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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.