Advice for Blackboard’s New CEO

Bet the company on analytics.

January 5, 2016

Before you read my advice to Blackboard's new CEO, I highly recommend that you check out Michael Feldstein’s excellent piece on What Blackboard’s New CEO Needs to Do Now, and Phil Hill’s explanation of the reasons behind the company’s leadership change: Blackboard Replaces CEO Jay Bhatt: What Happened.

My advice to Bill Ballhaus (a Stanford PhD by the way) is simple: bet the company on analytics.

Admit that the LMS is now a commodity. (Phil Hill calls the LMS the minivan of education). Focus Blackboard’s platform and services on enabling systems, schools, faculty, and students to utilize learning data to make actionable (and evidence-based) changes.

What I’m suggesting is a fundamental re-conception of Blackboard from a Learning Management System (LMS) to a Learning Management Analytics System (LMAS). This means a commitment to stop chasing both market share and the full ecosystem of learning platforms, and to focus all the energy on the integration of the traditional platform with the expansion of user-facing analytics.

This strategy would entail a willingness to move Blackboard upmarket. Less clients and less users, but more schools taking full advantage of analytics.

The opening here is two-fold. First, analytics have been greatly overhyped. There is a huge gap between the marketing of analytics and how data is actually used in teaching and learning. This gap, however, is all about execution - not potential. Evidence-based teaching and learning strategies should change higher education. 

The problem is that moving from desire to consistent practice is shifting to data driven methods to organizing educational practices is incredibly difficult. The prevailing culture and organizational structures of most traditional postsecondary institutions will means that moving towards a data (and measurement) based educational approach will take years, if not decades. Blackboard has the opportunity to take this problem (the lack of a culture and structure around data for teaching and learning in higher ed), and turn it into an opportunity.

Secondly, with Blackboard’s purchase of Blue Canary the company is in a good position to place analytics at the center of its strategy. My sense is that Blackboard has the technology and team in place to make analytics central. 

What will be necessary is to make some hard choices about what not to do. Can Blackboard simplify and integrate its product offerings aggressively enough that they can pursue an LMAS based strategy? Will Blackboard be willing to let go of customers not interested in the higher cost involved of putting data at the center of their digital learning strategies?

Our entire industry is better off with strong competition in the LMS market, and therefore with a healthy Blackboard. Both Blackboard’s marketshare and mindshare, however, will continue to erode unless the company’s new CEO is willing to make a bold and decisive move. What we have learned from Yahoo is that incremental changes and efforts to improve efficiency are not enough. Playing it safe is the biggest risk that Ballhaus and Blackboard can take.

What is your advice to Blackboard’s new CEO?


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