7 Questions for Katie Blot, President Blackboard Education Services

I am fascinated by the transition of Blackboard from a one product business (the flagship LMS) to a diversified educational services company - one that offers both multiple platforms (through it purchase of MoodleRooms and Netspot) and a full range of educational consulting services. A key architect of these changes at Blackboard is Katie Blot, who prior to ascending to the role of president of the Education Service division spent 4 years as an SVP in Blackboard Consulting.

January 16, 2013

What would you want to know from Katie Blot, president of Blackboard's new Global Education Services business?     

I am fascinated by the transition of Blackboard from a one product business (the flagship LMS) to a diversified educational services company - one that offers both multiple platforms (through it purchase of MoodleRooms and Netspot) and a full range of educational consulting services.   

A key architect of these changes at Blackboard is Katie Blot, who prior to ascending to the role of president of the Education Service division spent 4 years as an SVP in Blackboard Consulting. Prior to coming to Blackboard, Katie was the CIO for the Federal Student Aid program in the Department of Education.   

Below are my questions for Katie and her answers from an e-mail interview that we conducted:

Question 1: Can you give the quick elevator pitch about what Blackboard Education Services is all about, and why this is different from Blackboard's traditional consulting services?

For a long time, we have provided training and consulting services for our products to help institutions make the most of their Blackboard learning technologies and maximize their investments. We’ve now expanded the ways in which we help institutions tackle challenges throughout the student lifecycle in high-need areas, like financial aid, IT help desk support and the planning/launching of online programs. And we do this whether they use Blackboard products or not. Simply put, Blackboard Education Services empowers institutions to envision, prepare for and realize the potential of learning technology.

Question 2: How big is this division? How many people? Can you give any information about the investment that the company is making in this services division, and the expected market size?   

Our new division is large and continues to grow. We currently have over 1,000 experienced education services professionals working around the clock for our clients. Our team includes educators, technologists, management consultants, and call center staff that are on the front lines helping students every day. Our team also consists of former vice-provosts, CIOs, deans, directors of online learning, enrollment and financial aid.

Technology-enabled education is no longer a “nice to have” - it is an expectation. We are all reading about the growing use of education technology – hybrid courses, fully on-line programs, MOOCs and the “flipped classroom.” We believe that most institutions are on a path to increase their use of technology to support their missions, and that many can benefit from industry expertise and additional support as they do so. The expansion of our service capabilities is in direct response to this market need.  

Question 3: Who are your main competitors?

The services we provide our clients include a number of different capabilities, including call centers, end-user support, IT implementation and management, online program management, and more. While there are industry competitors for each of these different capabilities, as a whole, what we offer is distinctive. We provide capabilities from a single education partner that can help clients with everything from initial assessment and planning through execution and long-term support. We do so in a way that is fairly different than many of our competitors. Our approach is one that complements our clients’ capabilities and allows them to determine the right blend of institutional capability and our services. This “disruptive” model - paired with our unique collection of assets, skills and success record – puts us into a class of our own.  

Question 4: What do you think of Pearson's purchase of EmbanetCompass for $650 million this past month? I had thought that Providence Equity would have been very interested in doing a similar deal?

I think the purchase validates how much growth and potential that exists in this space. It used to be that just a few institutions were seriously thinking about online programs. Now, almost all institutions are thinking about starting or growing online programs of some kind or at least experimenting in small ways. However, we think there’s room for different approaches and business models than you’re currently seeing in this space. For our part, we have introduced a new, flexible, model driven by the strong belief that the education experience belongs to the institution. This approach offers more than just the traditional long-term revenue share partnerships; it offers institutions choice in their online program management options as well as a pathway to independence so that they are not locked in. We think there is room – and a lot of opportunity – in the market for this different approach.  

Question 5: The business model of an EmbanetCompass, or a Colloquy (owned by Kaplan) or a 2U.com is to invest in a program or a school, and then take a revenue share.  Is this part of the Blackboard Education Services model as well?

We do not believe that one-size-fits-all in this space. Just as institutions are different, and their drivers for moving online are different, so are the ways that they can go online.  

Our model allows institutions to determine the amount of support they need, in the areas they need and through a fee-for-service or hybrid fee-for-service/ revenue share financial model. We believe that as our institution partners develop mastery in their online programs over time, it is likely they will prefer to have greater independence in their management. We give them the ability to change the way they work with us as their needs and capabilities change and evolve. Enabling our partners to shift and adapt helps ensure they will have the necessary control over critical areas to deliver their core values, while also creating innovative, high-quality programs.

Question 6:  We tend to think of Blackboard as a product company, and the brand is certainly associated with the flagship Blackboard LMS. What is the thinking behind not spinning off and re-branding your education services division? What are the advantages to having both platform (Ray Henderson) and services (you) both reporting to your new CEO Jay Bhatt?  How has a customer can I be sure that if I engage your services division that your recommendations will be platform agnostic?

At Blackboard, we have very strong roots in education, and technology-enabled education. Our teams are experts in building and growing education programs that work. Our experience, and company reporting structure, allows us to blend the right technologies, resources and services to meet the unique goals of each of our institution partners. I strongly believe this gives us distinctive insight into what’s happening with education technology today and what’s possible for tomorrow and makes us the strongest education services team in the business.

Some may wonder about our ability as a services group to be product-agnostic. In this regard I think actions will speak louder than words. We are, in fact, already providing services today to thousands of institutions that don’t use Blackboard’s learning management system. I believe that, as we continue to operate in the best interest of our clients and demonstrate that we are focused, first and foremost, on helping them achieve their goals, that we’ll be perceived as we should be: as an expert team that will help blend the right mix of products and services to support you.

Question 7:  How do you think that Blackboard as a company will be different in three years?

Education leaders face a perfect storm of challenges. They’re under pressure to improve quality and outcomes with less cost. They have to find ways to increase revenue and grow programs, and they’re having to do it while supporting learners that are increasingly non-traditional and who have new ideas about the kind of education experience they want to have. And they must do all of this with far greater predictability than in the past.

As a partner, Blackboard is a company that is focused on finding ways to help tackle some of these big problems in education. So I think you will see us continue to be creative and nimble in finding ways to leverage technology and services to help institutional leaders meet these new demands.

We’ll continue to focus on our core products and fundamentals, but more and more I think you’ll see us bring new innovation to the space again, and come up with new ideas that support critical institutional needs in a way that makes life easier and better for instructors and learners.

Bottom line: you should expect to see great things from Blackboard.  

What would you like to know about Blackboard and the new Global Education Services business from Katie Blot?

Where would you want to push Katie on her answers, and what follow-up questions would you ask?


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