer level, we felt it because that’s who we were interacting with. And we saw it in different ways, but we haven’t really seen at the customer level. I’m wondering how long it’s going to take.

Phil: You mentioned profitability. There have been plenty of complaints about Instructure. People for a while have been saying, ‘hey, these guys are buying their success. They’re not profitable, they’re just spending money and always leveraging the future on trying to grow.’ There’s a lot of people that are saying that this is a long time coming. That Instructure had to come back down to earth. That’s part of what’s happening. But the key question is, how will it affect their relationship with their customers? And will this work out? Will they actually become a more efficient, profitable company, but still maintain some level of that same relationship with customers moving forward? And that gets to a question, how does this impact the LMS market going forward? Let’s assume what we’re seeing is accurate as a starting point, that they have really cut deeply. It’s going to affect their product development. It’s going to affect their levels of support. And it’s going to impact the culture that they’ve built up over many years. So if that’s accurate, what’s going to be the impact on the market?

Jeanette: I think there’s openings for either a new company to come in, which we’ve seen some recently that seem to be making some inroads, or I just see a shakeup. I think that right now, if we look at the Big Four. Blackboard is not doing great, Moodle is still there, and there’s D2L. D2L has been successful over the last year, getting new adoptions, Finally. It’s sort of their game to lose at this point. They’ve been doing a great job in the last year. And I think we need to be watching them more closely than maybe we were wanting to, or we predicted we would be three or four years ago.

Phil: I had a question on Twitter along these lines that was asking, what about the health of the market, not just who does better than the other, but the health of the LMS market? To define what I’m interpreting as the health of the market, that’s one where competitive pressure leads to companies better serving their customers. In this case, better LMS and better support for higher education and K-12 institutions. At least on the surface, I think there’s a huge risk to the health of the market, because you have the leading vendor now in terms of growth (and certainly in North America) that has just cut pretty significantly and is endangering, or getting rid of, their previous culture that made them who they are. And we question whether the new owners fully understand the importance of that. But who is going to push them? And you listed the big four. Of the big four, I agree, I think D2L is the big variable here. The market will do much better if D2L comes on strong and takes advantage of the time that’s happening right now. I don’t say that as favoring one vendor over the another, I say that in terms of there needs to be competition pushing the market leader so that they don’t sit on their laurels and only pay attention to the bottom line. I think so much of the health of the market depends on D2L.

Jeanette: I agree with that absolutely, short term. As you’re saying those things, I was wondering – and not that we’re going to talk about COVID that much – but I think that the impact of COVID is that so many people who had not relied on the LMS are now using it all the time. They’re required to use it. It’s not just posting a syllabus anymore, it’s becoming the heart of what your classroom needs to be. And I’m wondering if in the next 12 – 18 months we’re going to see a lot more output of different elements of LMS, and different feature sets, and maybe a completely new type of platform that we haven’t even conceived of, that could maybe take over. That’s going to be better fit for how the LMS needs to be used today and how people are teaching online and distance.

Phil: Well, the LMS has been pretty resilient. Haven’t we heard a similar argument for that for years, if not more than a decade? And we’re still waiting for the Google Wave for, you know, a new concept.

Jeanette: That’s true, but this is a very different time. The other point is, is that not that many people were really using the LMS until four months ago. I’m just saying it “could” happen. It could happen where we’re going to see something different, which we are out of the UK right now. We’re seeing something that’s different that’s taking on.

Phil: Well, you could mention them by name.

Jeanette: I, I can’t if I couldn’t pronounce it. Is it Oolah?

Phil: Well now. Well I go with Aula [Owl-a]. Aula.

Jeanette: Ok. So that’s one of the toughest things. I can’t mention it but they have taken over. What is it?

Phil: Is it for Coventry University. Forty thousand [student] school.

Jeanette: That’s remarkable. And it’s a different type of what could be considered an LMS. But they have strong ideas, support, instructional design support, which is really needed right now. And they have a very different pricing model. And I notice some things within their platform, in their interface, where they’re tapping in to some cognitive design features that I haven’t seen before in an LMS. I think there are things within that that could shake some things out. Maybe a platform that hasn’t been released yet, that’s being worked on right now at some university, just like Instructure came to be it from BYU.

Phil: I think that is sort of the challenge for the Aulas of the world, and anybody else, is that the old market 10 years ago was different. Blackboard was complacent, it didn’t have that relationship with the customer, they were a feared and hated company in many respects. you can go after them. But now you have to out-Canvas Canvas. And doesn’t that make it a lot harder?

Jeanette: It could, except for Canvas, to me, it needs a little bit of a refresh. They’ve been resting on the fact that they were the market leader, I think, for a little while and that people loved it. And is that going to be enough in the next 24 months?

Phil: In our remaining time, let’s address some of the questions, since there’s been so much discussion online since the blog post came out yesterday. I won’t mention people by name – not trying to be critical, but . . .

Jeanette: That’s no fun.

Phil: I don’t have the comment in front of me, so I don’t want to mention that. But there was: ‘I always knew this would happen, and we always knew that Canvas would collapse, and then Blackboard would scoop them up and buy them.’ And to me, that’s a matter of, ‘OK, nine years ago, that argument might have made some sense. But now? Come on.

I mean, the issue with Instructure that we’re talking about, they got purchased for almost two billion dollars. And what we’re criticizing is a company whose ownership is going to make them profitable. You’re talking a two billion dollar company that might not be serving education as well. But you’ve got that type of value. Blackboard is not a two billion dollar company. They’ve sold off the most profitable part, out of Transact. They’ve certainly stabilized their debt, but they’re still losing customers left and right. That’s a ludicrous suggestion at this point that Blackboard has any power to do that.

Jeanette: Absolutely. Maybe the other way around. I mean, you may want to purchase Blackboard and fold it in. And I could see that potentially happening.

Phil: Another comment was somebody was saying ‘all of these cuts are too deep and this is going to be bad.’ And then somebody replied back to it, saying, ‘well, which would you prefer laying off 20 percent of the company or increasing canvas bills overnight by 30 percent?’ I tried to not be too snarky, but I replied back: “I wasn’t aware of those were the only two choices.” This line of argument misses the point that there are ways to do things. I certainly understand the need to become more profitable. The question is, what we’re going to be watching for, is did they cut too deep and did they ignore the culture in a way that it’s going to harm Canvas in the long run? It’s not like if you’re going to cut, you have to do it this way.

Jeanette: Well, first off, if there are no price increases or add on pricing that we see in the next 24 months out of Instructure, I will be shocked. I think that’s going to happen anyway.

Phil: Here’s a tougher one that maybe is a Tom Collins discussion for you. The shorter one along the lines of ‘in the end, this is what markets always do. They always strangle education.’ It sort of goes in the line that essentially all for profit EdTech companies are bad for education in the end. Let me put you on the spot. How do you respond to that?

Jeanette: I don’t agree with that. I mean, of course, there are going to be some for profit companies that are really just about the bottom line. And I think when you get into PEs, that happens a little bit more often than not. But you have to remember that companies are people. They’re just a group of people. And the majority of the people that are working in these companies really believe in what they’re doing. They believe in education and they believe in furthering teaching and learning. When you look at that, you can’t say that all for profit companies are out to get education. I just think that that’s not true.

Phil: I do think it’s a common argument or complaint, and it might even be a proxy argument that people might not even mean that literally. It’s a way to express their frustration about where money is going in education. When you have executives believing too strongly in disruption and not strongly enough in investing in educators themselves. If you view it as a proxy argument, I think there’s more validity there that we need to pay attention to.

Jeanette: I think that’s absolutely true. I know that coming from being a teacher and an instructor, it’s really hard when you’re working with students that are struggling financially, or with just different equity issues, and then walk in to a user conference or into an EdTech conference and see the money that’s being spent, that you feel like it’s being taken away from the student. I think that’s definitely true. But I still truly believe that there are a lot of really well-meaning people working with these companies. It’s when you get to the leadership level, if they’re willing to listen to the customers into what their needs are. And that’s what made a company like Instructure a different from a company like Blackboard when they first came out, was that they were willing to go in and listen to the customers and find out what they needed and meet that. It was still a for profit company, or tried to be a for profit company, in the same space. They just handled things really differently.

Phil: That actually is the part that worries me the most, is the fact that Instructure had a way to build up trust in this hard environment of EdTech, and that by them having the layoffs and by what’s happened to them over the past two years, and especially with CEO change and then the sale of the company, is it really gives ammunition for people who are going to say, ‘see, we never should have trusted these vendors.’ I’m more concerned about the loss of an opportunity to have a healthy relationship between vendors and schools.

Jeanette: Can I just say one other thing on that, though? Here is one thing that Instructure did remarkably well, is the way that they brought in a lot of third-party vendors to support their platform, unlike the model that Blackboard had, at least at the time, which was a very costly Building Blocks. You paid through the nose to be part of their system. Instructure really brought in, opened their doors up, and that was part of their openness that Michael had referred to, to allow all these third-party vendors to build upon and support users in a way that they weren’t going to. They were going to build their platform out to do that. And what worries me now is that these are usually other smaller companies. Some of them really are supporting individual and very specific needs for the customer base. I don’t know what’s going to happen to those guys. We don’t know what that model’s going to look like. Also, in 12 – 18 months, we’re under this new ownership. And if they’re going to be able to survive? And that’s sort of concerning because I was part of what made Instructure different.

Phil: Well, we have a lot to watch now because as we look at it, the LMS Market, for better or worse, it’s becoming more important. As you said, everybody’s using it right now. And the other risk of us mentioning COVID again, but with remote and online and hybrid classes – everybody is going to be using the LMS moving forward much more than they used to. This is really critical. And this news and what’s happening to Instructure is going to affect a lot more than just that company. Whether or not their move to create efficiency works or not. This is going to have an impact throughout EdTech. But thanks, Jeanette, for joining and for us having this conversation.

Jeanette: Sure. Cheers.